Floodplain harvesting will finally be reduced and regulated in two northern NSW Murray-Darling Basin valleys following ministerial sign-off on amending water sharing plans.
Concurrence on the amended Border Rivers and Gwydir valley water sharing plans between the Water and Environment Ministers means irrigators will be required to meter and pay for this water too, for the first time.
NSWIC CEO Claire Miller said the industry supports regulation to ensure all water take is within Sustainable Diversion Limits, and looks forward to licensing and metering now being rolled out in the other three northern valleys.
“It is a sombre day for irrigators, waking up to the reality of substantial cutbacks in their water access to grow food and fibre, but regulating floodplain harvesting is a big step forward for the environment with more than 100GL per year being returned to rivers and floodplains.”
Rigorous environmental science assessments have found the regulation will significantly improve outcomes for native fish, native vegetation and waterbirds.
“This has been a long overdue reform, over 20 years in the making,” said Ms Miller.
“Floodplain harvesting is the last form of water use to be subjected to the same licensing and metering framework applied to river water and groundwater access under the Water Management Act 2000.”
“All stakeholders agree floodplain harvesting should be regulated. Political games and disallowances over the last two years allowed unlimited access to continue through this wet La Nina period. The only loser out of these antics is the environment.”
Independent analysis has found the reform means a 14% loss to farmers’ bottom lines, with flow-on impacts of 48 job losses per annum in just the Gwydir and Border River valleys alone.
“We thank irrigators for their ongoing support for this reform, especially as it heralds a difficult time in adjusting production and business planning to less water access,” said Ms Miller.
The irrigation community is pleased the NSW Government, in response to public concerns, is now in the process of developing new drought management reforms such as downstream flow targets.
“We support measures to ensure critical needs are met during droughts and protect first flushes to get rivers flowing again when droughts break,” said Ms Miller.
“But those measures are about drought management, whereas the floodplain harvesting regulations are about what happens when water is abundant,”
The NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy seeks to reduce and limit this practice to Sustainable Diversion Limits, as required under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and impose mandatory metering requirements. It will also mean farmers are charged for this water for the first time.
One in five litres of water have already been recovered from irrigators across NSW under the Basin Plan, with widely documented adverse socio-economic impacts. This regulation will effectively recover even more water for the environment by cutting floodplain harvesting across the five northern NSW Basin valleys by one-third.
Floodplain harvesting in NSW currently makes up just 3% of total annual average inflows into the northern Basin. Following policy implementation in the five northern NSW valleys, this will be reduced to just 2%.
Australia’s 2004 National Water Initiative – the blueprint for best-practice water management in Australia – set out to have every major form of water use subject to licensing, metering and sustainable limits. It also requires water rights to be separated from land, a property rights process known as unbundling which has already occurred for all other water licences.
River water and groundwater have already been brought into that framework; floodwater is the final major type of water take remaining. This reform is a significant step forward in the history of water management in NSW and Australia.