Buying some water entitlement from irrigators, installing cameras on the river, and a subsidy for farmers to install water meters are at the centre of a $70 million Federal Government spend to prevent fish kills.
- Government commits $70 million to prevent fish kills in Murray-Darling Basin
- Scientific study recommends sticking with basin plan
- Cameras to be installed on river and live stream in bid to increase transparency
Water Minister David Littleproud has splashed the funding in response to the findings of Professor Rob Vertessy’s scientific study of mass fish kills in the lower Darling River.
The funding includes $25 million to subsidise AS4747 water meters in the northern basin, $5 million for cameras to live stream river flows, $20 million for water and environment research and a commitment to, together with the NSW Government, buy A-Class licences in the Barwon-Darling.
“We’re looking to protect those low flows through securing some of those A-Class licences in consultation with the community, making sure we can bring them with us,” Mr Littleproud said.
In a preliminary report released in February, Professor Vertessy found “exceptional climatic conditions, unparalleled in the observed climate record”, exacerbated by water extraction upstream, contributed to the mass fill kill in the Lower Darling between December 2018 and January 2019.
Mr Littleproud reiterated a commitment, agreed to with the Opposition and NSW Government, to provide more water for Indigenous communities, and announced a further $10 million to restock native fish species across the Murray-Darling Basin.
The Minister accepted 10 recommendations relating to the Commonwealth Government, and said he would work with the states on the remaining 17 recommendations.
“It was an extreme event and obviously a tragic event,” Mr Littleproud said of the fish kill.
“It’s not the first one and it won’t be the last.”
Rural news in your inbox?
Subscribe for the national headlines of the day.
Mr Littleproud said the report found the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was the best way to prevent further fish kills occurring.
“Improving our water management between the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the states is paramount, and understanding that these extreme weather events will happen again and we need to be better equipped to handle that and be prepared for that,” he said.
Professor Vertessy supported the basin plan.
“This is a really important time, where I think all stakeholders in the basin need to get behind the basin plan,” he said.
“It is a good plan, it does need to be accelerated, but it is really important that we get on with things.
“We oppose ideas of pausing the plan or changing direction because we think that will only result in getting into a great big argument and we’re at a moment in time where action on the ground is what is needed and that is what the basin plan offers us.”
Professor Vertessy’s report called on NSW to modify its water access arrangement to protect low flows and remove barriers to fish movements.
It included a recommendation that “NSW and the Australian Government support structural adjustment of lower Darling farms with permanent/perennial crops that depend on high reliability water entitlements, including appropriately targeted strategic water acquisition and compensation for the reconfiguration of farm business”.
“There are a small number of horticulture users in the lower Darling that have high security licences, they’re just the type of water licences the government needs to provide water to eco-systems during dry sequences, like the one we’re in, and we think strategic acquisitions of water like that from willing sellers is good policy,” Professor Vertessy told the ABC.
It is estimated more than one million fish died in three separate kills, near Menindee NSW, in December 2018 and January this year.
The funding, which was not in last week’s federal Budget, comes a day after more than 600 irrigators protested in Albury, NSW calling on State and Federal Government to pause the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
It follows a separate report by the Australian Academy of Science, requested by Labor, that in February found excess upstream irrigation, drought, and water releases from the Menindee Lakes created the perfect storm that led to the fish kills.
Buying water entitlements at low flow areas
Professor Vertessy’s 27 recommendations to improve water flows included better flow management, improved management of lakes, and ways to enhance fish mobility by removing barriers.
But it is the Government’s decision to buy some water entitlements from irrigators that will be under considerable scrutiny.
The CEO of the National Irrigators’ Council, Steve Whan, said the A-Class licences were the ones at the lowest level of flow.
“The idea of removing those is to ensure those lower flows keep going by,” he told The World Today program.
“NSW has already taken quite a bit of action with embargoes and things to protect low flows, and that work’s still going on with the co-operation of irrigators.”
He said he welcomed the report, but not everyone would reap the benefits.
“It potentially has a negative impact on the economy of Bourke because that does take away some of the water which might have been seen as slightly higher security,” he said.
“Bourke, over a number of years for example, has completely lost its orange industry, and I think some people there would’ve hoped that they could get back into some horticultural industries there.
“But without this sort of water they wouldn’t be able to.”
Live streaming takes ‘slow TV to a new level’
Cotton Australia welcomed the report, and said Australia must now commit to fully implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
General manager Michael Murray said the cotton industry supported a world-class metering policy and the infrastructure to back it up.
“Any financial assistance to get that happening is fantastic,” he said.
“The main thing is to be absolutely clear what is a compliant meter and have policies in place — not only to get those meter readings but for the responsible departments to have that information and then act on that information if anything is out of order.”
Mr Murray said he welcomed transparency but was bemused about the effectiveness of live streaming river flows, which the Government will fund with a $5 million grant.
“I think that’s taking slow TV to a new level,” he said.
“If it was up to me, I’d probably devote that money to building some better web-based systems that can actually ‘live show’ — not by video — but the river data, and whether or not pumping is allowed in certain sections or not.”
Royal commission call
Rob Gregory from the Menindee Regional Tourism Association said for those who spent their lives on the river there needed to be action, and fast.
“It’s damning, the reports that have come back, that some things need to be done to get the basin plan functioning as it should,” he said.
“If they’re going to spend some money and it’s spend wisely on infrastructure and metering, and they’re talking cameras and flows and that sort of thing, it should be a wise move.”
Outspoken Pooncarie grazier Rob McBride of Tolarno Station continued his call for a royal commission to find those accountable for the state of the Murray-Darling “because this is the worst environmental disaster”.
“It’s got 1,500 kilometres that is dry at the moment, there are floodwaters coming down the Barwon which is good, but how far that gets, who knows, but we’re still a long way from getting out of trouble,” he said.
He said $70 million, did not give any confidence at all when looking at upgrading meters, live camera streams.
“What he’s putting forward should have been done five, 10 years ago, when we asked for it to be done,” he said.
But the general manager of the Central Darling Shire Council, Greg Hill, is optimistic.
“This is good news for our area, especially for the Menindee Lakes, especially for the installation of fish ladders and the potential of a fish hatchery kicking off,” he said.
Mr Hill said the council was already getting to work on a feasibility study for the hatchery.
Over-extraction a contributing factor
Adelaide-based environmental consultant and Healthy Rivers Ambassador Dr Anne Jensen welcomed the report and believed the Federal Government’s funding to implement measures such as securing A-licences and installing cameras to live stream river flows were a good first start.
“The recommendations in the report are absolutely spot on, we need the Basin Plan to be accelerated and the elements within it,” Dr Jensen said.
“One of the key causes of the multiple causes for the fish kills was over-extraction from the Upper Barwon-Darling, which was allowed by the regulations that were brought in just before the plan was signed.”
“That over-extraction over a period of several years contributed to the fact that there was no water reserve left in Menindee Lakes.”
“So, when we had an algal bloom there was no water to be able to be released to flush the bloom away and that’s a major contributing factor then to the fish kill.”
Dr Jensen regarded the response of buying back some of the water licences as a good decision but said there were a number of elements to be looked at going forward.
“The Lower Darling has been identified as a critical drought refuge for large native fish and obviously a drought refuge needs minimum water in it.”
“We are in a situation where we’ve got thousands of kilometres of the Lower Darling that is dry.”
“It’s absolutely critical that there are minimum flows in the Barwon-Darling and in all the sub catchments.”
Dr Jensen said findings from fish biologists stated the Lower Darling was absolutely critical to all large native fish species as the fish spend some time of their life cycle in the Lower Darling and the redistributed to the other rivers.
“So, if we want to be catching native fish in the South Australian Riverland for example there needs to be water in the Lower Darling for critical parts of their lifecycle.”
With reporting by Thomas Oriti/Sydney, Jodie Gunders/Toowoomba; Michael Condon/Sydney; and Jessica Schremmer/Renmark
Topics: agricultural-policy, federal-government, government-and-politics, agribusiness, irrigation, fish, murray-darling-basin, australia, parliament-house-2600, menindee-2879, parliament-house-2600, dubbo-2830, broken-hill-2880, wagga-wagga-2650, albury-2640, menindee-2879, wentworth-2648, bourke-2840, wilcannia-2836
Lawn Mowing Service