The NSW Government has set itself a 1 July 2021 deadline to implement a floodplain harvesting licensing regime for the five valleys – the Border Rivers, Gwydir, Namoi, Macquarie and Barwon-Darling – that make up the Northern Basin of the Murray-Darling.
Floodplain harvesting is the process of collecting, extracting or impounding water flowing across the floodplain for use in irrigated agriculture (most typically the production of cotton).
It is estimated that floodplain harvesting accounts for between 15 to 35 per cent of the overall surface water take for the Northern Basin.
The implementation of a robust framework for the licensing and monitoring of the extraction of water from the floodplains is essential because these diversions represent the largest taking of water behind water from regulated rivers, unregulated rivers and groundwater sources.
Floodplain harvesting is so divisive because perspectives on the practice vary so widely.
For irrigators within the Northern Basin, floodplain harvesting represents a pragmatic response to the climate, changing government demands and the lack of State-sponsored on-river storage.
Irrigators in the Riverina see the taking of water from the floodplain as nothing short of theft, while environmental groups are concerned about what the current unregulated extraction of water from the floodplains means for downstream river ecosystems and ecosystem services.
The implementation of a floodplain harvesting policy has not been easy for successive NSW governments.
Following an initial announcement on 3 July 2008 by the then Water Minister Nathan Rees, the policy was not adopted until March 2013 under a Coalition Government.
Last year, regulations designed to facilitate the introduction of the licensing framework for floodplain harvesting were disallowed by the NSW Legislative Council.
The State’s Water Minister Melinda Pavey now has a narrow window to implement the licensing framework before the start date.
For the scheme to commence on 1 July 2021, regulations of a machinery nature need to be proclaimed and to survive any move in the Legislative Council to disallow them, water sharing plans in each of the valleys need to be amended to give effect to the licensing requirements and establish the rules by which floodplain harvesting entitlements can be taken, entitlements for individual properties need to be determined and licences need to be issued.
Each one of those steps will require the Government to run the gauntlet of interest groups concerned to ensure that the final framework meets their needs.
For the Government, the challenge will be to seek the goldilocks zone – a volume of entitlements, supported by evidence of historical take and science, that does not result in cuts beyond what the irrigators in the Northern Valleys can reasonably contemplate but that similarly will not require ecologically unacceptable increases in either the individual valley plan limits under the State’s water sharing plans or the wider Murray-Darling Basin sustainable diversion limits.
The NSW Government has released draft entitlements and proposed water sharing rules for the Border Rivers, the Gwydir and the Macquarie. The Government is yet to release draft entitlements or rules for both the Namoi and the Barwon-Darling.
The NSW Parliament does not resume sitting until 4 May 2021, and even then only sits for 13 days between 4 May and 1 July 2021.
If the Government cannot obtain the support of the Labor Party, the easiest path for the Government to avoid having any regulation disallowed is the combination of the votes of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, the Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group) and the Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.
With such a short timeframe and still so much to do, the implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy is looking like it is going to come down to the wire.
Photo caption: Macintyre River Floodplain, Boggabilla NSW March 2021 - Peter Holt
Author: Peter Holt
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