Groups unite against floodplain harvesting

Harvesting fears: An alliance of irrigator and environment group representatives says unregulated floodplain harvesting in the northern basin has contributed to impacts such as the 2019-20 fish kills and reduced water availability for downstream irrigators. Photo by Dean lewins

Irrigation and environment bodies are calling on the NSW premier, treasurer and environment minister to oversee changes to Murray-Darling water rules on the eve of the release of a key parliamentary report.

The group includes representatives from the Australia Institute, Nature Conservation Council, Southern Riverina Irrigators, Slattery & Johnson, Conservation Council of South Australia, Environment Victoria and Queensland Conservation Council.

The groups says the practice of diverting floodwater — floodplain harvesting — in the northern basin has long been unregulated and has contributed to impacts such as the 2019-20 fish kills and reduced water availability for downstream irrigators.

A NSW Select Committee on Floodplain Harvesting has been established to inquire into and report on the government's management of floodplain harvesting and is set to hand down its recommendations on December 15.

The group of irrigation and environment representatives says it has sent a briefing note to NSW Premier Dominic Perottet and other MPs titled “Six reasons to stop floodplain harvesting” that highlights key issues around floodplain harvesting including damage to rivers, human and mental health in downstream communities and other agriculture; and legal challenges and compensation if licences are issued unlawfully and/or need to be bought back.

Southern Riverina Irrigators chair Chris Brooks said irrigators in the southern Murray-Darling Basin were negatively affected by the practice.

“This is important not just for us, but for all the rice mills, winemakers and other processors that we supply,” he said.

“The cotton grown with unregulated floodwater in the north, by contrast, is exported with almost no processing done in Australia.”

The Australia Institute’s Rod Campbell said the committee’s report would be "a big deal for the whole Murray-Darling Basin and all of its rivers and people. It must not get lost in the end-of-year scramble’’.

Environment Victoria’s Tyler Rotche said all basin states were watching the reform and the details around diversion limits.

In August a spokesperson for NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey told Country News they had legal advice that on balance, and with a number of caveats, the take of floodplain harvesting without licensing was illegal.

“But it also makes it abundantly clear that the framework as it exists is likely to be unenforceable, undermining the role of the Independent Natural Resources Access Regulator,” the spokesperson said.

“It is exactly this legal uncertainty we have (been) trying to clarify for the last two years by licensing floodplain harvesting to ensure total take in all valleys remains below sustainable diversion limits.”