The NSW Government is poised to sign off on plans for the Murray-Darling that will lock in inadequate volumes of environmental water for the next decade. 

Legal instruments known as Water Sharing Plans are currently on exhibition, with the state indicating it wants to table them in parliament as soon as 1 July, next week.

The Water Sharing Plans set out how water in the river system is shared between irrigators, other farmers, communities and the environment. They also put limits on what can be extracted from the rivers and groundwater.  

These plans are the most important part of the water reform process. They set in stone rules that govern water sharing for the next 10 years.

The Darling/Barka river has already suffered the devastating effects of over-extraction combined with prolonged drought.  In recent years it has been the site of mass fish kills, algal blooms and devastation for farmers and Traditional Owners.

EDO lawyers have identified multiple flaws with the proposed Water Sharing Plans, including some which could give rise to legal action by our clients.

Scientific analysis by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists shows the plans will likely not result in more water being left in the system for the environment, a key legal requirement of the $13 billion-dollar Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Meanwhile, documents obtained by EDO under Freedom of Information reveal large irrigators lobbied for some of the changes as far back as 2016.

The Water Sharing Plans must be agreed to by the NSW Environment Minister before they are tabled in parliament and sent to the Murray Darling Basin Authority and Federal Government for approval.

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Changes to the definition of Planned Environmental Water

As reported by the ABC, the water sharing plans prepared by New South Wales contain changes to the definition of Planned Environmental Water (PEW) that will likely result in less environmental water in the river system, according to Wentworth Group analysis.

This in turn means less water for wetlands and downstream water users, including Traditional Owners and EDO’s clients who are floodplain graziers. 

Moreover, the change is inconsistent with the Basin Plan and the Water Act, both of which prohibit any net loss to the level of protection that existed for PEW before the Basin Plan was passed in November 2012. 

This is also logical – it doesn’t make much sense to create a Basin Plan designed to fix the overallocation of water which then in fact erodes environmental water. 

Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan

The Guardian reports that new analysis by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists shows the WSP for the Barwon-Darling will not do enough to improve the dire health of the river.

The unhealthy state of the Darling/Barka has been well documented and the existing plan has contributed to over extraction and inequitable water sharing. 

There have been multiple official reports, including by the Natural Resources Commission, which have explained the kinds of amendments that need to occur to remedy these problems. 

These include recommendations regarding protections of low flows, first flows after drought and environmental flows. 

The Draft WSP addresses some of these, but the provisions are far weaker than recommended. 

It’s EDO’s legal opinion that for these and other reasons, the Draft Plan is not consistent with the requirements of the Water Act and Basin Plan. 

EDO is representing clients that are closely watching the outcome of the Water Sharing Plan process and who will consider taking legal action if the problems are not fixed.