The Barwon-Darling is an ecosystem in crisis. That was the conclusion of the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) in its draft report into the Water Sharing Plan of the Barwon-Darling Unregulated and Alluvial Water Sources 2012, released on 23 July 2019.

The NRC agreed with the EDO NSW submission that the water sharing plan has failed to implement the water sharing prioritisation rules set by the Water Management Act 2000. The Act requires that water sharing plans allocate water first to the protection of the water source and its dependent ecosystems, then to fulfilling basic landholder rights, with any additional water to be made available for other extractive uses (such as under water access licences). The NRC found that, instead of implementing these rules, the Barwon-Darling water sharing plan impermissibly prioritised the economic interests of some upstream users at the expense of the “ecological and social needs of the many.”

In reaching these conclusions, the NRC revealed some less visible die-offs of other species which accompanied the recent fish kills and the impacts that the lack of flows in the Barwon-Darling has had on communities, on culture and on mental health.

The Barwon River at Walgett. Photo: Tim Connors.

The conclusions of the draft report indicate that in addition to the well known failures in enforcement (as identified in the 4 Corners episode ‘Pumped’ and the Matthews report), implementation of water management in NSW has  also failed river communities and the environment at the critical plan-making stage. The draft report certainly suggests that an independent review is warranted to determine whether the failures found in the Barwon-Darling are a symptom of a more systemic problem. 

The NRC has made a suite of recommendations aimed at rectifying the defects in the Barwon-Darling water sharing plan, some to be implemented in the short term and others to be implemented when the plan is re-made in 2023. While the NRC noted that the NSW Government has already commenced work which should address a number of its recommendations, what is needed now is independent oversight to ensure that these NRC recommendations are implemented in full.