The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has delivered a scathing assessment of a project New South Wales is relying on to find water savings for the environment: a plan to reduce the size of the Menindee Lakes.
The assessment contained in documents revealed today by Guardian Australia suggest the controversial Menindee Lakes project could do more harm than good.
The project has been welcomed by irrigators but is being resisted by local communities.
The Menindee Lakes plan, which involves reducing evaporation in the lakes by shrinking them and letting Lake Cawndilla run dry more often, has been put forward as the main way the state will “bridge the gap” between the 1,312GL of water it has pledged to deliver back to the environment under the Murray-Darling basin plan and the 345GL still outstanding.
Yet despite the damning assessment of the business case, the Menindee Lakes project is one of 36 projects listed by the MDBA to deliver environmental outcomes by saving water in the Murray-Darling basin rather than by buying water entitlements from farmers.
If that sounds complicated, it is. The general theory underpinning the program is: it’s not just about volumes of water sent down the river; it’s how well it is used in the environment.
The Senate is currently being asked to wave through a rule change to the basin plan to facilitate the over $1bn allocated to the 36 projects under the sustainable diversion limit adjustment scheme (SDL). A disallowance motion from the Greens is scheduled for debate on 7 May.
The idea of using projects rather than buying water back from farmers to achieve water for the environment was part of the original Murray-Darling compact agreed to in 2012. It’s also a much more politically palatable option.
But what constitutes real gains for the environment and value for money is highly controversial, as assessments on each of the projects conducted by the MDBA and released to the Senate last month show.
Success relies on the projects achieving what the states promise while also taking account of other impacts in a highly complex river system.
Earlier this year the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists analysed all 36 projects based on public information and concluded that only one met the MDBA’s own stated criteria.
Now documents obtained by Nick Xenophon Team senator Rex Patrick show that NSW’s signature project, the Menindee Lakes reconfiguration, could do more harm than good.
“There is insufficient information in the Menindee Lakes Water Saving Project documents to be satisfied as to the merits of the project and indeed to the process behind the approval of the project” said Patrick.
“I am in conversation with the government over the release of further information on the 36 projects. It is my understanding that a release of further information will be made to the Senate and the public very shortly.”
What are the advantages and disadvantages of the project?
There are some advantages to the planned project: the NSW government says that reconfiguring and managing the lakes differently will result in significant water savings of at least 100GL a year, through reducing evaporation. That will mean more flows for the river.
But there could also be disadvantages.
One of the criticisms in the MDBA documents is that NSW has provided no substantiation for claims that the proposed changes to the wetting and drying cycle of the lakes would improve the environment.
It warned that letting Lake Cawndilla dry out for longer could result in the loss of 8,000 hectares of important fish nurseries for golden perch, which help stock the entire Murray-Darling system. A further 15,000 hectares in Lake Menindee would be dry 20% of the time.
The MDBA said that a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) was required and this should include hydrological modelling, fish studies and bird studies.
“Pending adequate assessment of the potential impacts on golden perch, the waterbirds components may also need reassessment,” the documents say.
It also warned the project could undermine other projects that have already been funded by the commonwealth, such as the $54m pipeline to restore the health of a branch of the Darling.
The measures may also alter the flow and salt loads downstream of Menindee Lakes with potential for water quality degradation, the documents say. More analysis of the impact on downstream communities is required, the MDBA concluded.
Despite all the question marks over this and other projects, the MDBA and the federal government are urging the Senate to support the SDL rule change – effectively authorising the projects.
The MDBA defended giving what appears to be a blank cheque, saying its role at this stage was to assess whether the projects were capable of delivering the environmental water savings touted by the states.
Even though the NSW government has not done the EIS suggested, a spokesman for the MDBA said the government had addressed many of the issues identified and “has committed to continuous assessment throughout implementation.”
“The river’s been operated for 100 years for consumptive use. If we don’t change the way the river is operated through these projects, we won’t be able to deliver the environmental outcomes the community expects,” Carl Binning, MDBA’s director of environmental water, said.
“It is also worth noting that the release of the draft determination is just the start of the process. Basin state governments have until 2024 to complete the projects, and many of the projects are in their infancy and will need substantial community input to deliver.”
What about the Broken Hill pipeline?
The questions around the shrinking of the Menindee Lakes also throws into doubt the need for another major project already greenlit by NSW government: the $470m Broken Hill pipeline.
The government has already begun building the 270km pipeline to replace the inland city’s water supply from Menindee Lakes 90km away by instead pumping water from the Murray via a new pipeline.
The project is essential if the Menindee Lakes are moved to the new plan because the lakes would no longer be managed to ensure 18 months supply of drinking water to Broken Hill.
The deeply controversial pipeline is widely opposed in Broken Hill and in the Murray region where the water will be taken from. There have been protests in Broken Hill and at Wentworth, even as construction begins.
The fact the NSW government is so doggedly pursuing the Menindee Lakes and the pipeline project has helped fuel the conspiracy theories about whose interests are served by the estimated $900m investment in the two projects.
Darriea Turley, the mayor of Broken Hill in far-west NSW, is also sceptical: “The issue for me is that a river 100km away has been providing us with water for 70 years, it’s provided a secure water supply. But now we are going to get water from 270km away. Tell me the reason.
“Why are they spending $470m on a pipeline when we have the Darling river and Menindee Lakes just 90km away?” asks Mark Hutton, the president of the Darling River Action Group.
“It’s been the water source for Broken Hill for 60 years and it’s never run out,” he says. “Sure we have had water restrictions but we haven’t run out.”
During the millennium drought and again in the summer of 2015, Broken Hill came perilously close to running out of water. Hutton says this was mainly due to the way the Menindee Lakes were managed that year, which combined with very dry rainfall to take Broken Hill to the brink. Climate change is likely to make that a more frequent occurrence, the NSW government says.
Who are the winners out of the pipeline and the Menindee Lakes projects?
The new inland pipeline along the Silver City Highway will run past two proposed mine sites which need water for their operations: Carpentaria Mining’s Hawsons magnetite mine and Silver City Mineral’s lithium project.
It also means the pressure is off the NSW irrigators who will not be required to surrender water as NSW tries to meet its water recovery targets.
Cotton Australia has been the loudest voice for the pipeline and has been campaigning for the project since at least 2012.
In 2015 Cotton Australia’s incoming chairman Simon Corish told members that “securing a permanent solution to Broken Hill’s water supply to free up water for irrigation” was a priority of his organisation.
Niall Blair, the NSW regional water minister, has also been a strong advocate but his enthusiasm has not been shared by some of his agencies.
WaterNSW, the government-owned corporation responsible for building the pipeline, told the minister it would only undertake it if it received a formal direction along with a guarantee it would be reimbursed if it could not recoup the costs of the pipeline from customers.
Blair issued the direction to the board under the state-owned Corporations Act in September 2016.
Whether the pipeline is the best value solution and how it will be paid for is a matter of conjecture.
So far the government has released only a 29-page summary of the business case with few details. Other options, notably using groundwater from aquifers underneath Menindee Lakes to supplement the lake, were not costed. Another aquifer option at Talyawalka was costed at $270m but was rejected.
Usually the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) would do a financial analysis before approving water rate hikes for Broken Hill residents. However, when asked whether the minister intended to issue a direction to IPART to ignore this step, Blair replied no direction had been issued “at this stage”.
“Unlike the NSW Labor party, who do not have political or economic capital to spend outside of Sydney, all prudent and efficient costs incurred by Essential Water, which are above the amount determined by IPART to be paid by customers, would be met by a Coalition NSW government,” Blair said.
With full cost recovery extremely unlikely, the question is who this subsidy really benefits?
What about the community?
Darren Whitelaw of Broken Hill Meats is less worried about the pipeline than he is about what it means for the Menindee Lakes community.
When the lakes are full, Broken Hill Meats does a roaring trade on long weekends as campers stock up to go fishing, boating and camping down at the lakes. When they are empty, Whitelaw says people head off to Adelaide or elsewhere instead, sucking precious dollars out of Broken Hill.
With lake levels now at 14.7% the hamlet of Sunset Strip, once the playground of Broken Hill’s elite, on the “shore” of Lake Menindee, is marooned in a sea of green grass. Most houses are for sale for rock-bottom prices.
Local Menindee resident Ross Leddra says the lakes used to be a drawcard for fishing and recreation. Now most of the lakefront houses are for sale.
“Pity the poor bugger at the caravan park. This used to be on the circuit for grey nomads,” says Leddra. “This part of the river is really struggling.”
It’s a forlorn part of the world.
Despite a NSW government commitment to consult the community, the changes planned for this part of the river seem like a foregone conclusion.
The pipeline contract has been let and work has begun. The NSW government has submitted plans to alter the Menindee Lakes to the federal government, and the commonwealth has spent $79m buying back the water rights of the last substantial irrigator south of the Menindee system, Tandou, owned by Webster Limited.
Mayor Turley is worried about what it will mean for the water charges for her ratepayers. With over 45% of the Broken Hill population on the minimum wage or below, an increase in water costs will be difficult to absorb.
The Indigenous people are also concerned. They reject the description of the lakes as manmade – they have been there for millions of years and contain a number of highly significant Aboriginal sites.
But it is the graziers and the river itself in the Lower Darling that have the most to lose. They fear that the changes mean there will be little reason for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to keep the Darling river flowing below the Bourke weir. Instead the river will be managed for upstream irrigators while the Darling and Menindee Lakes will be left to dry out more often. A recent report by the MDBA shows that is already happening and it is not due to climate change.
“This part of the river is already experiencing prolonged spells when the river stops running entirely,” says grazier Kate McBride, whose family owns Tolarno Station south of Menindee Lakes.
“When it’s reduced to a series of stagnant pools, the blue-green algae flourishes and the water is not only undrinkable, but unsafe to bathe in.”