WaterNSW decision to cut off Lower Darling supply could kill all fish, group says
Locals are warning that all the fish in the Lower Darling could be dead within weeks after WaterNSW closed a weir supplying water into the Lower Darling River.
- Menindee weir shut by WaterNSW
- No more water to be released into the Lower Darling River
- Remaining water ‘critical for local supply’
- More fish kills expected
Hundreds of thousands of fish have died in the river at Menindee over the past two months as low water levels and algal blooms combined to starve the water of oxygen.
Water had been allowed to trickle out of Menindee Lakes and into the river in the wake of the mass fish deaths, but with the lakes now at only 3 per cent capacity, WaterNSW has closed the gates.
“Conditions in the Barwon Darling remain critical, and what water is left in the lakes system will be used for critical local supply … for landholders, permanent plantings and stock and domestic use,” WaterNSW said.
It had planned to stop releases last week, but said it kept them going to allow fisheries officers to rescue Murray cod which were struggling in the stagnant waters.
Plan would ‘ruin’ once pristine waterway
The Darling River Action Group is now warning that the situation is set to get even worse as the NSW Government pushes ahead with a separate and controversial water-saving plan for Menindee Lakes — a chain of shallow lakes which provide the water supply for Menindee, Broken Hill and irrigators on the Lower Darling.
“If that plan goes through, that would be the ruination of what was once one of the pristine waterways in Australia,” the group’s president, Mark Hutton, told 7.30.
“There’s going to be more fish kills, and I would say that by the end of this summer there would be lucky to be a fish alive in the Lower Darling.”
Mr Hutton is planning to contest the NSW election as an independent on the ticket of former Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham because of the water situation.
NSW hopes to use the project to “save” 106 gigalitres of water, for environmental flows to South Australia, as part of its obligations under the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
It proposes reconfiguring the Menindee Lakes, and releasing water more quickly, thereby “saving” water which would otherwise be lost to evaporation.
Irrigator and keen fisherman Graeme McCrabb says this would mean even less water would be held in reserve for times of drought.
“It leaves you drier rivers longer. That’s what’s going to happen if you drain the lakes faster,” he told 7.30.
“[Already] the fish aren’t surviving very well in a system that hasn’t got proper flows.”
Water saving project a ‘political fix’
The Menindee Lakes Water Saving Project has plenty of critics.
The recent South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin Plan expressed “grave concerns regarding the lawfulness of the …. project as a supply measure, the serious environmental, cultural and social risks, and the so far profoundly deficient community consultation and engagement associated with it”.
It says thousands of hectares of fish nurseries for golden perch could be lost under the project, according to analysis by the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).
And a 2017 due-diligence assessment on the project’s business case, carried out for the Federal Government, found it “does not present an organised, comprehensive, consistent or persuasive case for the project”.
Maryanne Slattery was a director of environmental water policy at the MDBA and is now senior water researcher at the Australia Institute.
She believes the Lower Darling is being sacrificed for large irrigation interests in the Northern Basin and says the project “doesn’t stack up”.
“It’s not going to deliver the savings it needs to deliver. It’s not going to deliver the environmental outcomes it’s meant to deliver,” she told 7.30.
“It’s a political fix.”
NSW Water Minister Niall Blair has rejected her claims.
“This is not about trying to move projects to one part of a state or the other because of votes,” Mr Blair said.
“The Menindee Lakes project has been on the table for many years.”
And he pointed out that included under Labor governments.
Mr Blair would not commit to changing the water-saving plan in the light of the fish deaths.
“There is a long way to go in this project,” Mr Blair said.
“There are probably many years before the project is actually submitted to Canberra for sign off.”
‘We’ve just been abandoned’
Irrigator Rachel Strachan farms wine grapes, citrus and sheep near Pooncarie, 280 kilometres downstream of Menindee.
She has just four months of river water left.
“After that, we have nothing,” she told 7.30.
“We’ve just been left abandoned, no future whatsoever.”
She does not know what the three families on their property will do when the water runs out.
“Not even facing that at the moment, it’s too hard,” she said.
She believes the MDBA should never have emptied Menindee Lakes so quickly and says the NSW Government must reconsider its water saving proposal if the current tragedy is not to be repeated.
“The base health of the river has to be prioritised,” she said.
“If a fish can’t live in it, you can’t bathe in it, your stock can’t drink it. So it’s basically dead.
“I don’t care who you are, I don’t think anyone’s happy with that.”
Watch this story tonight on 7.30.