Floodplain harvesting to be enshrined in regulatory framework, but not without dispute
Amendments made on Friday, 30 April to the Water Management (General) Regulation 2018 are set to give legal effect to the floodplain harvesting policy and enable the NSW Government to legalise the practice of harvesting flood waters.
Since the announcement, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) have been met with continuous opposition.
Not for profit water campaigners, Water for Rivers, are asking for support in “stopping the government from privatising overland water flows”.
“Floodplain harvesting captures flood waters flowing across the flat plains of the north-west of NSW and Queensland using levees and other irrigation channels”.
“The water is then diverted into enormous on-farm storages and used primarily to irrigate cotton or held by speculators trading for massive profits as the rivers decline and droughts accelerate” said Water for Rivers spokesperson Tracey Carpenter.
The Coalition Government have stated they are committed to implementing the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy which is set to “stop unconstrained floodplain harvesting and ensure water take returns to the legal limits set out in NSW water sharing plans”.
But conservationists are not convinced. The Nature Conservation Council of NSW has said “floodplain harvesting regulations are a death sentence for our rivers” and are urging members of parliament to disallow the new regulations.
“Allowing irrigators to divert floodwaters under the regulations will starve rivers, wetlands and downstream communities and ecologies of huge volumes of water” said Chris Gambian, Chief Executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.
“Many of our rivers and wetlands are already in a perilous state and this new regulation that will deprive them on a huge volume of precious water will have drastic consequences,” he said.
As part of the legislative process, the DPIE consulted the public and stakeholders on the proposed amendments between November and December last year.
The three key changes to the regulation are: the process for determination of floodplain harvesting licenses; the measurement requirements for landholders who floodplain harvest; exemption from the need for a water supply work approval and water access license when collecting rainfall run-off in a tailwater return drain.
Based on submissions received, the NSW Government decided not to proceed with the third point: the proposed exemptions.
In 2020, the exemption regulations were introduced to allow irrigators to floodplain harvest without a licence leading to “a war of words between irrigators and downstream communities” and a debate in the NSW Parliament that ultimately disallowed the laws.
Independent NSW MP Justin Field has slammed the introduction of the new laws as a “serious breach of faith that priorities corporate interests over the interests of downstream communities, Aboriginal people and the environment”.
Independent NSW MLC Justin Field said, “These new regulations make a mockery of the will of the Parliament and the public concern around floodplain harvesting. I’m calling on my colleagues in the Legislative Council to send these regulations back to Water Minister, Melinda Pavey, with a big red ‘F’.
“The Government isn’t taking seriously the concerns of downstream communities, irrigators in the Southern Basin, Indigenous communities or environmental stakeholders.
“If we don’t get this right, the NSW Government risks handing out billions of dollars’ worth of unsustainable floodplain harvesting licences that future generations will be forced to buy back to save our rivers” said Independent MP Field.
Jim Bentley, Deputy Secretary of Water at the DPIE has said he expects the licenses to come into effect in the Border Rivers and Gwydir in July, the Macquarie during August, the Barwon Darling during October, and the Namoi by the end of 2021.
“This assumes that enabling regulations are not subsequently disallowed”.