The Natural Resources Commission of the state of New South Wales, a government body providing the state independent advice on resource management, warns in a recent report that ‘the Barwon-Darling is an ecosystem in crisis’, reports The Guardian.
The Barwon-Darling is the stretch of the Murray-Darling river system ─ Australia’s largest river system draining an area of more than 1 million square kilometres ─ managed by NSW, from the state’s border with Queensland through important cotton growing areas.
The report is a review of the 2012 Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan, triggered by claims of poor management in 2017 and massive fish kills in December 2018 and January 2019 downstream in the Lower Darling, which were traced to low flows, due to drought and excess upstream diversion of water for irrigation.
According to the Commission’s review, the communities that live along the river are also under extreme stress. Development over the past several decades has impacted the systems’ resilience. The report identifies the intense drought, significant upstream water extraction, apparent climate shift and the rules in the Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling as contributing factors to poor ecological, social and cultural outcomes.
In fact, the 2012 plan has long been criticised by environmental groups because it allowed water extraction for irrigation during low-flow periods. This is even though NSW’s Water Management Act 2000 prioritises the protection of the water source and dependent ecosystems, followed by basic landholder rights including native title, and then other extractive uses. However, the Commission’s report criticises that the provisions in the current Plan ‘benefit the economic interests of a few upstream users over the ecological and social needs of the many’.
The report identifies the intense drought, significant upstream water extraction, apparent climate shift and the rules in the Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling as contributing factors to poor ecological, social and cultural outcomes
Commissioner John Keniry stated ‘there is an urgent need to remake the Plan so the current trend of a river system heading towards collapse is reset and the river and its dependent species, communities and industries are put on a path towards long term health and resilience’.
While the report does recognise the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment – Water (DPIE-Water) has undertaken significant reforms since 2017, it calls for action in three steps, the first one of which is immediate Plan amendments by 2020, ensuring that its objectives are consistent with the prioritisation under the Water Management Act 2000. This would be done as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) accreditation process. Water resource plans (WRPs) or water-sharing plans, setting the rules for water allocation and environmental flows at the local level, are developed by basin state governments and submitted to the Murray-Darling basin Authority for accreditation. The 2012 plan for the Barrow-Darling is an old plan that has not been accredited yet, and in fact NSW is lagging behind in terms of completing its plans. Although the deadline for WRPs to be submitted to the MDBA was 28 February 2019, extensions are considered up to December 2019.
Meanwhile, most of NSW and the Murray-Darling basin face an escalating drought and mass fish kills are feared again this coming summer.