Friday, 4 August 2017

Surprise, surprise - those Murray-Darling Basin water raiders have slithered over the horizon once more and are eyeing off the Clarence Valley river system yet again

With so little fanfare that much of  Northern Rivers region missed it, the NSW Berejiklian Government reopened the March 2016 inquiry into augmentation of water supply for rural and regional New South Wales on 28 May 2017, with Terms of Reference published in July 2017.

This Upper House inquiry is chaired by Robert Brown MLC, from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party and its reporting date has been extended to 30 March 2018. 

Current committee membership is as follows:

Robert Brown MLC, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, Chair
Mick Veitch MLC, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Chair
Jeremy Buckingham MLC, The Greens
Rick Colless MLC, The Nationals
Scot MacDonald MLC, Liberal Party
Greg Pearce MLC, Liberal Party
Penny Sharpe MLC, Australian Labor Party
Daniel Mookhey MLC, Australian Labor Party
Paul Green MLC, Christian Democratic Party
* Jeremy Buckingham MLC (Greens)is substituting for Dr Mehreen Faruqui MLC for the duration of the inquiry.
* Matthew Mason-Cox MLC (Liberal)  is substituting for Hon Greg Pearce MLC for the duration of the inquiry.
* Paul Green MLC and Penny Sharpe MLC will be participating for the duration of the inquiry.

A poorly advertised public hearing scheduled for 1 August 2017 in Lismore (with details sent to media on 31 July 2017) excluded Northern Rivers residents from giving evidence unless they represented a small number of invited groups.

It appears the committee had also determined that Clarence Valley Council was to be asked its view on diverting Clarence River system flood water.

Given flood water is already diverted to the purpose built Shannon Creek side dam to ensure a sustainable water supply for the est. 125,103 residents (Census 2016) currently living in Clarence Valley and Coffs Harbour local government areas, there are no prizes for guessing where any additional water diversion would be allocated.

Yes, that paragon of sustainable water mismanagement - the cluster of councils, industries, irrigators and water traders within the Murray-Darling Basin.

It will come as no surprise that Griffith Council is still pursuing a Clarence River dam and divert scheme. North Coast Voices reported on its obsession in August 2016.

This is what the Griffith City Council Deputy mayor, Dino Zappacosta of Zappacosta Estate Wines in Hanwood, told the inquiry on 1 March 2017:

The issue that my committee, Build More Dams, has looked at is that we need more water because farmers are crying out for more water. We need new water. By "new water", I mean water that is not currently being used at all. We looked at various options, including the Clarence Valley area, where millions and millions of megalitres of water flow out into the sea for what seems to be no real benefit at all for the community of the Clarence region, other than for the natural farming land and the fishery industry there.

It soon became apparent that, appart from the notion of free water at the expense of Clarence Valley communities’ social, cultural, aesthetic, environmental and economic values, Griffith Council knew little about how this dam and divert scheme would work.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: You have been talking about the Clarence River diversion scheme. Is it correct that that is essentially restricted to the Mann River subcatchment?

Mr ZAPPACOSTA: To the best of my knowledge, it covers most of the tributaries—for example, the Boyd River, the Mann River, the Nymboida River and the Timbarra River. They are highlighted on map 2, which was provided to the Committee.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: I am a little confused about the way the map reads. It appears as though the water is coming out of the Mann River catchment, which is a subcatchment of the Clarence. The divisions appear to be above the confluence of the Nymboida and the Mann. You recommend a 23 per cent Clarence River diversion, but the question is: What percentage of is that of the Mann River flow and what environmental impact will that have on the Mann River below where it is diverted? We should keep in mind the history of the Snowy River and what has happened there over the past 50 years. Does anybody have any thoughts about that? Mr ZAPPACOSTA: I will have to take on notice exactly how much comes from the Mann River itself.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: What is the reduction in flow from the sub-catchment rivers below where the water is diverted from them? What environmental impacts will that have on those rivers?

Mr ZAPPACOSTA: I appreciate the question. I think what you are asking is something we should dig into a bit deeper; there should be a study of it, preferably a feasibility study.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: There needs to be a lot of work done on this, as you would appreciate.

While the Director of Utilities at Griffith City Council stated:

As an engineer I see the great benefits of supporting a scheme such as the Clarence River diversion scheme, not only from a water augmentation point of view. My directorate covers water supply as well as the flooding impacts caused by rainfall run-off. The Clarence River diversion scheme is not only a supply scheme but a flood mitigation solution, as the general manager mentioned. In my research I have referred to the document entitled Lower Clarence Flood Model—Update 2013 produced by BMT WBM consultants. They happen to be the same consultants who undertook our flood study and provided our flood mitigation options. They work across the State and they are well versed in flooding, from the Northern Rivers down to our area.

The Clarence River catchment on the far North Coast of New South Wales is one of the largest catchments on the east coast of Australia. It is approximately 20,000 square kilometres. It is above the towns of Grafton, Maclean and Yamba, and it is home to more than 20,000 people. The lower Clarence Valley has a long history of flooding, since settlement in about 1850. Bear with me as I read out the dates of the flooding events. I was just going to say a number, but it has more of an impact when you follow the years of flooding that the area has endured due to the large catchment that sits above it. Floods were recorded in 1863 and 1864. There was a record flood in 1890 in which two people lost their lives and there was extensive damage to the rural area. Further floods occurred in 1921 and 1928. Since 1945 the incidence of major flooding has been much higher, with floods occurring in 1945, 1946, 1948, 1950, 1954, 1956, 1959, 1963, 1967, 1968, 1974, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1996, 2001, 2009 and 2013.

There is a regular occurrence of extreme flooding in the Northern Rivers catchment, below the Clarence River. Section 4.4 of the Lower Clarence Flood Model—Update 2013 acknowledges that "the river flows originating from upstream of Grafton dominate flooding in the Lower Clarence Valley". Diversion of the Clarence River flows for that area towards the west, and the 25 per cent or 23.8 per cent that will be captured, diverted and controlled, will be of great benefit to flood mitigation in the Northern Rivers area. The document further says that it will maximise the investment from the Government not only to help solve water augmentation issues but to reduce the financial and human impacts flooding has in the northern coastal areas. The Clarence River diversion scheme was documented in 1981 by David Coffey and he estimated costings back then. We have done a projection to a present-day cost of approximately $10 billion. There are statistics on the map that I have provided to the Committee.

The Snowy Mountains scheme would have cost $10 billion in present-day money, so there are similar costings in the schemes. The 1,100 gigalitres diverted per annum from the Clarence River has generated $1.82 billion in agriculture. The scheme means that 23.8 per cent of the flows that would be heading down to flood people can be diverted. When you equate the $550 million a year in flood damages with the cost of a diversion scheme, 1,100 gigalitres can generate $1.8 billion a year in agriculture growth. The additional water means that 118,000 hectares of viable open country can be farmed. The offset of diversion and flood protection is that it is beneficial to all. That is where I will leave it.

The public hearing in Griffith was reported thus by The Area News on 2 March 2017:

HIGH-profile Griffith water users and city officials enjoyed a rare opportunity to sit face-to-face with Members of the NSW Upper House on Wednesday to discuss their handling of water….

The Honourable Rick Colless, The Honourable Paul Green, The Honourable Matthew Mason-Cox and The Honourable Penelope Sharpe were on hand to hear the concerns of the community….

Along with wanting to fix the water sharing plans, the other hot topic was the Clarence River Scheme, initially conceptualised by David Coffey in the 1970s.

The plan outlined diverting river flows westward from high rainfall catchments in the Northern Rivers.

According to Griffith City Council, the scheme will benefit lands south of the Dumaresq River while also providing flows into the Murray River, reducing the reliance for Murray-Darling Basin allocations to fill the original allocation to the basin. 

“We have looked at various options and we look at the Clarence Valley area where there are millions of millions of megalitres of water flowing out into the sea for what seems to be for no real benefit,” Councilor Dino Zappacosta said.

Griffith City Council general manager, Brett Stonestreet said it’s time the scheme is looked at again.

“It provides new water to give this state another shot in the arm,” he said.

“It also looks at potentially reducing flooding impact of the coastal communities adjacent to the Clarence by 25 per cent.

“There is a huge amount of money that can be generated and inland communities rediscovered and regenerated through new water.”

Mayor Dal Broi was pleased with how the inquiry was conducted and the feedback from the Senators.

“Some of the questions that were asked by the panel members, we know now what they are thinking,” he said.

“They were very receptive to the concept of new water so whether it's the diversion of the Clarence or lifting the wall on Burrinjuck Dam ... they were very receptive to that because we tried to make the point that the limited resources at the moment.”

“We need new water if our regions are to grow and have a better long-term sustainable allocation.”

Not content with bringing down the largest river system in Australia in order to line their own pockets, these wanabee water raiders just keep on coming after what they see as more 'free' water for the rorting.

Clarence Valley Council gave evidence at the re-opened inquiry on 1 August and the only question of interest to the water raiders came after a few minutes of questioning at Page 26 of the Lismore public hearing transcript:

The Hon. GREG PEARCE: Thank you for your submission. In your submission you talk about this idea of diversion of the Clarence River to west of the Great Dividing Range. Could you give us a bit of a background on that proposal and what your council thinks about it?

Mr ANDERSON: I will start but Mr Mashiah might finish. Our council has resolved six times that they do not support the diversion of the Clarence, and each time that has been unanimous in regard to council's position. That is based on the fact that damage to the environment and the ecological systems that work within the Clarence River emerge from there. 

The CHAIR [Robert Brown MLC, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party]: You probably cannot answer this, but that is an all-encompassing position of council?


The CHAIR : I wonder what the council's position would be on the diversion of floodwaters only.

Mr ANDERSON: Again, Mr Chair, like you said, I cannot answer that question.

The CHAIR: What I am asking you is that I guess the council's resolutions were not burrowed down to that extent to be able to answer that question. We might ask Clarence council for an opinion on that.

The Hon. GREG PEARCE: Are those decisions supported by an independent side to pick advice? How were they derived?

Mr MASHIAH: There was a Healthy Rivers Commission inquiry into the Clarence in I think it was 1999, from memory, and part of the outcome of that commission inquiry was the importance of regular flood events in terms of the fishing industry and also the cane industry. I believe you have representatives from the cane industry here with us later.

The CHAIR: This afternoon, yes.

Mr MASHIAH: And also in terms of fisheries, one of the aspects that Clarence Valley Council has been active in for the past 20 years is trying to manage the floodplain to address issues such as acid runoff.

The CHAIR: Solid sulfate soils.

Mr MASHIAH: As the sulfate soils and particular acids run off. So we have done things like open floodgates and—

The CHAIR: And you should be congratulated.

Mr MASHIAH: Thank you, Mr Chair, for that. I will pass that on to the relevant staff who have been coordinating that. The regular flushing of those areas, which are fish breeding grounds, by floodwaters is very important. So if floods were diverted there are significant concerns from the fishing industry about the ongoing viability of the industry because the grounds where fish breed, according to the studies that have been undertaken, would then be adversely impacted. So that is one of the reasons that the fishing industry has very strongly opposed, through our estuary management committee in particular and through the estuary management plan, any diversion of water and we have tried to ensure that the fish breeding grounds are protected.

The CHAIR: I just made the observation that most of those fish breeding grounds would not be the same areas of land that are subject to high residential development or business or commercial or other aspects. In other words, you are not talking about the township of Grafton itself, you are talking river peripheries, flooded-out areas, for breeding concerns?

Mr MASHIAH: The challenge is that the urban footprint on the lower Clarence floodplain is probably about 1 to 2 per cent of the total surface area and all the urban areas are surrounded by rural areas. So it is very hard to work out how you manage that 1 or 2 per cent without adversely impacting the other 98 per cent, or vice versa, how do you manage the 98 per cent without adversely impacting 1 or 2 per cent of urban area?

The CHAIR: The 2013 flood, you have described it as a major flood, correct?

Mr MASHIAH: It was the flood of record at Grafton.

The CHAIR: I am wondering how the 2013 flood would have enhanced the fishery on the Clarence?

Mr MASHIAH: The main issue with the 2013 flood—I guess with any flood in the Clarence the flood behaviour in the upper river is a lot different to the flood behaviour in the lower river because of the tidal influences in particular and also how wet the floodplain is already. The 2013 event was actually three floods.

The CHAIR: And they rolled up on each other?

Mr MASHIAH: Yes, within a three-week period—quite distinct flood events.

The CHAIR: So it was a prolonged flood.

Mr MASHIAH: It was a prolonged flood and that meant there was significant inundation of back swamp areas, and I understand that there were some areas that effectively were areas that were flushed that had not been flushed in floods probably since 2001, so it is probably 12 years. So from an ecological perspective, talking to our environmental scientists, I understand that it was actually quite beneficial because the bigger floods only get into those areas once every 10 to 20 years.

The CHAIR: Were there any concurrent blackwater events for the fishery?

Mr MASHIAH: Not that I can recall, and I think that is a result of the management measures that have been undertaken on the floodplain because most of the farmers now operate the floodgates and so only shut the floodgates when there is actually a flood coming and open them fairly soon afterwards.

The CHAIR: So it is their responsibility to operate their own floodgates, is it?

Mr MASHIAH: That has been passed on to them, yes.

The CHAIR: Do you have any oversight of that?

Mr ANDERSON: Yes, we do, and we work with those groups and undertake training et cetera . It is a two-way street of communication: they tell us what they need and, vice versa, we provide training associated with that and inductions and operate that through a number of committees et cetera as well.

Evidence was also given by the NSW Professional Fishermen’s Association (commencing Page 38) the NSW Canegrowers Association (commencing Page 45) and the Clarence Environment Centre (commencing Page 56).

One has to wonder why the committee members of this reformed Water Augmentation Inquiry didn't seek the views of those holding Native Title (See Yaegl People #1 Yaegl People #2) over the Clarence River from the waters approximately half-way between Ulmarra and Brushgrove right down to the eastern extremities of the northern and southern breakwater walls at the mouth of the river.

After all they are significant stakeholders in any discussion of water policy and water management in the Clarence River catchment area.

The other matter of note, arising from North Coast Voices somewhat belated discovery that the water raiders were back on the scene, is the suggestion that not all Clarence Valley councillors had forewarning that council staff were appearing before the inquiry on 1 August.

If true this would be a disturbing indication that council administration has retained some of the bad habits it acquired under the former general manager who was handed his hat in March this year.

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