Chapter 3 - ’Over allocation’ - the major problem
The Murray Darling Basin
The major problem brought to the attention of the committee in
submissions and oral evidence during its inquiry is the vexed issue of over
allocation of river water in the whole Murray-Darling Basin, an area which
receives 6.1 per cent of Australia's distribution of run-off but where nearly
75% per cent of the country's irrigated agriculture occurs.
More than 66 per cent of the water that would normally reach the sea
from all rivers in the basin is now diverted for use. There has been a large
increase in diversions since the 1950s and more particularly in the 14 years to
1996 which saw almost a 60 per cent increase in the use of surface water for
irrigation in the basin. Regulation has eliminated the most extreme of the low
flows (and is credited with keeping the Murray flowing during the 1982-1983
drought), but the level of diversions is having a huge negative impact on the
health of the river.
The Murray-Darling Basin Commission's website tells the story of over
regulation and over allocation starkly:
- Mean outflow from the Murray to the sea reduced from some 12,300
gigalitres (GL) per year under natural conditions to 4,900 GL per year (40 per
cent of natural flows)
- Median annual flow to the sea (i.e. the flow that is exceeded in
50 per cent of years), is now only 27 per cent of the natural median flow.
- From around 3,000 GL in 1930, diversions now total over 11,000 GL
(Thomson 1994, 8).
- Rivers in the basin are now in a state of drought (as defined by
river levels) for more than 61 years in every 100 compared with 5 years per
hundred under natural conditions (MDB Ministerial Council 1995, 19). 
- Flows that were only naturally experienced in the driest 10 per
cent of years are now expected in 27 per cent of years (MDBMC 1995, 25).
Recently updated figures on the effect of the current drought on the
state of the Murray-Darling Basin, can be found at: http://www.mdbc.gov.au/rmw
In 1995, the MDB Commission's audit of water use in the basin revealed
that water diversions from the rivers in the basin had increased by 8 per cent
in the previous six years and were averaging 10800GL per year.
However, by the end of 1996, NSW, Victoria and South Australia had agreed to
cap diversions from the river.
The states and territory dependent on water in the Murray-Darling Basin
are now committed through the National Water Initiative to work towards
sustainable management of the rivers in the basin and their catchments. But,
referring to the states, CSIRO's Shahbaz Khan told the Triennial Maize
Conference at Griffith, NSW in February 2006:
All their water resources Acts are based on political rather
than catchment/hydrological boundaries. Catchment management boundaries are
required for ecologically sustainable management at the national level.
To complicate matters further, water licences in the MDB have been
issued on the expectation of water flows based on average rainfall for the last
century. Climatologists are now throwing those averages into doubt since they
believe that the 50 years from 1950 to 2000 may have been unusually wet for the
Australian continent and that we may now be reverting to a normal rainfall
pattern. Prof. Shahbaz Khan argues that both the "cap" and the Living
Murray Initiative may be based on those over-optimistic "wet"
rainfall and river flow figures.
Capping river extractions
The "cap" as agreed by the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial
Council in 1996 was defined as follows:
- For NSW and Victoria, the Cap is the volume of water that would
have been diverted under the 1993/94 levels of development plus allowances in
the Border rivers for Pindari dam (NSW) and in the Goulburn/Broken/Loddon
system for lake Makoan (Victoria)
- For South Australia, All Other Purposes diversions were
capped at 440.6 GL. This represents an increase in diversion over 1993/94
levels of development but they are below allocations that were established in
The cap for Queensland was to be determined at a later stage. The Murray
Darling Basin Commission points out in its Water Audit Monitoring Report
2004-2005 that the cap in NSW and Victoria is not the volume of water that was
used in 1993/94. Rather, the cap in any year is the water that would have been
used with the infrastructure (pumps, dams, channels, areas developed for
irrigation, management rules etc.) that existed in 1993/94 taking into account
the climatic and hydrologic conditions that were experienced in the year under
In relation to the MDB caps, it is a matter of grave concern to the
committee that 10 years after the beginning of negotiations designed to set a
cap on river extractions, the cap for Queensland has still not been finalised.
In its 2004 report, Rural water resource usage, the committee
A cap for water extractions in the Queensland part of the Murray-Darling
Basin should be decided by the beginning of 2005.
The Chief Executive of the Murray-Darling Commission agreed that
progress on cap implementation and other water reform aspects affecting the MD
Basin had been slow and pointed to the difficulties inherent in getting several
states to reach agreement on substantial issues:
The original River Murray agreement in 1915 took 22 years to
reach. Putting the cap in place took a decade. The agreement on environmental
flows took a decade. Anything substantial takes a decade because you have to go
through the whole process to get the information.
The Murray-Darling Basin Commission does not expect the caps for
extraction of river water in Queensland to be in place before sometime in 2007. 
Settling the cap issue in some areas of Queensland is not an easy task
especially since some stakeholders see their water extractions as having no
effect further down river:
The cap is inequitable and there have been distortions in the
science of river flows and river ecology used to justify limits and cutbacks in
...Much of the water from Queensland river systems does not reach
the NSW border, let alone the Murray river. 
Evidence to the committee suggests that the implementation of caps
remains a key water management problem. Even where caps have been set, as in
the NSW part of the Murray-Darling Basin, those caps are not always fully
implemented. Inland Rivers Network Coordinator, Ms Amy Hankinson pointed out
Flood plain harvesting is also meant to have been brought under
cap in New South Wales, but it has not been done to date, which calls into
question New South Wales cap compliance.
The committee believes that all state governments involved in the NWI
should take the steps necessary to abide by the commitments they have made in
relation to the caps. The committee urges Queensland to take steps to finalise
its negotiations and agree to a cap on its water extractions. This is an urgent
and critical issue for the health of the rivers concerned and for the farmers
and others who depend on those rivers for their livelihoods. It demands a much
Measuring and reducing
Over allocation results from lack of, or inadequate, knowledge about the
rivers from which the water is taken. The need for broader knowledge and more
precise measurement of rivers was recognised by various submitters to the
committee ranging from Engineers Australia to the National Water Commission's Ken
We do not know nearly accurately enough where the water is, what
it is being used for and what its state of health is, and that is not good
enough... Unless water can be monitored and measured, it simply cannot be
managed. Good water accounting is vital for not only economic purposes but also
environmental management and good policy formulation. 
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry explained that one
of the aims of the National Water Initiative (NWI) is for all states to work
towards fair and sustainable allocation of water and redress as much as
possible the negative impact of over allocation:
The over allocations are intended to be dealt with by all the
states, consistent with the National Water Initiative. The National Water
Initiative indicates that, if structural adjustment is required, the Australian
government will consider that on a case-by-case basis. In the meantime we need
to improve the information base, and we are seeking to do that.
In 2005, the Murray Darling Basin Commission responded to widespread
concern about the accuracy of cap measurements by commissioning an audit of cap
data management systems in the basin by Marsden Jacobs Associates. The auditors
recommended the establishment of an open registry of bulk off-takes in the
basin. The Commission has now established the registry and a first report on
the information it gathered, known as the Bulk Off-take project report, was
published in October 2006. The report found that:
Poor measurement method selection, poor installation and a
failure to audit meter installation was found to be a common contributor to
measurement inaccuracy. Verification of rating tables, which are used for
assessment of flows for the majority of open channel diversion sites, occurs in
all states. However, it is not done according to any prescribed standard. Only New
South Wales conducts in-situ verification of the accuracy of meters on
conduit structures. However, this in-situ verification does not occur in all
valleys, is not targeted and is opportunistic.
The Bulk Off-take project report also found that:
It is probable that significant errors are occurring in
measurement in all Queensland valleys. Problems include failure to verify measurement
accuracies and to update flow rate equations when channel modification occur. A
comprehensive metering program is planned for the Condamine-Balonne.
In relation to the Barwon-Darling in NSW, reported diversions are estimated
to be 40 per cent below those actually occurring. The committee notes that
those findings confirm evidence given by several witnesses to its inquiry and
referred to in paragraphs 3.41 and 3.42 of this report.
There is currently no national or international method standard for the
measurement of bulk water diversions. The Commission's Bulk Off-take project
report identified conduit measurement as an area of particular concern with
propeller meters found to have a variation in accuracy of between one to 93 per
cent. The Commission has asked all the states to report by March 2007 on how
they propose to improve the accuracy of off-takes identified as having an
unacceptable level of inaccuracy.
There are great technological advances being made in the area of real-time
metering and monitoring of water use.
The committee urges all the states involved to take urgently all the steps
necessary to improve the accuracy of reported water diversions from the river.
This is a crucial issue for the long-term health of the Murray.
The Living Murray initiative
In recognition of the serious implications for the river's health and
the survival of its communities and their economies, the MDB Ministerial
Council (comprising the federal minister, together with ministers from New
South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital
Territory) established the Living Murray Initiative in November 2003. The aim
of the initiative is to recover and return to the river, up to
500 gigalitres of water annually by the end of a five year programme. In
its submission to the inquiry, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and
Forestry stated that:
Four water recovery proposals were approved by the MDB
Ministerial Council in November 2004 (two from Victoria and two from
NSW). These proposals will potentially recover up to 240 gigalitres of water
each year at a cost of approximately $179 million. The Australian
Government has indicated an interest in investing up to its maximum investment
level of 40% of the costs of these projects, equating to potentially
$71.6 million, with $42.7 million to be spent in Victoria and
$28.9 million in NSW.
In evidence, the Australian Conservation Foundation pointed to a
recommendation by scientists that about 1,500 gigalitres would be needed if
damage to the river were to be reversed:
Even though in many cases that has been described as an
environmental allocation, the environmental allocation is not adequate to deal
with the environmental needs of the system.
One case in point was with the Living Murray, where the best
available scientific recommendation was to recover 1,500 gigalitres for the
river, and a decision was made to return 500 gigalitres to the river. Even in
that instance we have made very poor progress in recovering water for the environment.
CSIRO's Professor Young told the committee that the very survival of the
river might be at stake:
Conceptually, there is a base amount of water that all rivers
need... Some people—and this involves some value judgements—would argue that the
right way to do this, as the system gets drier, is to increase allocations to
the environment so you still have a river which supplies water for recreation,
for maintenance of flood plains and so forth. Alternatively, you can have a
system in which, as it gets drier, we lose all of those assets.
The need for a balance to be struck between consumptive use and
environmental requirements in the Murray Darling Basin has been identified for
more than a decade.
Some controversy will always attach to any move to reduce water allocations to
irrigators and farmers so that some water can be returned to the river.
However, the committee's view is that in trying to find ways to ensure the
health of the Murray and Darling rivers, everyone needs to recognise that it is
unproductive to oppose 'environmental water' to 'agricultural water'. As the
Murray Darling Commission states on its website, it is not just a question of
sustaining the environment of the river and its aquatic ecosystems,
"virtually all economic activity within the Basin" is at stake.
The committee recommends that all state jurisdictions in the Murray- Darling
Basin undertake a review of the current water allocations with a view to
reducing diversion from the river.
The Condamine–Balonne catchment
More than a third of those who made submissions to the inquiry were
farmers suffering from the effects of over allocation in northern New South
Wales and Queensland. They expressed their concern and frustration about the
parlous state of the lower reaches of the Birrie and Bokhara rivers, the
Culgoa, Condamine-Balonne and the Lower Balonne flood plains.
Mr Ed Fessey, a member of the Lower Balonne Floodplain Graziers
Association, described the impact water over allocation is having on downstream
families and communities, in the following way:
Basically the unsustainable and irresponsible over allocation of
water in the Lower Ballone has had a profound effect on many families. My
submission details the cost of providing alternate water supply and the average
loss on income – grossed up over a 10-year period to some $450,000. The
alternate water system cost us $104,000 to replace and we are still paying that
off, with no subsidy from the government. I know of 27 other businesses which have
had similar problems. This is largely due to the reduced income and reduced
river flows in the Lower Balonne.
Robert and Ann Senior, landholders from the Brewarrina district, told
the committee that their property – originally purchased some 50 years ago for
its beneficial flooding – is struggling even to get stock water:
Our floodplains country is totally dead and our trees are dying
at a rapid rate. Before the development of the irrigation our country was
flooded on an average at least once every 12 months, even in the past receiving
some beneficial flooding during drought years.
Another witness called for a moratorium on floodplain harvesting:
Mr Treweeke—Basically, to do away with
flood plain harvesting. As we have said, that is the inequitable portion of
this. It cannot be measured accurately and it has allowed people to gazump
others who are legitimately in a queue in a process sanctioned by the water act
at the time. I think that if that were removed and proper environmental studies
done of the impact of water extraction, it would help.
Graziers from the area argue that, even when the drought situation in
their region over the last 10 years is taken into account, the lower reaches of
those rivers on which they depend are being destroyed as a result of over
allocation of the water available to irrigators 'upriver'. Mr Fessey, pointed
out that even when there is more rainfall in the area than there was 25 years
ago, the Lower Balonne river and its floodplain are now drier because of the
large amounts of water that are being diverted upstream, especially in times of
flood because of an erroneous assumption that water flowing over the banks is
wasted if it is not stored.
Access to overland flow water has been granted to the irrigation
industry generally with no requirement that it be metered or accounted for in
any way (and free of charge in Queensland), further encouraging the building of
off-river storages, the numbers of which have grown exponentially since the
The following graph from Professor Kingsford's submission illustrate the
dramatic increase in the number of private dams and in dam storage capacity in
the Condamine-Balonne catchment area.
Growth in off-river storage in the
Condamine-Balonne catchment area
Provided by Prof.
Richard Kingsford, (Uni.of NSW), Submission.9, p.7
The situation of the northern NSW floodplain farmers who made
submissions to the committee is mirrored in the lower reaches of the Murray
river where according to the South Australian government submission:
Drought-like flows are now experienced in the lower reaches of
the River Murray 60 per cent of the time, compared with 5 per cent before river
regulation and development.
Diversion of flood waters to storage for irrigation has an economic and
social impact not only on floodplain farmers and the communities in which they
live but also on the original dwellers of the floodplains, the indigenous
peoples of the river area.
Impact on local indigenous peoples
Several submissions and evidence from graziers in the Lower Balonne area
referred to the negative impact of reduced or no river flow on the indigenous
people of the area. Mr Edward Fessey who leases 'Weilmoringle Station"
from the Indigenous Land Corporation of the area had this to say:
The Muruwari community, who live there, consider the river to be
the most important feature of this land. They are deeply disappointed and
angered at the way the river has been changed to such an extent that they can
no longer even rely on it for water for their community. The prospect of a flow
in the river causes much excitement and gives the people a spirit of renewal as
the fish start to come up from the Darling River.
This view was supported in evidence to the committee by Mr Steven Ross
of the Wamba Wamba people from southern New South Wales and the coordinator of
the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN):
one thing MLDRIN, and the confederated traditional owners within
MLDRIN, always push is that the health of the river is definitely connected to
the health of the people. The Yorta Yorta have that in their Dreamtime stories:
they believe that Lake Barmah and Lake Moira act as kidneys for the river and
actually clean the water as it goes through those ecosystems. Western evidence
also shows that when water goes through the Barmah Choke it comes out much
cleaner at the other end. The Yorta Yorta relate that to the health of their
He welcomed the provision under the National Water Initiative that
allows water to be allocated to native title holders although the capacity for
traditional owners to gain access to native title is limited in southern New
South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Mr Ross called for a holistic
approach to river management that recognises what traditional owners do for the
protection of rivers and things that they would like to see done such as
"resnagging, reforestation and protection of Indigenous sites. 
The floodplain as part of the river
In his submission to the committee, Professor Richard Kingsford of the University
of NSW explained that the way a river was perceived and defined when the first
water legislation was being developed last century made it impossible to
consider the floodplain as part of the river:
Most of Australia's legislation for river was derived from
English legislation where rivers are considerably different. So until
relatively recently most of Australia's legislation, policy and management left
out floodplains, the vast majority of a river. In NSW, floodplains equate to
about 88% of a river's area and more than 95% of this is owned by landholders
who will be affected by changes in river flows.
Professor Kingsford's argument is that the overflow is essential to the
survival of the river downstream, its floodplains and wetlands and the floodplain
landowners whose livelihood is based on receiving the occasional flood. Water
that infiltrates into the flood-plain contributes to aquifer recharge which
also ultimately impacts on downstream flow. In a joint submission to the
committee, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Inland Rivers Network
stressed the importance of including overland flow in river protection:
Overland flow is linked to downstream river flow. It makes an
important contribution to natural flow variability and the connectivity of
floodplains with river channels. Harvesting overland flow for storage and
subsequent irrigation use has huge implications for downstream river and
wetland health, as well as on downstream users, and must be addressed
immediately. Immediate resolution of this conflict is needed to provide greater
certainty and fairness to non-irrigation water users and the environment.
Inland Rivers Network was very critical of the water management
situation on the floodplains of New South Wales:
In a recent release of environmental water in the Macquarie
Marshes, there were a number of photos taken that actually demonstrate water
being siphoned off, through channels and well-placed banks into ring tanks and
large storage dams, and down channels to go across other paddocks. That is
water that has come directly from the wetland during this specific release of
...As far as I am aware, none of the departments have made moves
to investigate this further. There has been a public statement from the Department
of Natural Resources that they are investigating it, but I spoke to their
compliance department and they said they had no real idea of what was
On the Queensland front, Ms Moles from the Toowoomba and Region
Environment Council had this comment about compliance:
On the matter of compliance, the environment movement believes
that compliance is not taken terribly seriously by governments. I have
personally heard a lot of people—not just graziers but also some
irrigators—complaining about water being stolen. Obviously, I do not know
whether or how much of these allegations are true, but there is a widespread
belief out there that the penalties for breaching licence conditions are a
‘joke’, ‘totally inadequate’ and ‘a trifling business expense’ and that a much
more effective tool for ensuring compliance would be a reduction, perhaps
temporary, in one’s water allocation.
The committee believes that state governments have a greater role to
play in the management of the flood plains, unregulated rivers and streams in
their jurisdictions. While not all the banks and channels referred to in
evidence have been built illegally, the relevant jurisdictions have a
responsibility to police the construction of illegal banks and levees and to
ensure that when environmental water is released, it reaches the wetland, such
as the Macquarie Marshes cited above, for which it is intended and not diverted
illegally for other purposes. If this is not policed, taxpayers' funds used to
regain water for the environment would have been wasted.
The committee recommends that state governments take whatever steps
necessary to ensure the removal of privately-built levees and interceptor banks
from the flood plains to allow environmental water to flow to the wetlands for
which it is intended.
Several submitters expressed concern at the impact of large-scale
irrigation on the Gwydir and its wetlands in north west NSW. The Gwydir Wetland
is recognised internationally under the Ramsar Convention and also in the
China/Australia Migratory Birds Agreement (CAMBA) and the Japan/Australia
Migratory Birds Agreement (JAMBA). Of 235 different species of birds recorded
in the Lower wetlands alone, some 134 use the area for breeding. In a wet year
(1998) as many as 500,000 birds were recorded in the area. In 1999, a group of
private landholders in the area together with representatives of
WWF―Australia and the National Parks Association signed a Memorandum of
Understanding with the Commonwealth and NSW government ministers responsible
for future cooperation and management of a portion of the Lower Gwydir Wetland
- a first for NSW. Some of those private landholders made a submission to the
inquiry pointing to the failure of both governments in honouring their
commitment to maintain appropriate flows and assist them in managing issues
such as weeds. The MOU stated in part:
Both Governments remain committed to maintaining appropriate
hydrological regimes in the Gingham and Lower Gwydir Watercourses, particularly
the provision of adequate, ecologically appropriate environmental flows to the
The landholders’ evidence to the committee, referring to the
MOU’s commitment, was that: “These have proven so far to be hollow words."
Another landholder, Ms Wendy Bunce made several submissions to the
inquiry and told the committee:
The alarming collapse of kilometres of fragile Gwydir river
banks upstream of the Tareelaroi weir escalates daily and more and more
regulated waters are continually released from Copeton dam regardless of the
wretched (documented) destruction these regulated waters are causing to the
environment. The Gwydir river is being used by the water authorities and the
flood irrigation industry as a huge regulated irrigation channel and it simply
Ms Bunce quoted a letter from WWF―Australia to the federal
Minister expressing concern about the ecological integrity of the Macquarie
Marshes as well as the Gwydir Wetlands and the Wilgara Wetland. Valley Ramsar.
WWF called on the Commonwealth to make future funding of the Catchment
Management Authorities (CMAs) conditional on plans demonstrating how
hydrological prescriptions will help maintain the ecological character of those
wetland and Ramsar sites.
The committee notes that the Commonwealth, under its Water Smart
Australia scheme and the NSW governments have now recognised that the northern
NSW wetlands have been under severe ecological stress. In August 2006, both
governments announced that $26.8 million (jointly-funded) had been allocated to
a NSW Wetland Recovery Plan targeted at the Gwydir Wetlands and the Macquarie
Marshes in particular.
Better data about rivers
Although a substantial amount of scientific information is now available
about river systems and catchments, the data is scattered reflecting the fact
that the research and data collection work is being carried out by different
universities, by hydrological experts, ecologists, water storage engineers and
different governments. Professor Kingsford told the committee in evidence that
he is working on making all the available information about river catchments
available on a single website:
For some time now, and I will only briefly describe this, one of
my projects has been to collect all of the information for a catchment and make
it available on a website so that people can look at a map and just find out
about it. A lot of scientific information for our rivers, by the very nature of
what science is, is published in international journals and it is not very
accessible to most people. It is difficult, and even policy makers do not have
quick access to that. So I have been trying to break down that barrier.
That information is available at:
The committee commends Professor Kingsford for his work in attempting to
gather all the relevant data about rivers and catchments in one database. The
committee is very keen to see more data about rivers and water collected and
made publicly available, so that decisions about water allocations can be based
on the best available science. Data will always be incomplete, but sound
decisions about flow rates, timing and the volume of water that each irrigator
can depend on must be made in response to each particular ecosystem. It is
important to have more accurate data on how much water each river needs for its
survival and support of a flourishing riverine environment.
Cubbie station is situated on the alluvial flood plain between the
Culgoa and the Balonne Minor river systems. The property currently irrigates a
maximum area of 20,000 hectares with cotton as its main crop and hopes to
possibly increase this to 30,000 hectares. The Cubbie group has water storage capacity
totalling 537 gigalitres comprising 462 gigalitres at Dirranbandi and 75
gigalitres at St George.
The water Cubbie extracts from the river is metered in accordance with
Queensland government requirements but at the moment there is no requirement for
flood plain extractions to be metered and they won't be measured and audited
until the Water Resource Plan for the Lower Balonne system is finalised by the
Queensland government, however Cubbie station has always provided this
information to the department. Cubbie told the Committee in evidence that:
Cubbie reports daily what its extractions are from the flood
The water that we do take off the flood plain... enters the system
via pumps or pipes. You know what those pumps pump. There are head drop tables
that apply to every pipe structure so you know instantaneously and on a daily
basis the volume that is being diverted. 
Referring to Cubbie's extractions from the flood plain, Mr Grabbe argued
that some of the water flowing over the bank in times of flood is
"lost" to evaporation and would be wasted if Cubbie was not
intercepting it and storing it:
The volume of water that Cubbie takes off its flood plain is
equivalent to the volume that would be naturally consumed within its levee
area—that is, where we have constructed our scheme was a total flood plain....
The amount of water we divert is the water that would have naturally been lost
in that area if the levees were not there.
Referring to the 2004 flood event, he further stated:
If our system of levees did not exist, those 45,000 megalitres
would not have gone anywhere. It would have been naturally consumed by the
flood plain where our levee system sits.
The Cubbie Group also stated in its submission that it can prove that
the impact of its floodplain water harvesting on downstream flood plain flow is
Cubbie can show by measurement and by physical inspection that
the volume of water that it consumes (harvests) from its floodplain is
equivalent to the volume that would be naturally consumed by the three
naturally occurring forces (seepage, evaporation and natural residual pools
along the floodplain.) In other words the impact on downstream floodplain flow
by Cubbie's station floodplain harvesting is zero.
However, in response to questions from committee members, Cubbie
station's managers acknowledged that the water contribution from the flood
plain to the aquifer is not known currently so they were unable to quantify at
all as there has been no study.
The committee wants to make it clear that it is not suggesting that
Cubbie has done anything illegal or improper by installing pumps and building
levees, retaining walls and water storages to harvest water from the flood
plain. Nor is the committee challenging the quality of the river water downstream
from Cubbie's water storages. The committee recognises that Cubbie allows
enough water to flow in the river to maintain water quality and for the river's
biodiversity to be maintained. The same cannot be said of the flood plains,
which according to Professor Kingsford, equates in NSW, to about 88 per cent of
a river's area.
Under the National Water Initiative, the approved volume of water that
can be extracted from any river is set in the Water Resource Plan for each
area. The plan is a statutory document. As stated in paragraph 3.58, Cubbie
operates within the Queensland Water Act 2000. Queensland is a signatory to the
National Water Initiative and is working on developing Water Resource Plans for
each of its irrigation areas. The final WRP for the Condamine- Balonne was
gazetted on 12 August 2004.
Resource Operations Plans (ROP's) are the mechanism through which the
Water Resource Plans are implemented. ROPs define water entitlements,
entitlement performance measures and establish water trading. In Queensland,
they are currently being developed through a process of consultation carried
out by Ministerial Advisory Councils that advise the Queensland Minister for
Natural Resources and Mines.
A large number of flood plain land holders in New South Wales,
downstream from the Balonne river, depend on Queensland Water Resource Plans
and associated ROPs to ensure that they receive a share of water in order to
continue sustainable farming on the flood plains. In submissions to the
committee's inquiry, several of those stakeholders expressed concerns that
their views and interests could not be fairly represented to the Queensland
Minister by the Chair of the Ministerial Water Resources Advisory Council. A
number of landholders in the area felt so strongly about the issue that they
withdrew from the consultative process. The minority that did not participate
expressed the view that:
All NSW landholders and many Qld landholders have refused to
participate in the Ministerial Advisory Council for the Resource Operations
Plan on the Lower Balonne as we believe the appointed chair is not financially
or geographically independent of the system and that we will not get fair
This view is disputed by many others involved with the council.
The Chair of the Ministerial Water Resources Advisory Council had also
been the chair of the Lower Balonne Community Reference group (CRG) which had
made a submission on behalf of that area to the Queensland minister when the
Water Resource Plans (Condamine & Balonne) was being developed in 2004. It
is imperative that people who chair consultative committees are seen not to
have a conflict of interest.
In evidence to the Committee, Mr Ed Fessey explained that in spite of
the withdrawal of the non-irrigators, the representatives of environmental
groups and some of the indigenous groups from the consultative process:
The process is ongoing. They are still holding minuted meetings
and subcommittee meetings to determine the flow rules and the flow operation
When the committee brought to her attention the complaints about the
MAC's Chair lack of impartiality and the possible conflict of interest, the
Chair responded that:
Every member of the Lower Balonne Water Resource MAC has a
vested interest in the management of water resources in the Lower Balonne. In
order to ensure that members, the community and the Minister are aware of those
interests a register of interests is kept.
The Council is advisory only as it is clearly recognised that it
would be inappropriate to devolve to a local community the decision making
responsibility for sharing a scarce resource. It is not the only mechanism for
providing advice to the Queensland Government.
Diverting water from the flood plains
In the Australian context, diverting floodwater before it reaches the
lower flood plains has a massive impact on agriculture, the wetlands and
ecosystems and every aspect of the life of the communities living downstream.
Many of the flood plain landholders who have made submissions to the committee's
inquiry are facing financial hardship and in some cases, possible ruin as a
result of water being diverted away from the flood plains. For some, even water
for their daily needs is threatened and they face having to abandon farming in
areas where their families have farmed for generations. Many express feelings
of frustration at being cheated by a system over which they have no control.
The evidence to the committee from the flood plain farmers further
downstream points clearly to the fact that in addition to the lack of water
they experience because of the prolonged drought, they have experienced severe
hardship through having the overland flows that they were used to experiencing
There is currently no requirement for flood plain extractions to be
metered, a failure identified since 2000 as having a big impact on extraction
levels on the rivers in the Murray- Darling Basin since in NSW, the flood
plains equate to about 88% of a river's area.
The MDB Commission's CEO told the committee that the Commission is now taking
steps to develop a system for measuring flood plain harvesting.
The committee welcomes this initiative since the measurement of flood plain
harvesting is essential, not only for the long term viability of the rivers and
their aquatic ecosystems, but also for the viability of almost all economic
activity within the Basin.
The committee's strongly held view is that interference with the natural
flooding regime of the Lower Balonne system has had a severe effect on some 1.2
million hectares of flood plain on which the dryland farmers, graziers and
indigenous people of the area depend. 
Of even greater concern is the fact that the real ecological damage may not be
known for several decades. In that context, the committee notes Professor Peter
Cullen's often quoted remark urging the cautionary principle in the face of
inconclusive scientific evidence on environmental matters: "by the time
you get the science right, the patient is dead".
The Condamine-Balonne has more wetland and flood plain (around 1.2
million hectares) than any other catchment within the Murray-Darling Basin.
According to one view expressed by Professor Richard Kingsford, a lot of the
vegetation on those flood plains is threatened because of the amount of water
that is being taken out of the flood plains. In his view, the "real
impacts" will take time to be documented:
You have to imagine that a lot of the plants and animals that we
have on the river system have had tens of thousands of years to evolve to not
getting a flow every now and again, so it takes them a long time to die. 
The committee's is aware of the moratoriums now in place in the
Condamine-Balonne and Border Rivers catchment that place holds on all new
applications for water licences and prohibit the commencement of new works for
the taking and interfering with water, including overland flows. The committee
notes also that the Condamine-Balonne Water Resource Plan makes provisions for
"the regulation of the take of overland flow water through the catchment
ensuring more water for the environment and downstream users."
While it is commendable to make provision for regulation of the overland
take, the committee's overwhelming concern in this matter is that the current
levels of irrigation and the volume of water diverted from the rivers and flood
plains from the Condamine-Balonne catchment has been claimed to be
unsustainable. In making the recommendation that follows, the committee wishes
to stress that it is essential for its proper implementation that the granting
of licences should only happen after (and not before) the current levels of
water extraction from the flood plains have been assessed as part of the
independent scientific review that it recommends and after the results of that
review have been published.
The Committee recommends that all state and territory jurisdictions
review the levels of water diversion from the flood plains and only grant
licences to extract overland water after an independent scientific review of
current levels of extraction has been completed.
An alternative approach
Reducing the level of over allocation from rivers and flood plains in
the Murray-Darling Basin is one of the major goals of the National Water Initiative.
Some irrigation areas in both New South Wales and Victoria have already faced
issues of sustainability and seen their water licences re-allocated to
different crops than the one for which the licence was obtained originally.
Historically, incentives in the tax system have encouraged growers in
some areas to plant cotton on a large scale by reason of the tax deductability
of the capital infrastructure involved. They are now facing a depressed cotton
market and reduced water availability. The committee's view is that it would
benefit many of the growers and help address the current problem of water over
allocation from the flood plains, if an incentive package were put in place
that would ensure the continuing prosperity of irrigation areas while giving
cotton growers an opportunity to diversify into less highly water-reliant
Such a package would require amendments to the Income Tax Assessment
Act 1997 and to the Managed Investments Act 1998 to make it more attractive
to invest in a range of crops that are known to need less water per acre. It
would require for instance that, instead of a situation where the Managed
Investment Scheme (MIS) applies as a general exemption as it does currently,
access to the MIS scheme would only be available if specific crops (whether
peanuts or horticultural crops) and specific irrigation methods (for example,
trickle irrigation) and farm management methods were used.
A balance needs to be found between ensuring the long-term
sustainability of the regional economies dependent on cotton and the
sustainability of the rivers and flood plains. The test of whether an incentive
scheme was successful would be whether a substantial amount of water was being
returned to the river and the flood plains and whether the continuing
prosperity of those regional areas that are built around large-scale irrigation
is guaranteed through the planting of high-value crops. The potential return to
the Australian economy from exporting those crops would also need to be taken
The committee urges the Australian government to investigate the
beneficial trade-offs that could be devised through tax incentives and other
related measures such as the MIS, to encourage growers to move away from
planting cotton in the Murray-Darling Basin alluvial plains that are currently
over allocated. Growers would have a choice of whether to access the tax
benefits available under the scheme by moving to alternate crops or to remain
with the status quo.
The committee recommends that the Australian
government consider putting in place incentives and initiatives to encourage
growers and irrigators to move into alternate crops that allow for a
substantial amount of water to be returned to the rivers and flood plains of
the Murray-Darling Basin.
As it becomes more costly and more difficult to meet the growing demand
for water from surface water resources, both rural and urban users have turned
to pumping groundwater as a way to solving water shortage problems. While in
some states some of those bores are licensed, very few of them are metered,
making it extremely difficult to track levels of extraction and develop data on
sustainable yields. There seems almost to be an implicit assumption that
groundwater is limitless. The reality is that groundwater is not available in
addition to surface water and in many cases, extraction from one source may be
leading to the depletion of the other.
While great progress has been made in hydro-geology in recent years, it
remains a complex and inexact science. Although it is known that some aquifers
are connected to streams, there is limited knowledge about the exact
interaction between surface and ground water in many areas, and we lack long-term
data on the effects of groundwater pumping on the sustainability of our
CSIRO and the Murray Darling Basin Commission have identified
groundwater extraction as one of the six significant risks 
facing the Murray-Darling Basin that could eventually reduce the amount of
water available in its rivers and streams. The paper quoted estimates of
current losses of 327 GL of water from the basin because of groundwater pumping
and studies that predicted a further reduction of 253 GL by 2012/13. The
committee notes also the 2003 report by Sinclair Knight Merz which has estimated
an average reduction in surface flow of 600ML for every 1000 ML of groundwater
It is of even greater concern that scientists are warning that, in
addition to the immediate negative impacts on surface flows and groundwater
stores, the long term impacts of sustained groundwater extraction may be of
In connected groundwater-surface water systems, there is
normally a time lag of years or decades between the start of groundwater
extraction and the moment the full impact of that pumping is felt in the
streams...even if all groundwater pumping were to cease immediately, there will
be an ongoing impact in streams due to historical pumping.
The Murray Darling Basin Commission's 2004-2005 Water Audit Monitoring
Report shows that the Commission is finally implementing the Ministerial
Council's August 2000 decision to develop a Groundwater Management Strategy and
integrated reporting framework for surface and groundwater. The Audit report
quotes some worrying figures:
The estimated sustainable yields in Groundwater Management Units
(GMU) of the Basin are reported to be 1534 GL (note Victorian SY values are not
available). Out of this, 2950 GL was already allocated in 2004/05, which
constituted 192 % of SY. The total usage of groundwater in the Basin was 1490
GL, which was 51% of allocation and 97% of SY.
The committee is aware that not all allocations are in use at the
present time but those statistics tell of a continuing story of unsustainable
allocation in the basin. The committee urges all state governments involved to
review groundwater allocations in the MDB. It is also imperative that those
governments exercise the utmost caution in granting licences for groundwater
extraction in cases where little is known about the aquifer in question. The
data available is improving greatly and it is important to assess what the
sustainable yield is before granting access to any aquifer.
The committee recommends that all state and territory government signatories
to the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement undertake a review of groundwater
allocations in the basin with a view to bringing back allocations to a
Protecting Northern Rivers
As discussed earlier in this chapter, many of the river systems in Australia
are over-allocated and degraded, suffering from the excessive demands brought
about by their proximity to our agricultural and residential zones.
Fortunately, this is not the case for the rivers in Australia's tropical and
semi-arid zones. Australia's northern rivers have the advantage of not being in
heavily populated areas compared to the Murray. The Northern Territory has some
140,000 kilometres of rivers and creeks that are identified as being largely
Various submissions to the committee called on governments to agree to
grant special protection to those rivers that are still in a relatively
pristine condition to ensure that they do not suffer the fate of the Murray.
Environment Centre, NT Inc. expressed concern about pressure for the granting
of water licences in the Daly River catchment in the Top End:
The catchment has long been targeted for large-scale irrigated
agriculture and more intensive pastoral activity, which would involve increased
surface and ground water extraction and native vegetation clearing. In late
2003 a moratorium on land clearing...was imposed by the NT Government.
There is no official moratorium on water licence approvals
however. There are currently 79 applications for a total of 51,655 Megalitres
per annum (by 2010) currently being assessed by the NT Government (NT
Government: pers. comm. 17/01/06). Should these be approved, this would
result in a threefold increase in approved water extraction from the catchment
by 2010, compared to the approved level in 2004.
WWF–Australia also called for greater protection for the northern rivers
through the establishment of an Australian heritage river system:
For a relatively small amount of money, the Commonwealth along
with the states, territories and catchment groups could really leave a great
legacy of these assets for decades and centuries to come.
In evidence to the committee, the Northern Australia freshwater manager
for WWF–Australia, Dr Stuart Blanch warned that it was important to hold back
from taking decisions about rivers and aquatic systems in the north until more
data had been collected:
One of the knowledge gaps we have is: how can you trade water in
these rivers when they are dry for six months of the year and for another three
months of the year there is too much water and everyone has to leave and go to Darwin?
There is lot of knowledge to be gained about that. The legal frameworks in the
north are generally pretty underdeveloped compared to the south. We certainly
could fill up a decade of knowledge by just mapping all the wetlands and where
the groundwater is. A lot of that is not known.
The Committee supports the development of management plans, based on
research and community consultation, that ensure that the northern rivers that
are in natural or largely natural condition are adequately managed with a view
to protect their pristine ecosystems and to safeguard them from the
over-allocation problems that are proving so difficult to resolve in the
The committee recommends that Commonwealth, State and Territory
governments should identify and protect all high conservation value aquatic
ecosystems by 2010.
The committee recommends that water plans be developed in line with the
National Water Initiative to prevent the over-allocation of water in rivers
that are in a natural or largely natural condition.
Northern Australia Irrigation Futures
While the south and east of the continent has been experiencing severe
long-term drought, there has been plenty of rain falling in the north of Australia
where tropical rivers discharge about 70 per cent of the nation's available
fresh water. The committee received submissions suggesting ways of tapping into
the water available in the north and transporting it to the south-eastern
states where the majority of the people and farms are located.
However attractively simple such an idea may sound, it is not workable in
In anticipation of increased pressure for large scale irrigation schemes
to be established in northern Australia, the Australian government, through the
National Programme for Sustainable Irrigation has established the Northern
Australia Irrigation Futures project to examine whether irrigation should occur
in that part of the country and if so, where it should be located and how it
should be managed? In addition to the Commonwealth, partners in the project
include the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australian governments,
CSIRO and the CRC for Irrigation Futures. In its submission to the committee,
DAFF explained that the project had three components:
a Sustainability Framework to support more robust debate and
improved decision making regarding if and where to irrigate in tropical Australia;
Tropical Groundwater Systems research that focuses on
developing improved understanding of water in the tropics, particularly
tropical groundwater systems and likely risks to groundwater and connected
surface water systems if used for irrigation; and
Irrigation Mosaics research into developing a conceptual
understanding of the differences between traditional large scale irrigation
systems and mosaics involving irrigation of smaller discrete patches of land
dispersed across tropical landscapes.
The project was launched in 2003 and stage 2 is now underway. In
stage 2, a review of the institutional frameworks from
the Daly, Ord and
Burdekin irrigation areas has been undertaken and the findings compared. A
study of tropical groundwater systems and their interaction with surface water
systems is also being carried out. The scientists involved are aware that
traditional irrigation practices are unlikely to work in the tropical north and
are exploring the use of the irrigation mosaics approach.
The committee supports the work of the Northern Australia Irrigation
Futures project as an important addition to the options that need to be
explored in the quest to adapt to climate change and the consequent decrease in
the water resources available in the populous and heavily farmed south-east of
the country. The committee believes however, that an audit of the freshwater resources
and of the land available for agriculture in Northern Australia needs to
carried out before decisions can be made about the feasibility of establishing
further irrigation schemes up north.
As discussed earlier in this report, it is proving difficult to bring
together the valuable information being gathered by the many research projects
relating to climate science, water resources and water and irrigation
management around the country. The committee believes that it is important to
bring responsibility for funding and disseminating information about all those
activities within one portfolio.
The committee recommends that an audit of the freshwater resources and
of the land available for agriculture in Northern Australia be carried out as
part of the Northern Australia Irrigation Futures project.
The committee recommends the creation of a federal Ministry for the
Future that would bring together the areas of climate change and water
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