Bureaucratic bungling ruins the rain
Once again this week our farmers have been crucified on the back of bureaucratic bungling and their inability to communicate with communities. On late Friday afternoon, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment's Water division applied an embargo for the first time on overland flow via a text message.
Zara Lowien, Executive Officer of Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association said whilst the sentiment of this decision to protect flows for critical human needs is supported by northern communities, it is the level of disregard for how a natural system behaves during extreme weather events such as a flood and the lack of consultation about rule changes that has farmers fuming.
"We were frustrated by the lack of clarity provided around the sudden change and the lack of information to help farmers be compliant with new rules.”
“A lack of communication from the Department meant that farmers struggled to understand how they could be compliant”.
"A perfect storm of events subsequently unfolded over that weekend, when predicted rainfall actually fell in a small section of the valley adding up to more than 200mm for some".
“For those who live on the floodplain; floods and flood damage can be expected. The combination of intense rainfall on the drought-stricken landscape, created localised flooding not consistent with the rainfall being measured. This fast-moving flood, coupled with fear of prosecution, caused heightened concern with those on the ground.”
"The stress for those impacted farmers was caused fundamentally because no one knew how the rules applied including the Department, who has subsequently issued clarifying statements to landholders. Farmers essentially had no where to turn for answers because it was without consultation and the rain fell on a weekend."
“Ill-informed commentary from people not impacted by the flood, is intentionally damaging and disrespectful."
“Why would a Northern floodplain farmer share their story right now, especially when they’ve just watched their first chance at producing income in years flow across the floodplain and not neccessarily to a river or to the benefit of those downstream.”
"I have been concerned enough about the wellbeing of our members, even before last weekend's events and the subsequent media beat-up aimed at dividing communities that we had already recommended they break from social media and media. Given it doesn’t really matter what they say about how they farm or how floodplains work, many have already made up their mind anyway".
"What this experience does highlight, is that we can all agree, government must do better at communicating how they manage temporary water restrictions.”
“We all need a clearer process where Department's last minute decisions doesn’t throw farmers under a bus”.
“It’s time the bureaucrats - the decision makers here, show leadership and discuss these critical matters.”
“They must learn from this and demonstrate to farmers everywhere, how they will ensure it doesn’t happen again.” she said.
<post photo, farm scale flooding and damage 8 February 2020>
- In drought water is prioritised for our towns and rivers as critical needs and that's why temporary restrictions have been in place in the region since the beginning of the year for regulated and unregulated access licences https://www.industry.nsw.gov.au/water/allocations-availability/temporary-water-restrictions/northern-nsw-mdb-amendment. These restrictions have been protecting unregulated river flows within the Gwydir valley, securing flows for Weemelah’s town water supply in January and flows down our dry rivers into the Gwydir Wetlands and the Barwon at Collarenebri.
- The Department’s extended restrictions via the Temporary Water Restriction - Northern Basin Floodplain Harvesting (Order) was made on 7th February 2020 https://gazette.legislation.nsw.gov.au/so/download.w3p?id=Gazette_2020_2020-30.pdf and amended on 12th February 2020 to include additional areas https://gazette.legislation.nsw.gov.au/so/download.w3p?id=Gazette_2020_2020-31.pdf. These orders exempted from the restrictions, any rainfall that had fallen within irrigation development areas with a tailwater return system, together with any passive take that could not be reasonably prevented.
- The Department provided clarifying material on 8th February 2020, reads: https://www.waternsw.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/153523/s324-Flooplain-Harvesting-Take-Information-Sheet.pdf
- High rainfall in some areas of the region near Bellata, Mallowa, Bullarah and Collarenebri resulted in localised flooding with more than 200mm recorded on some farms.
- The Department made decisions to progressively lift restrictions for short periods of time, from Saturday 8th February, in only four out of twenty-eight sub-catchments in the Gwydir, where the flooding was occurring. https://www.industry.nsw.gov.au/water/allocations-availability/temporary-water-restrictions .
- Flows in the Barwon River upstream of the Gwydir, were evident prior to flooding and continue with 45,000ML measured at 12 February 2020 via WaterNSW https://www.waternsw.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/153660/Barwon-Darling-flow-12-Februray-2020.pdf
- Barwon River flows are now predicted to reach Lake Wetherell part of Menindee Lakes system by WaterNSW https://www.waternsw.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/153660/Barwon-Darling-flow-12-Februray-2020.pdf
- The Department provided an event summary fact sheet and rationale on 13th February 2020 https://www.industry.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/289994/northern-basin-rainfalls-flows-fact-sheet.pdf
- Issues with accessibility and quality of information on the real-time data gauging network meant farmers could not monitor stream levels accurately.
- The localised nature of the flooding meant not all farms in the exempted areas had either unregulated or overland flow access triggered.
- The small volume of allowed take was naturally restricted due to the fast-flowing nature of the flood at the headwaters of the floodplain, damage to farm infrastructure and the management of on-farm rainfall, which was always allowed.
- Industry has request voluntary measurement data to help inform a review of the process and the future licencing program.