Moree irrigators call for greater communication and transparency at water consultation

WaterNSW executive manager for system operations Adrian Langdon was one of the presenters during the water consultation in Moree on Wednesday.
WaterNSW executive manager for system operations Adrian Langdon was one of the presenters during the water consultation in Moree on Wednesday.

Unless there’s signicant rainfall events in the next 12 months, water supplies in the Gwydir Valley will be all but depleted. That’s the outlook the Moree community was presented with during a public water consultation on Wednesday.

Representatives from the NSW Department of Industry – Water, WaterNSW, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and Rural Financial Counsellors, as well as the NSW Drought Coordinator Jock Laurie were on hand to discuss the situation currently facing the Gwydir Valley river system.

The consultation involved updating members of the community, including irrigators, council staff, and other key stakeholders and interested bodies, on the water availability outlook and proposed measures to help manage our river systems if the dry conditions persist.

The Gwydir Valley is among the worst affected regions in this severe time of drought with storage currently at critically low levels. Copeton Dam is currently at 13 per cent storage, and without significant inflows, is likely to be holding close to 180 gigalitres at the end of this water year.

The long-term average inflow of the Gwydir river system is 1,141GL. In 2017-18, the actual inflow was just 208GL.

However, things are much more dire in the Namoi Valley, with Keepit Dam currently at zero per cent and last year’s inflows only 80GL – significantly lower than the 870GL long-term average.

“Inflows in the last six years are lower than the millennium drought; this is a record,” WaterNSW executive manager for system operations Adrian Langdon said.

“People aren’t fully aware of that.

“A lot of people look at what’s happening downstream and say this and that and make up stories, but the real fact is, the upstream catchment has had six years of critically low rainfall water. Over the last two years it’s been a record low, the lowest levels we’ve seen in the northern catchment since 1918.”

Mr Langdon said if it wasn’t for dams such as Copeton and Keepit, the river systems would have been dry 18 months ago.

Over the past 12 months there have been block releases from Copeton Dam to help extend water supplies in the Gwydir Valley.

NSW Department of Industry – Water water policy coordinator for drought Michael Wrathall said it’s a challenge to work out the timing of these releases and trying to balance the needs of environmental river users with stock and domestic users and high security users.

“We have to work out how to get the timing right,” he said.

“Dam storages will only last about six months without water.

“So we’re trying to do releases six months apart. We’re likely to be able to do two bulk releases over the next 12 months. Once those are made, there’ll be nothing left in Copeton. We’ll have to look at alternate water supplies.

“We have to be really careful with our water supplies over the next 12 months. In 12 months, the Gwydir is likely to be in the same position as the Namoi is now. Hopefully we don’t get to that stage. We’re already at record lows now.”

Mr Wrathall said if we go another 12 months without rain, the situation will be “much more severe than anything we’ve experienced in the last 100 years”.

“We’re in unchartered territory at the moment, which is another reason it’s difficult to manage,” he said.

“It’s like nothing we’ve had before.”

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As well as informing the public of the current water availability outlook and proposed measures to manage the river systems, the consultation was about engaging with the community to find out how the drought is affecting them and what government agencies can do to help.

“We’re really focussed on managing the river system better and getting some local advice,” Mr Wrathall said.

“Following the week of collecting feedback [from the drought-affected river systems], we’re making recommendations about how we manage each of the river systems if the dry continues.”

Communication and transparency were the two key issues raised by members of the Moree community – they want to be presented factual information in a timely manner so they know what’s going on and called for greater transparency from the government water agencies about why they make their decisions.

“On the whole, they’re reasonably happy with how the system has been managed,” Mr Wrathall said.

“They want more from us, in explaining why we’re doing things.”

“Irrigators need information to go forward in terms of their business plans,” Mr Langdon added.

“They understand there’s a drought, but water is a critical part of their business. They need to know what should they be planning for for the next 12 months.”

At the Moree consultation, the importance of getting factual information out to the broader community, was also stressed.

“What they’re feeling is increasing pressure put on the community up here for taking water that doesn’t exist,” Mr Langdon said.

“Sixty to 70 per cent of water being delivered in the Gwydir system is environmental water. The majority is not for irrigators, it’s for Commonwealth and NSW water holders who are delivering positive environmental water outcomes with that water.

“Irrigation water was very small but [irrigators] seem to be getting the blame. We have to get information to the broader community.”

Over the past 10 years, 22 per cent of total inflows of the Gwydir have been allocated for extractive users. There have been no allocations provided to general security users in the Gwydir Valley since February 2018. Until at least 32GL of inflows are received, new allocations to general security users won’t be possible.

The priority at this stage is ensuring critical human needs are met.

WaterNSW is currently looking at the ground and surface water available for town water supplies and domestic use to keep communities going.​