The two reports into the Menindee fish kill events highlight a lack of understanding around the purpose of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, according to Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association (GVIA).
The Federal Labor Party and the Federal Government last week released their respective independent panel reports into the Menindee fish kill events which occurred earlier this summer.
While both reports agreed on the immediate cause of the fish death events - a temperature inversion brought on by sudden weather change that de-oxygenated the stagnant water - they largely presented different reasons that resulted in the perfect storm of conditions that caused the fish deaths.
In a statement, GVIA executive officer Zara Lowien said both reports presented some great information around the prevalence of fish kills and the impact of drought on river system inflows, however, she believes there was contradictory and misleading evidence regarding the impact of upstream diversions like the Gwydir that needs correcting.
"But most disappointing was that there wasn’t enough discussion about the use of environmental water, contributing factors such as allowing fish passage and the fact that there was environmental water in Menindee at the time but that local restrictions in the NSW Water Management Act, meant it couldn’t be utilised," Ms Lowien said.
“Ignoring these aspects just highlights that at the core of the problem is a lack of understanding around the purpose of the Basin Plan, the role of environmental water and what it is achieving.”
Ms Lowien said that the continued focus on a number or volume to be recovered for the environment, from irrigation, has meant that the outcomes to be achieved and how it would be used, are not well understood.
“In the Northern Basin, the Basin Plan wasn’t about making rivers flow all year round because they didn’t prior to irrigation, they're ephemeral and episodic," she said.
"The Plan is about enhancing opportunities for environmental outcomes like bird breeding events, replacing some of the flows removed by extraction and limiting the time between cease-to-flow events.
“It's an obsession with numbers that results in claims that the Basin Plan has failed because unfortunately, fish at Menindee have died. A fact that happened before irrigation and the Basin Plan. It's why, we find ourselves only a few years into a long-term plan that there’s renewed calls for more water."
Ms Lowien pointed out that in the Gwydir Valley, there is a difference between this drought and the Millenium drought, as there's water available for use from Copeton Dam, mostly for the environment.
“The NSW Government and Commonwealth environmental water managers, acting just like an irrigator, have carried over water allocated to their accounts from previous years to use in dry times like this; they actually planned it that way," Ms Lowien said.
“This year, they collectively have used 80,000 megalitres across a number of key water events in the Gwydir, largely aimed to build upon a plan to prepare the Gwydir wetlands and Mallowa floodplain to survive an extended drought. They will carry over the remaining 70,000 megalitres of allocation, likely for drought refugia and priority watering actions.
“They’ve elected to irrigate grass and trees (along with a lot of frogs, fish and birds) with their allocations this year. Just as an irrigator has chosen to irrigate a crop.
“Not everyone supports the decision to actively use water during a drought, but ultimately it is their water and their decision. Irrigators don’t appreciate being told what they should grow with theirs.
“We only ask that there is extensive monitoring that’s clearly communicated and is used to determine if the strategy worked or not.”
In the Gwydir Valley, drought is expected and irrigators occasionally expect zero allocations, however Ms Lowien said this current drought is "unchartered territory:.
"With most northern valleys having low water availability and many rivers ceasing to flow (if they haven’t already), in such dry-times how will environmental water managers prioritise critical environmental priorities into the near future? Will it be fish or birds and are they in our valley or beyond?" she asked.
“As we’ve asked for before, there is a clear need for a northern environmental water advisory group to consider collectively how environmental water may be used in multiple catchments and help provide advice on priorities.
“But ultimately we need to shift the discussion away from numbers, onto what we want to achieve and how we want to achieve it and then improve our communications so that more of our decision-makers and the community are aware about of how environmental water is used and the many, many outcomes it achieves. Only then can we have a fully informed debate about the Basin Plan and its effectiveness, consider policies that enhance future environmental outcomes while complementing our regional communities, rather than destroying them by seeking to remove more water from production."
For more information on environmental water use and irrigation use in the Gwydir Valley, please visit the Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association website www.gvia.org.au