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Senate Estimates: Environment and Communications Legislation Committee (Murray-Darling Basin Authority)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 24 Feb 2014

Senate Estimates: Environment and Communications Legislation Committee (Murray-Darling Basin Authority)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Senator RHIANNON: Also with respect to the sale of the environmental water in the Gwydir Valley, did you identify additional environmental benefits that could have been gained by using the water in the area?

Mr Papps : That was the basis of the decision under section 106.2. We made that decision on environmental grounds. In other words, we were confident that we had met our environmental outcomes within the Gwydir Valley, both in the current year and in the short-term, foreseeable future, and that we had more than enough water available to us to meet those requirements. Therefore, we had temporarily surplus water in the Gwydir.

Senator RHIANNON: You decided not to pursue them because you judged you had surplus water? That was the basis of the decision?

Mr Papps : Decided not to pursue what, I am sorry?

Senator RHIANNON: If there were any additional environmental benefits by using the water within that area?

Mr Papps : We had already met those or were in the process of meeting those outcomes in the Gwydir. I made decisions that involved, in this year alone, what is a record allocation of nearly 30 gigalitres to the environment within the Gwydir, including the Mallowa Wetlands, Carole Creek, Mehi River. We were easily achieving those targets. We have got still in the account, in the Commonwealth environmental water holding, considerable amount of environmental water, as does New South Wales.

It is always wise to think, in terms of these, it is rarely ever that the Commonwealth's water is the only water that is contributing to environmental outcomes. In the Gwydir there is an environmental contingency allowance managed by the state. That has roughly 90 gigalitres in that account.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for that detail. Again, just going back to your decision, was it based on your judgment around Commonwealth water or was it based on the judgment also of considering what New South Wales had?

Mr Papps : My judgment under 106.2 is around Commonwealth water. But clearly I take into account the context across all the water availability.

Senator Birmingham: It is important to appreciate the sequence of decision making that MrPapps, under the Act, is required to make here. Firstly, he assesses whether the environmental needs have been met and can be met in the foreseeable future. Then if the answer to that is yes, he can see whether or not there is a surplus of available water at a given point in time. It is not that he decides there is surplus water before considering the environmental needs. Under the Act the environmental needs come first.

Senator RHIANNON: MrPapps, if we could move on to the issue of constraints and explore that. What constraints to environmental water use and delivery prevented use of the additional water for environmental purposes?

Mr Papps : I think there are two elements to that answer because environmental watering is not solely about a matter of physical constraints, although there are some in the Gwydir. For example, in the Gwydir there are constraints around private property. So achieving environmental outcomes by inundating natural wetlands but at the same time not inundating private property is a physical constraint.

The other constraint or the other factor that you have to take into account every single year in environmental watering, including in the Gwydir, is where those wetlands are in the cycle of wetting and drying. In the Gwydir in particular we have had two previous years of high, unregulated flows. Some people might call those floods. Then we have had one or two years of high-volume Commonwealth environmental watering. We are in a position that in most of those wetlands, where they have had enough water, they are entering a drying phase. In those circumstances, based as Senator Birmingham has said on environmental grounds, and solely on environmental grounds, I have a temporary surplus of water.

Senator RHIANNON: There is often another constraint in areas, and that is the local culture. Are the constraints to environmental water use or delivery in the Gwydir Valley mostly of a physical nature—and you have mentioned some of those—or are they rules based on or related to the culture of water use in the area?

Mr Papps : I am not quite sure what you mean by 'culture of water use'?

Senator RHIANNON: Just the culture of an organisation or the culture of an area. How are people responding to you still managing water?

Mr Papps : It is true in the Gwydir, as in so many other parts of the basin, there are adjustments being made by all sorts of stakeholder groups, including irrigation communities, to the fact that there is now Commonwealth environmental water, held Commonwealth environmental water, which is deployed each year. Having said that, there is also state-held water that has been there for some time longer. There are changes to water use patterns and there are adjustments that everyone has to make. I do not see that as a binding constraint.

The constraints that we deal with, in a practical way, in all of these places are the rules and operational procedures that apply to the deployment of my water, as they would apply to the deployment of other irrigators, and the physical constraints, either the potential inundation of infrastructure or private property.

Senator RHIANNON: Is what you are saying there that these constraints are well recognised and well understood in the region?

Mr Papps : That is certainly my understanding from talking to the irrigation community. They would understand—and they do understand—some of the very real-world impacts, particularly around private property inundation. That is something that is very well understood throughout those communities.

Senator RHIANNON: Would you say the same thing about the Authority, that the constraints are well recognised and understood by the Authority who are engaged in developing a constraints management strategy?

Mr Papps : Yes, I believe so. The Authority has demonstrated a very high degree of professionalism in its approach to the constraints management strategy. I know it has invested a great deal of time and effort into understanding those constraints across the valley.

CHAIR: Last question, Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: You mentioned a professional approach as well as an approach. When you use that term, are you including in that that these constraints have been actively considered by the Authority as part of the constraints management strategy?

Mr Papps : It is difficult for me to answer on behalf of the Authority. Certainly the constraints are a very real part of our planning each year and we would be constantly seeking to minimise the effect of them.

Senator Birmingham: I would only add on that—and obviously you can put questions on notice to the Authority, if you like, in that regard—the constraints management strategy is a very thorough piece of work. Equally it will require, ultimately, prioritisation. We will be looking to get where we invest funds to remove constraints, obviously the best bang for not just our buck but the best bang for every drop of water that can be committed to environmental purposes where constraints are to be removed. But they are expert and independent assessments that the Authority will make and then provide advice to not just the Federal Government but all of the state jurisdictions as well.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

CHAIR: Any further questions you will have to put on notice, I am sorry. The time being 11.55, I now call officers from the National Water Commission.


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