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Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system

CHAIR —Welcome. Do you wish to make a very brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Mrs Kaluder —I have a brief opening statement to let you know a little bit about me and our association. My husband and I own a property called Naree, which is situated on the Cuttaburra Creek in north-west New South Wales. Cuttaburra Creek is a distributary of the Warrego River and connects the Warrego River to the Paroo River. It is well known for its wetland, the Cuttaburra Basin. The floodplains along the Cuttaburra Creek are unique to Australia: shallow lakes, swamps and inland wetlands fill as the water makes its way down to the Paroo. The floodwater spreads out across the country like veins on a leaf. In a major flood event the water can be 15 kilometres wide.

Those that depend on the floodplain of the Cuttaburra are well aware of the value of the land, both economically and environmentally. The vegetation and birdlife that this system supports are diverse and distinctive. A minor flow in February 2007, during one of the longest drought in recorded history, produced an income for us at a time when many agricultural industries were struggling. The loss of these minor flows would be devastating to the river, its health, our biodiversity and hence our income. High biodiversity and income coexist on a floodplain property, and minor floods help to maintain the frequency of river flows during a drought.

The Australian Floodplain Association is made up of mainly flood plain graziers, with some dryland farmers and community members who depend on rivers, flood plains and wetlands for their livelihood. We are a non-government, national organisation with our members mainly concentrated in the Murray-Darling Basin and around Coopers Creek. Our aim as an association is to preserve and restore the ecological health and productivity of flood plains in Australia. The way forward for us as an association to achieve this outcome is to secure the permanent protection of the flows of unregulated iconic rivers, have more water over the flood plains, promote public awareness of water management issues of the flood plains and promote research of the flood plains. Of particular concern to us is the continued harvesting of flood water across Australia’s flood plains and the inability of Australia as a nation to successfully monitor and manage this resource.

Many of us have been directly affected by the loss of water across our land. We are seeing our incomes halved, our small communities diminishing, the local ecosystems deteriorating and, consequently, the biodiversity of whole riverine systems on the point of collapse. Run-off and overland flow issues within the water management agencies are of importance to our association. If we work towards positive outcomes on these issues by being available for consultation and advice on options then maybe the current crisis can be avoided in the future.

Flood plain graziers depend on the water that flows down the inland river systems to grow the grasses, to feed the stock, to produce an income and to be economically viable. In terms of a grazing operation, the flood plains play an integral role in the long-term management plans of those who live along these systems. For the landholder to maintain healthy stock, the flood plains that he utilises also need to be healthy. The water on our land flows through the flood plains and carries on down the river to do as nature intended. It comes, floods the land, fills the wetlands and goes. As graziers, we use the flood plain when the water has finally moved on and has finished doing its job. We do not encroach on the myriad animal and bird life that the river supports. We are one of the few food producing industries that can co-exist with the river without taking or diverting water out of the system to do so.

The last flow down the Cuttaburra Creek was incredible to see and extremely important to us economically. Half of Naree, where I live, went under water. The bird life and wildlife that eventuated from that water was amazing. We had a three-kilometre long lake fill and then play nursery to thousands of cormorants as they hatched. For my children, it was an inspiring experience. Leisure time was taken up with boating, swimming, counting ducks, watching thousands of pelicans fly over as they headed to their favourite feeding place and learning the names of many new birds that have now made their home at Naree—to mention just a few. What more could you ask for for your children? For my husband I, it was a chance to take a breather and watch the land transform itself from an ugly duckling into a swan. It was just the inspiration we needed. It gave us the courage to continue with our dream and have faith that there would be a future for our children. We need to learn by our mistakes to date and ensure that history does not repeat.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mrs Kaluder.

Senator FARRELL —It sounds like a beautiful place to live in.

Mrs Kaluder —It is.

Senator FARRELL —I come from South Australia, and we obviously want to have a similar environment down there. I guess you are aware that the federal government has purchased Toorale Station and also Pillicawarrina Station in the Macquarie Marshes. Do you have a view on those decisions?

Mrs Kaluder —As an association, our view is that we support the buyback of water by governments to return it to the environment. We have talked long about that. We have members who are hurting. Their profitable lands have basically been destroyed. The common thing that we have come to is that that is what has to happen. Somebody has to start somewhere, and we feel that is the best place to start.

Senator FARRELL —So you support those purchases.

Mrs Kaluder —Yes.

Senator NASH —Does that include the land? I understand about water, but do you believe Toorale should be turned into a national park? Should the land purchase have gone with the acquisition of water?

Mrs Kaluder —I do not think in that particular case that there was an option. The property was offered as a whole. It was offered as a water and a land option. Clyde Agriculture did not put it on the table as water only and land only. To start the buyback of water is an environmental purchase. That particular area of the river is of extremely high importance. It is where the Warrego meets the Darling. It is the end of the Warrego River. It is huge.

Senator FARRELL —Presumably there will other opportunities to buy just water allocations and you would support them also?

Mrs Kaluder —Yes, absolutely.

Senator FARRELL —Can you tell us what sorts of environmental benefits you think will come from these purchases?

Mrs Kaluder —The environment, wetlands and floodplains all go hand in hand. You cannot just talk about the environment; you talk about floodplains. Western rivers are floodplains. They are not channel rivers, so to speak. They overflow their channels and they spread out across the land. They can be 40 kilometres wide. We have fences that have gone a metre underwater on our place and they are still standing. This is gentle, slow-flowing water. What is left behind is huge. We have very high clover. There is no way, as a grazing operation, that we will ever be able to utilise all that feed. We do not need to; we do not want to. So it is just continuing as it should. Everything grows. We are on a relatively unregulated river system—although that is going to change, from what I heard this morning—so now we are at the stage where everybody else is in terrible drought. We are in drought too, but every little bit of rain that we get makes a difference. We do not need inches and inches of rain for our country to rejuvenate because it is not that far down and it never will be while the water keeps flowing.

Senator FARRELL —I am not sure if you are aware of it, but Minister Wong has written to both the New South Wales and the Queensland governments trying to ensure that the administrative arrangements are set in place so that any water purchased by the Commonwealth does get to its intended environmental destination. In light of that, do you have any views on the government’s recently announced northern basin tender?

Mrs Kaluder —In my opinion and in the opinion of the association, that is where the Murray-Darling Basin starts. They are the headwaters of the Murray-Darling Basin. If you keep taking water out from up there, it is never going to make it down to the south—never. We are now in the situation where we are that they are developing licences north of us in Queensland, in the headwaters of the Warrego River, and we are seeing a difference already. We are not seeing a flow every year. We have had a flow every year. The years 2002 and 2005 were two years where we did not get a flow, and irrigation extraction started in 2000. That is the only common denominator. You cannot say that this is a worse drought than 30 years ago. The droughts were the same. We have had a flow every year. In terms of money, this flood is going to put $97,000 net profit as a cash injection into our business, and we are only a small family-run show, so to speak. There are only me, my husband and my kids—no-one else. That is what it does for the likes of us, the families that live out there. They do not talk about it because they do not want it taken away, but now we have to. There are more licences coming up that are going to be finally utilised.

Senator HEFFERNAN —They are just waking up.

Mrs Kaluder —Yes.

Senator FARRELL —The final question I was going to ask you was about the flood—

0Senator Heffernan interjecting

—Sorry. He is talking over me; just ignore him!

Mrs Kaluder —I am good at it: I have got kids!

Senator FARRELL —You develop that habit, don’t you!

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am sorry. I apologise.

Senator FARRELL —Could you tell us your view about floodplain harvesting and the current review of that policy that is going on in New South Wales at the moment?

Mrs Kaluder —There is a submission going in on behalf of the association. The most concerning part is the levee banks. The water in these western rivers is so gentle, it does not take much of a levee bank to scoop up that water and put it into some sort of storage, to change the flow, to change where it goes. If anybody says to me that water on the flood plain is a loss, I will scream, because it is not. It produces an income. It goes underground—these are black soil flats that this water flows on. It goes down into the underground streams and continues on. It goes around and continues on. Governments have not had the ability to monitor and count, put checks and balances on, the amount of water that flows across the flood plain, because it is so vast. That is where the floodplain harvesting policy is coming into play. So they have not been able to count it; they have not been able to meter it. It has been put in the too hard basket, and people have just been heightening levee banks, lengthening levee banks, putting a few more little channels. It is not hard; we could do it at home. It is not hard. The smallest levee would bank the water up for a kilometre. The landscape where we are falls, in the old scale, one foot per mile; it is not hard—and it has just been take, take, take.

CHAIR —Thank you. Now, I am very mindful of the time. We will have Senator Siewert and then Senator Heffernan.

Senator SIEWERT —I wanted to follow up the matter of the release of these licences.

Mrs Kaluder —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —How many are you talking about?

Mrs Kaluder —There are only about one-third of the licences on the Warrego River that are currently put into production, currently allocated or utilised, so to speak. There are two-thirds still not utilised from what I could get from the last 2006 figures. I have been told I have to get any further information under freedom of information. There is not great deal of infrastructure in up there yet, so you are not talking about people losing money because they have put infrastructure in for irrigation ready thing like that. There are only one or two major players up there at the moment, but it is changing and it is changing fast. You have the opportunity to buy the majority of the licences that are on the Warrego River at the moment, and people will sell them because they are not using them.

Senator SIEWERT —Because they are not using them? Okay.

Mrs Kaluder —They are in the bottom drawer. They were handed out willy-nilly in the mid-1990s, and people just took them.

Senator SIEWERT —Unlike some of my colleagues, I actually support the buyback of Toorale, but the idea there is to put water back into the Warrego—

Mrs Kaluder  —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —And at the same time you have actually got all these licences there that are currently not taking water out but will in the future.

Mrs Kaluder —The idea of levee banks on real flood plains makes your blood boil. But the Toorale Station has six dams on the Warrego River, and each of those dams fills before it overflows into the next dam and then the next dam and then the next dam, as well as levee banks that have been heightened and lengthened. They went in in 1890, but who said that was the right thing to do? Like I said, it does not take much to hold up a flow on a flood plain. You cannot monitor it, you cannot meter it. The amount of water that could flow and probably will flow down, back into the Darling, when they remove all that—and maybe, if the land had been sold separately, there would have had to have been some sort of a caveat put on it to get rid of those levee banks and get rid of those dams for the water to flow naturally.

Senator SIEWERT —But the other issue that I was looking at was, while we are trying to put some water back, if those licences go ahead—the ones that are sleepers or dozers at the moment—we are going to lose the benefit of any water that we get back from Toorale, aren’t we?

Mrs Kaluder —Not all of it, no. Some of it, yes, you will.

Senator SIEWERT —The other thing is that you represent the Floodplain Association—

Mrs Kaluder —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —How many members do you have? Is it area based?

Mrs Kaluder —I am new to it. I would have to talk to the secretary about that. We had a very successful conference in Windorah and a lot of people joined up there.

Senator SIEWERT —You are talking a lot about your experience on your property, but can I safely assume that the association feels just as strongly as you do around these issues and that you are representing a common concern?

Mrs Kaluder —Yes, absolutely. I came here with my place as an example of everybody else’s place—everybody else who is on the committee.

Senator SIEWERT —I was particularly interested in the comments you were making about the health of the flood plain because I think sometimes there is confusion around taking the levee out. Some people think that we think that all that water necessarily goes into the river. But the point here is the health of the flood plain itself. That is what I am understanding you to say.

Mrs Kaluder —Yes. That is exactly right. You cannot say that we do not produce food, for a start, because we do. And you cannot say that it is going to take money out of the local economy, because the fellow next door put 2,000 head of cattle on, for agistment, to utilise the feed. It is massive. And it should be on every western river in Australia that has flood plains. That should be what they are getting and they are not.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Are you familiar with the water resource plan for the Warrego?

Mrs Kaluder —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Why did they not apply any environmental science to it, do you think?

Mrs Kaluder —Exactly.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It is just crazy.

Mrs Kaluder —Submissions were put in by local landholders who lived on the Warrego. They attended a meeting every month for 12 months. They were told that notes of those meetings were taken. Yet, when the final thing went through, none of their recommendations were in it—they were absent.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, they ignore the flood plains, the same as they did on the Culgoa. It’s a complete shemozzle!

Mrs Kaluder —There has been a meeting up there where there have been some hard questions put to the DNR about the Paroo, which is the next river over from us—it is a similar landscape—and they have been talking about levee banks on the floodplains. My husband rang me not long ago about this, and they say—this is the answer to the question about the levee banks out at the Paroo—that it does not matter how many times you fill, use, refill and reuse the water on a levee bank that banks up, which they have now decided is a water storage—

Senator SIEWERT —Yes, we heard about that last week.

Mrs Kaluder —you can only increase the take if you increase the storage. So they are saying that that is not increasing the take of water. It is just ludicrous.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So isn’t it a waste of time to plan the Warrego or the Culgoa if they do not redo the water resource plan, taking into account the environmental impact? That smoke-and-mirrors generous donation of 8,000 megalitres of allocated water—that was smoke and mirrors, you would agree with that?

Mrs Kaluder —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It would have been more sensible if they had bought a couple of those sleepers, wouldn’t it? Because obviously they are going to light the sleepers up as they did in the Lachlan. The Lachlan flood plain is completely buggered. The flood plain on the Culgoa has had it. The Paroo—like that Nocoleche, which they bought for a national park—is going to be destroyed. Is anyone listening out there?

Mrs Kaluder —It is avalanching. You see, they admitted yesterday, apparently, that they did not inspect overland flow storages—which is another fancy term for flood plain run-off—when they put the WRP into place. They did not have the resources.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is right.

Mrs Kaluder —They just took what the landholder said that he thought he was taking and what his storage would hold.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The Commonwealth and the state have just paid about double what Toorale is worth—without setting foot on the property. The Commonwealth did not go and have a look. They did not even know about the borer and the booker bank that supply the stock and domestic to the neighbours. What sort of an impact did those four foot pipes have? Did they help?

Mrs Kaluder —The pipes?

Senator HEFFERNAN —In the banks, yes.

Mrs Kaluder —They stopped the flow.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, but when they open the pipes, when there is a flow. I think they used to get a 30,000 acre flood. They can vary it between 20 and 30, depending on what goes through the pipes.

Mrs Kaluder —Have you seen a picture of the pipes?

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, I understand; I have been there—unlike most people.

Mrs Kaluder —In my opinion, it is a fancy way of saying there is a levee bank with these two little pipes. The water is going to back up.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Four feet, yes. But, in a 2,000-meg event, it is still going to flood. Bear in mind that I am like you; I have 20,000 acres of flood country, so I absolutely understand the flood country. I absolutely understand that all flood plain graziers everywhere have been kept out of the thing, excluded from the studies—the ridiculous situation that we are facing in the Condamine-Balonne now. Ed Fessey and those guys have been kept out of it. When they built the dams, they compensated the people whose places got flooded by the dam, but they did not compensate the people who lost the flood at the other end of the river.

Mrs Kaluder —Further downstream, exactly.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So I understand all that perfectly. But would you agree that, if they do not go back and redraw the water resource plan with a full environmental study rather than some phoney study of future flows, they are not going to get anywhere?

Mrs Kaluder —They are not going to get anywhere, but the problem that is occurring now is that, when you put the pressure on them to look at their overland flow and their levee banks, they are saying that they are pre-existing works and that they are going to license them. They admitted yesterday that, if you had any sort of a bank in in 2004, they would now look at it in 2008 and, yes, they would probably license it as a pre-existing storage.

Senator HEFFERNAN —They are about to issue $300 million or $400 million worth of licences in the Lower Balonne, based on the size of the bulldozer you used at the time, even though it was not authorised.

Mrs Kaluder —Especially on the Warrego, that will flow on into—

Senator HEFFERNAN —The Paroo at the present time is in pretty good shape—

Mrs Kaluder —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —but they are about to destroy it; you would agree.

Mrs Kaluder —This is the beginning.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is all about gutless politicians.

Mrs Kaluder —It is their way. They have put wording in their ROP that they can get around and say—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes. The ROPs are a joke. Have a look at the ROP on the Condamine-Balonne. The chairman of the process is the biggest beneficiary.

Mrs Kaluder —There are no guts in the actual wording to say, ‘This is right and this is wrong’; it is all airy-fairy.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions, Mrs Kaluder, thank you very much for making the effort and the time to come down here today.

Mrs Kaluder —Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 12.07 pm to 1.10 pm