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Murray-Darling Basin Plan
26/10/2015
Social, economic and environmental impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional communities

CLIFTON, Mr Darryn Lee, Founder, Broken Hill, Menindee Lakes: WE WANT ACTION Facebook Group

[13:44]

CHAIR: I now welcome a representative from Broken Hill, Menindee Lakes: WE WANT ACTION Facebook group. Mr Clifton, that is who you are representing, I take it?

Mr Clifton : That is correct.

CHAIR: Is there anything you would like to add about the capacity in which you appear today?

Mr Clifton : I am one of the admin persons from Broken Hill, Menindee Lakes: WE WANT ACTION Facebook group.

CHAIR: Thank you for appearing before the committee today. I invite you to make a brief opening statement if you wish to.

Mr Clifton : Thank you very much. First, let me personally welcome the Senate inquiry to Broken Hill. Hopefully, it has the teeth to promote action into this issue. We also thank the members for this opportunity to speak. Along with Kevin Stacey, in October 2014 we founded the Facebook group Broken Hill, Menindee Lakes: WE WANT ACTION. The group was born through absence of any real action being taken against what we considered to be the most devastating, deliberate act of treachery ever perpetrated on our city, Australia's first heritage city.

Our group expanded greatly in the months following, and we now claim a membership pushing the 11,000 mark. Our members are passionate and come from all backgrounds. The wealth of knowledge within our group as a collective far outweighs any of the so-called experts the authority has relied upon. That being said, our focus is now and has always been to restore health to the Darling River and Menindee Lakes and to secure our service water supply from these water bodies. Given the atrocious record of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's past acts, we have little confidence that this body should have any say in the future management of these resources.

The issue at the heart of this is not an overly complex one. In December 2013 a massive draw down occurred from the Menindee Lakes—a draw down that was not required past Wentworth, as the Murray River was already spilling over the edges in some locations; a draw down that should never have occurred, because there were no flows in the system above Menindee Lakes to replace that which was taken. In fact, there had been no decent rainfall or inflows into the upper catchment in Queensland for about 17 months, with western Queensland already declared to be in drought.

An indication of the ferocity and speed with which the water was taken has been told to us again and again by the residents who live directly on the Murray beyond where the Darling and the Murray join forces. These residents had genuine fear that the banks of the Murray would breach to flood their properties. These so-called 'environmental flows' achieved absolutely nothing. We heard stories of European carp being caught one kilometre out to sea. The authority has stated that the water is needed to flush the Murray mouth. Today, after all the water has passed through the Murray mouth, it remain silted over as predicted by all. Remove the barrages along the lower Murray and let Mother Nature do her job. Over time, the Murray mouth will open as it has done for centuries. As I previously said, it is not complicated.

Since this massive draw down, it has been the textbook rhetoric from authorities that, if they did not take the water, it would certainly have evaporated by now. 'Use it or lose it,' they say, and, 'We took it because we could take it.' The arrogance behind closed doors is astounding. This fairytale rhetoric has come from water authorities, state ministers and federal ministers. Sussan Ley and Bob Baldwin have been heard on local radio explaining to all how they have flown over the lakes and could see the water evaporating before their eyes. Perhaps when you reach the towering heights that they have reached you get special powers. What is funny is how they all duck for cover and begin to change tack when we mention how Lake Speculation has had water in it for over five years and is still there today. It is still there because they could not take it, and it has not evaporated. I am fairly certain that the Lake Speculation water has very similar properties to most other water, yet it refuses to comply with the laws of physics. It simply refuses to evaporate at the rate that the other lakes are supposed to have evaporated.

I and other admin members of our group work on behalf of our almost-11,000-strong membership to put forward a united voice to initiate change in the way the Darling River is managed. The river and lakes are more than simply our primary source of drinking water. We are the voice of our community—a voice that has been unable to be heard. The cultural, recreational and economic benefits have also been lost. Businesses in and around Menindee, if not shut down, have experienced around a 50 per cent loss in revenue following the draw down. When you couple this with the proposed $600 million to be spent fixing the water issue, it certainly does not seem to be such a financially sound decision to let the water go.

This leads us to the bore water program. A cynic would maintain that it has been in the pipeline for years when the then state minister Kevin Humphries stood at the Darling River at the main weir outside of Lake Wetherell above Menindee with the CEO of the New South Wales Irrigators' Council and made the announcement that Broken Hill-Menindee would be placed on the emergency bore water program. This was done without any community consultation, and it was obvious after the water draw down that we were going to be forced onto something that we had never needed in the past and we should never need in the future. But there was a plan in place and it was not the best direction for our communities.

From here we knew the fight was going to be both long and hard. Luckily, we had such a depth of knowledge within our admin and membership to ask the hard questions. Local media has also proved to be instrumental in supporting us, expanding our reach to the community. The overallocation of water licences and other development of large irrigation properties upriver have signed the death warrant for the Darling River beyond Burke. Couple this with the environmental flows to South Australia and it soon becomes clear that both upriver and downriver get the benefits that we in the middle miss out on. We as a group believe it is offensive and disrespectful that such a pristine ecosystem as the Menindee Lakes and Darling River has been sold out to the highest bidder. Our representation on the community consulting committee has reinforced our view that the bore program has been a long time coming.

Since the start of the campaign we have developed a good, like-minded relationship with New South Wales MLC Jeremy Buckingham. Jeremy advised us early in the piece to run as far away as we could from the CCC. He described it as an avenue for government. Work as a team but do it our way. It soon became apparent that Jeremy was right. Our detailed submissions were dismissed time and time again with little or no feedback as to why. We should have listened to him. We soon discovered that a sprinkle of glitter on the manure we were being fed did not make it more palatable.

We fully understand that we cannot undo what has been done. We as a group owe it to our children and those who cannot speak up in our community to ensure that what has occurred cannot happen again. We are not greedy. We are not against irrigation. All we ask for is a fair system that allows all water users along the length of the Barwon-Darling to be able to survive. Without water, there will be no communities. Without irrigation, there would be no communities. Without both, there would be no survival. A balance must be achieved.

We request that the current New South Wales water management trigger level be set at the current minimum of 480 gigalitres of recoverable water to be retained in the upper lakes of Lake Wetherell and Pamamaroo Lake. This figure was supported by our previous water minister, Kevin Humphries.

Social media has been invaluable. It has created a forum from which information from our collective group can be correlated and used to push our cause. We deal in facts and facts alone, not information. The passion and anger is what drives us. Governments, if elected, have a moral obligation, and one of their core responsibilities is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their communities. We are not seeing this. We are seeing governments supporting industry in many forms, pushing the needs of communities aside. Our slogan for the group is 'refuse to lose—united we stand'. Decision-makers need to realise that we will not lie down. We will not go quietly. We will not submit. We will not roll over. We will not comply. We will not sit down. We will not shut up.

I thank the inquiry again for their presence. I hope that you walk away from this with some of our passion and understanding. If any of the members are interested in a tour around the lakes to get a full understanding of the devastation, feel free to contact me or anyone else that is concerned with this water issue.

CHAIR: Thank you. I noted that you said in your opening statement that you will not shut up; that fairly lengthy opening statement probably proves the point! Senator Madigan.

Senator MADIGAN: You mentioned earlier in your presentation that you have 11,000 members. Is that correct?

Mr Clifton : Almost 11,000.

Senator MADIGAN: Where are those 11,000 members of your group?

Mr Clifton : Mainly based in Broken Hill but also around Australia and a couple overseas.

Senator MADIGAN: What number are in the actual Broken Hill-Menindee area? Can you tell the committee that?

Mr Clifton : I could not tell you the exact numbers in Broken Hill. We have not gone through the break-down of the addresses.

Senator MADIGAN: What is the ballpark figure? Are we looking at half or three quarters?

Mr Clifton : You would be looking at more than 50 per cent.

CHAIR: This is likes on your Facebook page, is it?

Mr Clifton : No, that is members of the Facebook group.

CHAIR: How do they become a member?

Mr Clifton : They request to join. We have a look at the person and either accept or reject them.

CHAIR: Can you tell from that where they are located?

Mr Clifton : If they decide to put their geographical location, yes. Some choose to; some choose not to.

Senator MADIGAN: So you physically cannot really determine where they are from? You cannot give an accurate picture?

Mr Clifton : If we went through we probably could, yes.

Senator MADIGAN: You could, but you haven't?

Mr Clifton : No, we have not bothered.

Senator MADIGAN: Okay. In your group submission you said:

In 2005-06, the majority of surface water consumed by Agriculture in the MDB was in New South Wales (57%) …

Given that New South Wales covers about 56 per cent, I think, of the landmass of the Murray-Darling Basin, could you explain to the committee what the significance is of your group statement?

Mr Clifton : I would have to point out that the document we produced for you was authored by one of our members by the name of Mark Hutton, who was the former chairman of the Darling River Action Group. Mark cannot be with us today; he is on holidays in North Queensland. Ninety-nine per cent of the facts in here were authored by Mark, so I would pass that question on to him.

Senator MADIGAN: What is Mr Hutton's background?

Mr Clifton : Mr Hutton is a local man who has grown up on the river and the lakes over the years. He works in town. He was a member of the Darling River Action Group as the chairman for approximately 10 years or so. He was involved in the same situation we are involved in now: fighting for the right for water and keeping the Darling River and the Menindee Lakes active and alive. I am not sure if you have heard of the Darling River Action Group in the past.

CHAIR: Are you familiar enough with your submission to answer questions about it?

Mr Clifton : I will give it a go to the best of my knowledge.

CHAIR: Give it a go—all right. The reason is not to question your intentions here, but there are some factual aspects about your submission that trouble me and I am interested to know where you are heading with this. In your submission you state:

Farmer Mike Carberry from Narrabri … bemoans the fact that the Namoi Valley’s cotton crop will be less than half (presumably half of normal). Why was any water wasted on cotton in such a bleak year, with the Darling River running dry?

Is it your view that water use for irrigation is wasted water?

Mr Clifton : I would say that on occasions—

CHAIR: On occasions?

Mr Clifton : some water is wasted. I will give an example of that: the recent embargo that was lifted earlier this year. Flows were coming down the Darling River, and the embargo that was put in place by the water minister was lifted by the deputy director of the DPI, Gavin Hanlon. Those flows could have reached the Menindee Lakes and sustained us for a little longer over the summer period, or even provided more water for communities down as far as Pooncarie.

That brings us to our statements of water sharing. We know that communities that have irrigation as their backbone need water and that without water those communities would not survive.

CHAIR: Another statement in your submission is:

The pesticide endosulfan and the herbicide atrazine, both used in cotton farming, are bad news for aquatic ecosystems. Both were washed into the rivers. It has been suggested that endosulfan has been phased out, as a result of using GM cotton varieties. Endosulfan kills fish.

Are those statements still relevant today?

Mr Clifton : I am not sure. That is Mark Hutton's work—

CHAIR: You are not familiar—

Mr Clifton : From experience, the waste water that comes down the river from upstream cotton farms has a dramatic effect on the environment.

CHAIR: Do you think that is the case today?

Mr Clifton : We still see a lot of bad water coming down, whether it be green or black water.

CHAIR: Green or black water—so you attribute that to cotton farming and atrazine and endosulfan?

Mr Clifton : I would attribute that to irrigation upstream.

CHAIR: What are irrigators upstream doing to produce this green and black water?

Mr Clifton : From my understanding, the amount of chemicals that are applied to industry upstream—irrigation industry—

CHAIR: Which chemicals?

Mr Clifton : The ones that were mentioned in the book. It could be—

CHAIR: Atrazine and endosulfan?

Mr Clifton : Yes, and it could be many others as well. Once they get into the water system—once they flow off the land or back into reserve tanks—and when fresh water comes down again, the understanding is that irrigators flush their holding tanks and put the fresh water into their system and let the bad water go.

CHAIR: But endosulfan has not been used on cotton in Australia for five years.

Mr Clifton : As I said, Mark Hutton was the author of the document.

CHAIR: And atrazine is not used very much either—and, in any case, it is a herbicide—so how would it be contributing to green and black water?

Mr Clifton : I do not have the scientific evidence to back it up.

CHAIR: You mentioned turbidity in the Darling River. What do you think it is attributable to?

Mr Clifton : Again, I cannot answer that. I would have to refer that to Mark.

CHAIR: Do you have any suggestions as to how it could be managed?

Mr Clifton : No.

CHAIR: For your information, the major source of turbidity in the river is carp.

Mr Clifton : They stir up the mud.

CHAIR: Yes.

Senator WILLIAMS: European carp—another mistake.

CHAIR: Yes, another mistake; that is correct. I made a comment to the previous witness that South Australians all think the people up river are irresponsible and stealing water, and the people upstream think the people downstream are whingeing. You are allocating blame on various grounds and, as I have just pointed out, a couple of your details are incorrect. Rather than allocating blame, I would like you to help the committee understand the problem.

Mr Clifton : The book that was produced as part of our submission was to give you information from Mark Hutton's experience through his years in DRAG and the research he carried out.

CHAIR: I think you can help us understand the problem. Your argument is, I think, similar to that of previous witnesses we have heard today: Broken Hill does not have a secure water supply for domestic purposes—

Mr Clifton : We used to have, but we do not now.

CHAIR: You are arguing that and you are also arguing that the Menindee Lakes environment is suffering.

Mr Clifton : Correct.

CHAIR: Do you take the same view as the previous witness that one of the contributors to the Menindee Lakes environment suffering is that it has been sacrificed for the benefit of the environment in South Australia?

Mr Clifton : To some point I would have to agree, yes. When the millennium drought broke in 2010 and the Menindee Lakes filled up, the whole system was suffering from top to bottom. Obviously, as the water came down from Queensland and replenished our lakes, South Australia was suffering and that first draining of the lakes was going to be a necessity. But I do not agree that it should have occurred with the amount that was let go.

CHAIR: Thank you. That is useful to know. What is your solution to the town water supply—high security water for Broken Hill and Menindee?

Mr Clifton : I have the same view as the previous witness. Our service water should be retained from the Menindee Lakes and the Darling River, and a new pipeline should be constructed from Menindee to Broken Hill.

CHAIR: This is important because Senator McAllister will argue that trade-offs have to be made because there is not enough water to do everything, and that the Ramsar area in South Australia can rightfully claim secure water whereas Menindee is not a Ramsar area. How would you respond to that sort of thing?

Mr Clifton : It comes down to the equal sharing of water. I have no hassles with South Australia's environmental assets being looked after all the time. It creates a lot of economic benefit for South Australia.

CHAIR: Would you argue that the environment of Menindee Lakes should rank equally with the environment in South Australia?

Mr Clifton : Most indefinitely. And I do not feel that Ramsar will ever get off the ground because it will mean that less water will get down to South Australia.

Senator WILLIAMS: We have heard today, and you just reaffirmed it, that in 2013 Menindee Lakes were full.

Mr Clifton : Virtually. In February 2014 it came down to the New South Wales trigger point of 480 gigalitres and it kept on draining from there.

Senator WILLIAMS: Why was there the huge amount of water? Was it for environmental flows?

Mr Clifton : Our view is that it was mismanagement in total.

Senator WILLIAMS: No, answer the question: was most of that water let out for environmental flows?

Mr Clifton : No, not to my knowledge. It was sold downstream to irrigators who had already purchased their allocation of water and some of the water was released for environmental flows. I am quite sure it was quoted by David Dreverman, the head of River Management from the MDBA, who said that out of 450 gigalitres supposedly let go only 150 gigalitres made it down to the river junction of the Murray and Darling at Wentworth.

Senator WILLIAMS: What do Menindee Lakes hold when they are full?

Mr Clifton : They hold 750 gigalitres and can be surcharged to 2,050 gigalitres.

Senator WILLIAMS: Is it concerning to you that we lose 1,000 gigs a year in evaporation at the Lower Lakes in South Australia?

Mr Clifton : Most definitely, and the way they justify this through the increased rainfall in that area against rainfall in the western area. For some reason, they justify—

Senator WILLIAMS: Hang on, you have lost me. The way they justify it is how?

Mr Clifton : The increased rainfall in the Lower Lakes area, the geographical area, against the 200 mil we are getting in the western area. I am not sure what the average rainfall is in that Lower Lakes area, but that is how it is worked out: more evaporation comes out but more rainfall comes down. That is not from my point of view; that is from the experts' point of view.

Senator WILLIAMS: What experts?

Mr Clifton : The Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

Senator WILLIAMS: They are saying the more evaporation down there the more rain will be delivered?

Mr Clifton : No. Because of the greater volume of evaporation, it is not a significant loss because more rainfall falls in the Lower Lakes area, as opposed to the 400-odd gigalitres that evaporates in the western division against the 200-odd mils of rainfall that fall every year here.

Senator WILLIAMS: The Lower Lakes would be a pretty dry region, wouldn't it? Murray Bridge is dry. It is in a rain shadow. It gets only about 12 inches of rainfall.

Mr Clifton : They seem to be full all the time. When you look at the lakes, the average depth of those lakes—

Senator WILLIAMS: They seem full all the time?

Mr Clifton : The Lower Lakes seem to be full all the time, except through the Millennium Drought. The average depth of those lakes is about 2.8 metres.

Senator WILLIAMS: They are full from water running down the Murray.

Mr Clifton : Correct. Mainly from Menindee Lakes.

Senator DAY: The Lower Lakes get fairly decent rain—probably at least 30 inches a year.

Senator WILLIAMS: Does it?

Mr Clifton : Yes.

Mr Clifton : It is so significant compared to this area. That is how they justify: what goes up has to be replaced by what comes down.

Senator McALLISTER: I should clarify that I have not expressed a view about whether the Menindee system is more less important than other environmental systems, but I am making the observation that there is a limited amount of water for environmental watering and somehow we have to come up with priorities or get more environmental water. It is a logical choice. Do you have any views, Mr Clifton, about upstream extraction and what you have observed over the years in terms of the inflows into the system?

Mr Clifton : Most of our rain occurs in Queensland and it comes through over the border. There are obviously obstructions in the Queensland irrigation system that take a lot of water, and that includes Cubbie Station. As it comes through over the border, you have a lot of industry in New South Wales down to the Bourke Weir. On most occasions you will see Bourke Weir sitting on around four metres of water, and that backs up for about 40 kilometres. To have water flow over the Bourke Weir and come down to the Lower Darling area is an absolute treasure. If enough water comes down and fills up the lakes, that is a bonus. There is what I call interference, maybe overallocation of water and maybe overexpansion of industry in areas where they should not be expanding. Maybe it needs to be thinned out and better managed so that more water is let down on a more equal basis to keep everything going and keep everything alive.

Senator McALLISTER: I am just looking at some of the material that has been submitted. DPI seems to suggest that the bulk of the inflows over this year have come through the Macintyre—

Senator WILLIAMS: Through Inverell.

Mr Clifton : I think the last three flows have come through those areas—small pulses that we would not normally get. That is why their water embargo was placed on that upper region, so the irrigators virtually north of Bourke could not utilise the water and it was let to flow down to the lakes.

Senator McALLISTER: So, to that extent, the water management framework is responding to the conditions in the Menindee. There has been an observation that there is a problem in terms of the volume available for town water consumption and there has been an upstream response in terms of pumping in those largely unregulated systems. Is that correct?

Mr Clifton : Could you say that again, sorry?

Senator McALLISTER: There is a water framework in place that is supposed to be managing all of the competing demands—the water sharing plan and it is designed to manage upstream and downstream user requirements. To some extent, there has been—from your perspective—some response this year, because there has been an embargo on pumping in some of the unregulated systems.

Mr Clifton : Correct. There is a lot of interest upstream and a lot of industry or irrigation bodies that look after their own area, and they obviously fight for their right and water. Again, we are not saying that they should not have their allocation of water, but the management of the whole system needs a good shake up to let upstream and downstream better utilise that water.

Senator McALLISTER: The primary way in New South Wales that the sharing process is supposed to take place is through the water sharing plan. I have asked this of some of the other witnesses: has anyone talked to you about becoming involved in the renegotiation of the water sharing plan or the development of a water resource plan for this area?

Mr Clifton : No.

Senator McALLISTER: Thanks, Mr Clifton.

CHAIR: I am just wondering whether you have any comment on whether you think the water being allocated to the environment currently—obviously not in the Menindee Lakes area but elsewhere—is being well used?

Mr Clifton : No, I do not think it is.

CHAIR: Do you have any specifics?

Mr Clifton : I have no facts. That is just my own personal view. A lot of water has been wasted. As I said in my opening address, the format that David Dreverman often speaks about: use it or lose it. He points to evaporation. If we do not take from Menindee Lakes, the water will evaporate.

Senator WILLIAMS: More rain.

Mr Clifton : Yes; make it rain. In the modelling that was being presented by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and I am quite sure it was New South Wales Water, both predicted that, if they did not do those releases—the massive release that commenced in 2013—the Menindee Lakes would have dried up within three or four months, which is definitely not the case. We still have water in the system up there, in lakes that we cannot get water out of, and there will be water there for five to seven years, as it has been for many centuries, before my lifetime.

CHAIR: On the basis that you do not think that water is being well used, if you could ensure that it was well used, you could at least in theory then argue that Menindee Lakes could receive environmental water at no detriment to elsewhere in the system that is receiving environmental water.

Mr Clifton : Most definitely. Menindee Lake is only used for flood mitigation. It is drained at the first instance under the tristate agreement and needs to be relooked at. Everyone involved around the greater Menindee area realises that the lake's infrastructure is very old and needs to be updated. Since 1948, when the first plans were on the table, they never finished the lake system. Those engineering works are still being delayed today by the New South Wales government to get them up to scratch. We all know the infrastructure is old and it needs to go ahead. Things need to be done. Out of that infrastructure you could get savings for environmental flows downstream. It would also allow water to be held in the Menindee Lakes for our benefit, which is our service water and our economic, cultural and recreational needs.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. That concludes our questioning.

Committee adjourned at 14:14