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Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia

CHAIR —I welcome representatives of Agforce Queensland to today’s hearing. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We have a written submission from you and thank you for that. Do you have any additional material that you would like to present to us or would you prefer to make some opening statements and then be questioned by the committee?

Mr Bremner —We would like to do both. We have a presentation that I would like to table to go with our submission and we would like to make an opening statement as well.

Agforce believes that there should be no cuts in the Queensland section of the Murray-Darling system. We have spent 10 years in Queensland working on water resource plans and resource operations plans in getting what has been deemed by the Queensland government to be a sustainable take of the water. The Queensland Water Act says that they can only issue plans that are sustainable. We have gone through the modelling. We understand the modelling and how it works. The IQQM model is the only model that is available. It is the best in the world, but it is not a very good model at giving absolute numbers. It is very good at [inaudible] numbers, but very ordinary at giving absolute numbers. It is the same model that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is using; they are just using different years for that. Those water resource plans have met all the requirements under the NWI for trading and those sorts of issues.

The ROPS have also created the certainty of access, so they have given us an allocation; before that we had a licence. That allocation is on the water allocation register, which is the same title system that they use for land in Queensland. It has given us the certainty of that actual access to water that we need to continue to farm. That certainty has obviously been put under stress with the release of the guide. We no longer have that certainty and that is why we are saying there should be no cuts. We believe we have a sustainable take in the system. I have some numbers for you. Upstream of Chinchilla we take about 30 per cent of the predevelopment flows and upstream of St George we take 13 per cent of the flows. Once you get to the border it is 46 per cent of the flows. You have all heard the arguments about whether that is a sustainable take or not. Professor Peter Cullen ticked off on it five years ago and said it was. It was subject to a review.

The two environmental assets that have been identified in the Queensland section, the Narran Lakes and the Culgoa floodplains, have been receiving their share of water over the last 10 years through the flow event management system that has been put in place in the Lower Balonne, so that they are getting their share of that water that is flowing through under the new flow management schemes that are operating under the ROPS.

We believe that there should not be any cuts in Queensland because we have done the work. We believe the modelling that the state government has done. We accept that and we accept what they are doing. We fully support what Border Rivers Food and Fibre Inc just said. Everything that they said was either things that we were thinking or things that are in our submission.

You have probably heard a lot about the Lower Balonne and Goondiwindi, but you have not heard a lot about the upper and mid sections, so that is upstream of the St George weir. We have seen nothing about buybacks up there. We have had a number of people who have been interested in the buybacks. I have spoken to a number of government officials and they say, ‘Yes, but it’s not a priority.’ There are people up there who are willing to sell their water, but there is no-one who is willing to buy it; the only willing buyer, of course, is the government.

The gauging stations are an issue in the Condamine-Balonne as well. There are only 60 gauging stations between Killarney and the border and they do not take into account any of the overland flows. Some of the gauging stations do not work, are not up to date and are manually read, so if you cannot get access to the gauging station by boat or whatever then it does not get read. Just as an aside, that was a major issue during the flood: we could not access up-to-date information on how high the river was going to get. It got to 30 centimetres next to our house—it did not go in the house—but I had to ring the local mayor to find out what the river height was going to be. We could not get it on the BOM website or anywhere else. Gauging stations are a side issue, but it is an issue.

The river system which I represent, which is the Condamine-Balonne, is mostly unregulated. There is only the small area of St George and a small area from Leslie Dam. Most of the water that is taken is unregulated, so it is taken during the summer when the flows are in the river. There are individual thresholds for the irrigators, so you cannot start pumping until the river reaches a certain height and through good luck or good management, the state government, when they issued those licences, issued them in an escalating manner so that the first guy got a licence at this level and the next guy who applied for a licence got one at a slightly higher or equal level. The last licences issued were almost at major flood level, so we have had a river system that has not been over developed because of the lateness in development compared to the southern systems, and we have not gone overboard because of the way the licensing system has evolved over time.

There have been no new licences issued in the system since 1992 and there has been a moratorium in place since 2000 for any new storages to be built in the Condamine-Balonne system. That has been consistent with the water resource plan, which was released in 2004, and the resource operation plan, which was released in 2008. We have really only had two years of allocations; before that we had licences with all of that uncertainty. We really have not had time to see how that plan works out over the long-term because we have only had it for two years.

The flow event management in the Lower Balonne is separate to the top section. In the top section we all have individual thresholds at which we start pumping. We cease pumping when our storages are full, and that is because the allocations are linked to the storage volumes. If we want to trade we have to unlink that through a government process and then we are able to trade but obviously, if you have a million dollars worth of infrastructure sitting on your property, trading your water away means that your property is basically devalued. This is for unregulated water. You have your pumps, dams, delivery systems to the paddocks and the overhead irrigators which we are starting to move into. All of that becomes worthless if you trade that water away. Also tied into those allocations are the overland flow that runs off your property and runs through your property. The government has tightly constrained us within those storage limits.

One of the major issues that we have is with the underground water. The Condamine alluvium is the largest alluvium in the basin. On average they take around 50,000 megalitres a year out of that system. The allocations are about 70,000; I am only talking about the Condamine alluvium management area. In the basin they have gone wider and taken a greater area and when they are working out their numbers the state government sees them as separate aquifers. The issue we have is that the state government has not done a water resource plan for that area. They are in the process of doing it. They are looking at cuts of between 50 and 70 per cent of the aquifer to make it sustainable. The irrigators accept that level. They are quite willing to see that come down so that they are sustainable in the long term.

Those licences were all issued by the state government over the years, so it was not the irrigators fault. They applied for the licences, were given them and the government fully knew what they were doing. The issue is that under the government buyback there is no water resource plan there at the moment. If the state government comes in and brings in a water resource plan that cuts those irrigators by 70 per cent, they get no compensation, but after the water resource plan the federal government comes along and says, ‘We want to buy back some water’, there is no compensation there for the irrigators because they are already down to a sustainable level, anyway. No-one will pay for the cuts that the Murray-Darling Authority is talking about for that underground aquifer. Those cuts will just happen and those irrigators will wear that loss. That is a significant loss when you are talking 50 to 70 per cent of the water available to them. Most of those irrigators have access to river water as well, but it depends on the individual circumstance as to how badly you are affected by those cuts.

CHAIR —It is time for questions. I have one to start with which is a little bit unrelated to the actual debate, but we are picking it up both in New South Wales and in Queensland with the coal seam gas debate. Can you give us a quick snapshot of the relationship between water, gas and coal, and how you believe it may impact on planning in the Murray-Darling system?

Mr Bremner —It is a major issue on the Downs and further west. Throughout the catchments there are a number of explorations going on as well as developments. Coal seam gas is being supplied to power stations in the area right now. The issue with the coal seam gas is that we cannot guarantee that they are not going to affect the interconnectivity between the aquifers. The issue is that when you take 350,000 megalitres of water out of an aquifer—and that is the GAB aquifer that we are talking about, the Great Artesian Basin—there has got to be some changes to the pressure.

Santos admitted in their EIS that they would actually depressurise one of the aquifers, the Walloon coal measures, and it will take more than 150 years before that recovers. That may be okay in that section, but what does that do to the one above it, the one beside it and the one around it? I just spoke about the alluvium aquifer that is accessed by irrigators. If there is any sort of interconnectivity between that one and the Walloon coal measures then we could lose the whole lot of that one with the coal seam gas. We have problems with drillers not doing exactly what they are saying they are doing. We are getting reports that they are saving money by doing shortcuts when they are drilling the holes and not casing down as far as they should be. We are also having issues with what to do with the salt water. The water that comes out of that has between 3,000 and 9,000 parts per million of salt, which is not salty in terms of sea water, but it is the types of salts that are very corrosive and very difficult to deal with. The government initially thought they would put them in evaporation ponds. I have seen an evaporation pond where the company tried to make the water evaporate quicker by spraying it up in the air and trees died within 400 metres of that spray, so there are major issues with the salt and how they deal with it.

We have Queensland Gas saying that they are going to build a treatment plant to treat the water and deliver the fresh water to the Chinchilla weir. They have still not told us what they are doing with the salt and how they are going to deal with that. That is the scariest thing for us: what they are doing with that salt.

CHAIR —You might like to follow up on some of those issues, because we are getting a bit of a picture in terms of this area.

Ms Johnston —There is currently large amounts of CSG exploration happening in the Surat Basin. Under the current legislation, as part of their activities, they can take that water as part of the CSG operations. They do not require a licence and it does not need to be metered. When we have estimates of around 30,000 wells drilled in the Surat alone over the next 10 years and each of them pulling up water as part of their exploration activities, we do not have any baseline data around what those standing water levels are. We do not have any baseline data around what those standing water levels are. They do not need licences to take it. There will be impacts on the other groundwater users in the basin that are unknown at this stage.

Mr Bremner —But if we lose the GAB, you are talking about all of the cattle west of Roma having no water. That is basically it.

Ms LIVERMORE —You talked in a different context about the inadequacy of gauging stations in this region. I take it from that that there is a more general question of measuring flows and knowing how much water and where it goes?

Mr Bremner —That is correct.

Ms LIVERMORE —Also, in your submission you talk about the failure so far of the MDBA to really define environmental assets very specifically. I assume they must have been similar problems when you were working through the state water plan. How did that impact and how did you get around those questions in arriving at the state water plan?

Mr Bremner —The reason most irrigators are happy with the state water plan is that it is consistent with our water take pre 2000. Most irrigators ended up with a similar amount of water to that which they were able to access pre 2000 until after the implementation of the water plan. I guess that is our basis for being happy with the state water plan as such. The Lower Balonne people did take a 10 per cent to 15 per cent cut in that water plan through that flow management system I was talking about, on top of a voluntary cut that some of the larger ones took as well in retiring some of their larger storages. I am referring to Cubbie Station, which actually retired some of their larger storages. The gauging stations are an issue; as well, about 350 of those licences have never been metered. The state government has the same issue as the Murray Darling Basin in that they have no idea what irrigators are taking. The regulated systems have been metered for years. The unregulated system has not been. Those meters are rolling out right now. We will be putting in meters over the next six months, but obviously you do not have that history of take to actually input into the computer model. The computer model makes a number of assumptions on the crops we grow, how many times we water, and how often we rotate. But all of those assumptions are just that, widespread assumptions, and each individual farmer has his own assessment of risk. Some farms will try to grow more crop for the same amount of water than another farmer and take the risk of not having enough water to finish it, and vice-versa if you do not understand that. Their numbers in the assumptions are wrong, but what we accept is that we are able to keep basically the same amount of water that we had before. In other words, because our allocations are linked to our storages, we are entitled to fill our storages when the water meets those pumping thresholds and the pumping rates that we are allowed for each individual allocation holder.

Ms LIVERMORE —Do the state plans try to define environmental outcomes in the same way as the MDBA is trying to? When you say the ‘MDBA’, either you or someone else spoke about 166 environmental assets identified in this area. Did the state plan go through a similar exercise?

Mr Bremner —No, the state plan did not identify assets. A lot of those assets that the authority has identified are basically streams. They have not actually identified an environmental asset. They just named every stream in the catchment and said, ‘That is an environmental asset.’ It does not really describe an environmental asset that I would think is something that is important and something that you should maintain in terms of feral pig access and other problems. Water does not necessarily solve environmental asset problems. The Narran Lakes is a classic example. They might be getting enough water, but if land management and feral pigs and that sort of thing are not controlled and managed, throwing extra water at it is not going to help the environmental asset. They have not identified it. Through good management again, when they were issuing those licences in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the criteria was that they had to have a low flow in the system. That low flow was called the stock and domestic flow. Now we call it an environmental flow. So there is a low flow availability. You have to remember that these rivers are ephemeral rivers. I took Kevin Rudd in 2007 to the bottom of the Condamine River and he could walk anywhere he liked, and he did not get his feet wet. If he had gone there three weeks ago, he might have had trouble breathing, but that is the nature of these rivers. They are ephemeral rivers. If they run once a year, then most irrigators are happy to take a share of that flow. That is how that system works. It is not a regulated system. We are not storing water in huge lumps up in the top of the catchment. It is just not there. We take the flow as it comes past, and we take a percentage of that flow.

Mr ZAPPIA —I am trying to get my head around the cost of deepening the aboveground storage dams. I understand that the depth has changed in terms of what is allowed. I know it depends on the size, but can you provide a ballpark figure of cost for every megalitre?

Mr Bremner —The bigger the storage the easier it is to make it deeper. When you are talking of the Lower Balonne, they originally started off with two-metre high storages. They have now deepened those to five metres by moving entire walls kilometres inland. Where I live, most of the storages are between 500 and 1,000 megalitres and cover around 10 to 15 hectares. There are two issues with making them bigger. If you want to go to eight metres, you have to double the amount of dirt that you use, going from five to eight metres, because the base has to be a lot wider to get up that extra height. The second thing is the dam has to be dry enough so you can actually get in and get the dirt out and put it into the wall. The cost is approximately $2 per cubic metre. There is 260,000 cubic metres of dirt in a 1,000 megalitres storage. When we build them, we actually take a furrow pit around on the inside, and that builds up the bank on the outside. So the centre 10 hectares or 15 hectares, which is at ground level, is untouched. You are looking at an extra 260,000 cubic metres of dirt multiplied by $2 for every storage.

Mr ZAPPIA —That is $500,000.

Mr Bremner —There are approximately 300 of those storages on the Darling Downs upstream of Chinchilla.

Dr STONE —What are your views on environmental assets that have been named in this area in the plan? Kirsten was able to flesh that out somewhat with you, and you said it is the main streams that have basically been mentioned. I think you made a very good point about the fact that it is not just water in those assets that helps them, but there are ferals, weeds and so on. We received evidence a couple of days ago that for environmental flow to be made available where there are not major dam systems—and there are two dams in your system—it might be that a proportion of these on-farm storages would need to be dedicated to the release of environmental flow at certain times. Has Agforce considered how that would work?

Mr Bremner —I would question why you would need to do that. We are talking about ephemeral river systems that are supposed to have a dry time and a wet time. If you want to release water on a continuous basis, you are changing the ecology of that system. We actually do have an example of how that has happened. Toowoomba City Council used to release 10,000 megalitres of water into the Gowrie-Oakey Creek system and water was given to the irrigators in that section of the creek. That changed the ecology of that river system. It actually improved it. They had fish stocking clubs there putting fish into the river, and they had fishing. The Toowoomba City Council two years ago sold all of that water to a local coal mining company, and that river has dried up. The fish stocking is in suspension. There is no point in doing that anymore, because it is going back to an ephemeral river system, and you will only have the small fishing holes that might be available, whereas before there was a continuous flow of fresh water into that system. Those farmers have now lost that water. They are actually looking at taking legal action against the Toowoomba City Council. There is a whole story there on how not to do it. That water had been released for those farmers for the last 50 years. They have now lost that completely.

—What action are you taking in relation to the coal gas production given, as you describe it, there are serious risks for stock and domestic users down basin, in the artesian basin and so on? Are you actively engaging with the state government to try to make the point that

Mr Bremner —Agforce has a mining taskforce set up specifically for the coal seam gas and coal mining in general. But we have been calling for a moratorium on the coal seam gas industry until they can provide some science to prove that the damage will not occur. The make-good provisions only happen after the event. How do you repair an aquifer? No-one has done it before. Agforce’s policy is to call for a moratorium, and a stop on everything until we can work out what is safe and what is not. They are talking about putting 40,000 wells into the GAB to take out this gas. We do not believe that you cannot sustain damage to that by doing that. You cannot fix it afterwards, either.

Dr STONE —Do you feel that a moratorium is the best way until there is some science?

Mr Bremner —That is what we are calling for at the moment. At the same time, Agforce is providing our landholders with information on how they deal with these companies as well, to get the best outcome in terms of negotiating access, compensation agreements and that sort of thing. While we are calling for a moratorium and telling the government that they should stop and have a look at it, we are still providing that information to our members to help them deal with what is happening on the ground right now.

Ms Johnston —In addition to that, in terms of the water, for a number of years now we have been lobbying the government to get some of that groundwater data prior to these projects going full scale. We do not have any baseline data on water quality or water pressure. We have had a number of instances in the past 18 months where chemicals have been found in the bores, to the extent where it has led the government to ban BTEX, which is a combination of benzene and a few other ones. The government, as of November-December last year, has passed legislation where some of that baseline data and all monitoring will occur. The problem is that, at the same time as these projects are being rolled out, which will take a large amount of time, they are also approving thousands of coal seam gas exploration projects. The landowner who has those wells on their property starts seeing their bore being affected in terms of draw down, pressure, et cetera, and they do not have any baseline data to say that this has happened post these activities. There are a lot of unknowns with this industry, and it is expanding at a rate of knots. It is quite scary.

Mr Bremner —I just do not understand the rush. Why can we not just slow down a little bit and see what happens? This gas rush is just phenomenal. You have to see it in Dalby to believe it. The trucks on the Warrego Highway are just bumper to bumper now taking stuff out there and taking it back. It is unbelievable.

CHAIR —We thank you very much for your representations from Agforce. Also, if you could provide us that additional information in the two areas that came up with respect to aquification, what you have just been talking about, and also gauging. We would like you to provide more information on those topics, please. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. If Hansard has any difficulties in terms of clarification of what you have said, they will be in touch with you. Again, thank you very much for your contributions.

[2.17 pm]