Temporary Water Restriction - Northern Inland Tributaries

Reason for Decision

Temporary Water Restriction (Northern Inland Tributaries) Order 2019

Overview

The ability to respond quickly and put in place a temporary water restriction order during the Christmas and New Year period is operationally constrained due to the number of public holidays and many regional media outlets being closed. This inhibits timely publication of the restriction in a manner that is likely to bring the notice to the attention of affected licence holders.

A temporary water restriction on pumping in the northern inland tributaries (including the Barwon River) by unregulated river access licence holders and general security regulated river access licence holders (listed in Table 1 below) is required to address critical water needs should a rainfall event occur during the holiday period. Critical needs include town water supply, basic landholder rights, high security and critical in-stream needs.

For the period 20 December 2019 to 5 January 2020 river pumping is not permitted by these licence holders to allow for replenishment of town water supplies, supply to high priority and high security users, re-filling of instream refuge pools in the local catchment, and potentially flow into the Barwon-Darling and Lower Darling systems.

The temporary restriction does not apply to the take of water by regulated river general security access licence holders if the water has been ordered and released from a dam by WaterNSW.

The temporary restriction does not apply to the take of water for testing metering equipment, and does not apply to the take of water from farm dams.

The order provides for active management. That is, should a substantial natural unregulated flow event occur, and that flow is in excess of that required for critical needs in the northern tributaries or downstream river systems, the Department can approve the take of water by access licence holders.

The restriction commences on 20 December 2019 to be in effect until 5 January 2020.

Water sourceLicences
Barwon-Darling Unregulated River Water SourceUnregulated river (A, B and C Classes) access licences from the Queensland border to the Culgoa junction
NSW Border Rivers Unregulated Water SourcesUnregulated river access licences and unregulated river (special additional high flow) access licence
Namoi Unregulated Rivers Water SourcesUnregulated river access licences and unregulated river (special additional high flow) access licence
Peel Unregulated River Water SourcesUnregulated river access licences
Castlereagh River Unregulated Water SourcesUnregulated river access licence and unregulated river (special additional high flow) access licence
Macquarie Bogan Unregulated  Water SourcesUnregulated river access licence and unregulated river (special additional high flow) access licence
NSW Border Rivers Regulated Water SourcesRegulated river (general security A class) access licence and regulated river (general security B class) access licence (unless water is ordered and released from a dam by WaterNSW)
Gwydir Regulated Water SourceGwydir regulated river (general security) access licences
Gwydir Unregulated River Water SourcesUnregulated river access licences (unless water is ordered and released from a dam by WaterNSW)

Background

All northern regulated valleys, and both the Barwon-Darling and Lower Darling valleys, are in Stage 3 severe or Stage 4 critical drought. Inflows into the Barwon-Darling River and the major northern storages are at record low levels. In the Macquarie River, river flows have ceased downstream of Warren weir. In the Peel and Border Rivers systems, dam releases to lower parts of the river system have ceased, or will cease, in coming weeks as there is insufficient water available in storage. Water users in these downstream reaches will need to access alternative supplies.

Many town water supplies are vulnerable, and domestic and stock replenishment flows have been limited. There have been no flows into the Lower Darling since February 2019.

The overarching aim of the restriction is to ensure that critical needs (town water supply, basic landholder rights, high security and environmental needs) are met if there are inflows following the extended dry period – both in the local river valley, and if possible downstream in the Barwon-Darling and the Lower Darling. Placing a temporary water restriction order on access to natural, unregulated flows by unregulated licence holders and general security licence holders is a way to achieve this aim.

Reasons for Decisions

Section 324 of the Water Management Act 2000 allows the Minister or delegate to order that temporary water restrictions within a water source are to have effect for a specified period, if satisfied that these restrictions are necessary to do so in the public interest.

There is a public interest in making an order to prohibit take in accordance temporary water restriction order as follows:

  • “To cope with a water shortage” - Remaining water supplies in the north-western catchments are at very low levels. The north-western regulated river systems, the Barwon Darling and the Lower Darling are at Stage 3 (severe) or Stage 4 (critical) water shortage under the NSW Extreme Events Policy, and flows must be protected for critical human needs.  Replenishment flows to many systems have not occurred for some time for domestic and stock purposes and water is being carted to many areas.
  • “Threat to public health and safety” - Town water supplies are reaching low levels across much of the north-west and far west of NSW. Many towns could potentially be out of river water by next year if there are no low inflows to storages. Similarly many creek systems in these valleys have not had full replenishment flows to meet domestic and stock needs, and water is being carted for these purposes.  It is essential that all inflows are protected for these higher priority critical needs.
  • Manage water for environmental purposes” - Low flow conditions persist across most of the northern NSW Murray-Darling Basin. As the drought continues and the river system becomes increasingly disconnected, pools that provide critical refuge for aquatic biota are drying up water. The quality in remaining pools is declining, putting native fish (and other aquatic biota) at risk.

Prior to recent local rain and the 2019 northern fish flow event, the Barwon-Darling River had not flowed since August 2018. There are still sections of the river that have not flowed since then.

Critical wetlands and habitats across the northern basin are heavily impacted by the current drought. There have been no flows to the Macquarie Marshes since December 2018 and the river below Warren has not flowed since early September.

In the Gwydir and Mehi rivers, water quality is declining and many parts of these rivers stopped flowing in September and October. Some environmental releases have been made in the Gwydir system in combination with delivery of stock and domestic water and high security irrigation water; however, there is not enough environmental water available to keep the rivers and creeks running.

If there are sufficient flows, the temporary water restriction will replenish pools in the inland northern rivers that provide refuge for fish and other aquatic species, contribute to connectivity, and improve water quality. Protecting any upstream flows should they occur will also enhance the prospects of water reaching Menindee, and potentially connect refuge pools and supply critical environmental needs in the Lower Darling.

Vanessa O'Keefe

A/Executive Director Policy, Planning & Sciences

18 December 2019