Temporary Water Restriction - Northern NSW Murray Darling Basin

Reason for Decision

Temporary Water Restriction (Northern NSW Murray Darling Basin) Order 2020

Background

In times of extreme drought, protecting water supply for critical needs is a key priority. All northern regulated valleys, and both the Barwon-Darling and Lower Darling, 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.

Having a temporary restriction order on irrigator access allows any moderate flows to be protected for critical needs.

Town water supplies remain at low levels across much of the north-west and far west of NSW.   Many towns such as Walgett and Mungindi could potentially be out of river water in the next few months if no or only low inflows occur into the major storages. Towns downstream of Tilpa (Wilcannia and Menindee) did not receive inflows from the November 2019 rain event. It is essential that all inflows are protected for these higher priority critical town supply needs.

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 local river valleys, 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 and high security licence holders is a way to achieve this aim.

Reasons for Decisions

Temporary water restriction – section 324

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 with the 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 in the next few months 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.

Beth Overton

A/ Executive Director, Department of Planning, Industry and Environment  – Water Policy, Planning and Sciences

16 January 2020