New NSW plan for Murray-Darling saves almost no water

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The New South Wales government’s main proposal to fulfill its promises under the Murray-Darling Basin plan is expected to be a Menindee Lakes project that will include a visitor center, but with almost no additional water for the environment.

The Murray-Darling Basin plan aims to address historical over-extraction of water by agriculture and return water to the environment. Most of this has been done by buying back water withdrawal rights from farmers, but the final part of the plan involves projects to use water more efficiently, leading to environmental benefits.

The water ministers will meet at the end of February to review the final stage of the plan. Federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek is likely to front a proposal from NSW, better known as the Baaka project, which includes fish ladders, weir improvements, a plan to retain more water in Lake Cawndilla and a visitors.

Related: Activists call for an immediate end to duck and kangaroo hunting after the Murray Darling floods

But the project will provide almost no water to the environment. The plan includes a strategic buyback of only 15GL, and no other quantified water savings.

His earlier proposal, known as the Menindee Lakes project, was claimed by NSW, up to 106GL of water will be saved towards the target of 605GL under the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism (SDLAM). This mechanism was agreed upon by all states in exchange for buyback, with states arguing that there were smarter ways to achieve water savings than withdrawing it from agriculture.

NSW, with the support of upstream irrigators, argued that reducing the size of the Menindee Lakes, making them deeper and operating them differently, could save 106GL lost to evaporation.

A paper in the scientific journal Ecology and Society is critical of plans for the Menindee Lakes.

A paper in the scientific journal Ecology and Society is critical of plans for the Menindee Lakes. Photo: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

But a scathing report by Professor Richard Kingsford, director of the Center for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, and others cast doubt on the science behind the 106GL estimate.

The paper in the international scientific journal Ecology and Society and the accompanying report found that the project lacked rigorous evidence and community consultation. Kingsford said the study showed the project was misguided and poorly framed from the start.

“We identified project failures, particularly a lack of transparent explanation of how this water could be ‘saved’, and insufficient consultation with local communities, including traditional owners,” said Kingsford.

It was also found that flows into the lakes from upriver have decreased significantly over the past century, resulting in a 68% decrease in the number of waterfowl.

‘Robbering Peter to pay Paul’

One of the main problems with the original NSW proposal was that it would destroy a very significant sacred site of the Barkindji people at the junction of the two main lakes.

“This is another good example of governments looking for a simple engineering solution to a complex problem,” Kingsford said.

“Basically, governments have been in such a rush to find an engineering solution to water savings for the basin plan, they’ve just rolled out the Menindee Lakes project, which had been on the books of the NSW water agency for over 20 years. It’s a classic case of robbing Peter, the Menindee Lakes environment, to pay for Paul, the environment in the rest of the basin.”

Cormorant fishes at the headwaters of the Menindee Lakes.

Cormorant fishes at the headwaters of the Menindee Lakes. Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

Zoe Ford, the UNSW PhD candidate who led the research, said there had been “little rigorous evidence or modeling publicly available to explain how water savings would be achieved with the project, which has a significant financial cost of $151.8m to taxpayers”. .

“Even worse, these proposed water savings represented a significant portion – up to 25% – of the additional 450GL of water to be recovered for the environment through efficiency measures,” said Ford.

The researchers found that of all the information used by WaterNSW in the Menindee Lakes master planning document, only one source (4%) was peer reviewed. A large proportion (41%) of the relevant, independent and peer-reviewed information that was readily available was not used.

“It makes a mockery of using the best available scientific evidence to make decisions about water under the Murray-Darling Basin plan,” Kingsford said.

“The first plan was flawed,” he said. “We don’t want the second plan to go the same way. At the moment there is no clarity about what it means.”

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority said it was not responsible for reviewing NSW’s water savings claims. His initial role was “only to determine the adjusted amount of projects brought by the River Basin governments, assuming they were implemented as advertised”.

Graeme McCrabb, a local and Menindee water activist, said residents had been kept in the dark about the latest plan and there had been little consultation with the traditional owners or the town, which relies on tourism.

“NSW [water] Minister Kevin Anderson is asleep. The Baaka was never better consulted.”

Related: Birds are back, crops are growing – but is the Murray Darling Basin plan working?

Anderson told Guardian Australia that the NSW government considers community consultation to be critical to decisions about the Murray-Darling Basin.

“Ministerial Council agreed in 2021 that NSW would work to re-scope the Menindee Lakes water savings project, which is now part of the Better Baaka programme,” he said.

“It is aimed at improving water security, and delivering economic, cultural and environmental benefits for regional NSW.”

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