Menindee Lakes - adjournment speech
Two weeks ago I sat having a beer with the President of the Darling River Action Group, Ross Leddra, on his back port at Sunset Strip as we stared out over Menindee Lake. For him and most of the other residents of Sunset Strip, it was their little patch of paradise where they had moved to retire. Ross reminisced about afternoons where people would walk and picnic together on the grassy banks of the lakes as kids played around them, all just a few metres from his back porch. "It was magic," he said. I tried to imagine it as I looked out at the scene before me because all I could see were emus kicking up dirt on the vast, dry lake bed where once there were waterskiers and people would throw a line out to catch a few Murray cod or golden perch. Now many of the cottages are boarded up and worthless. Yet these communities have received no compensation for a deliberate decision by the Government to drain Menindee Lakes.
I will note some of what has gone wrong in the Barwon-Darling Baaka river system and Menindee Lakes, according to Broken Hill's wonderful little paper, theBarrier Daily Truth. Despite communities along the Darling River and the communities at Menindee and Sunset Strip experiencing dry lake beds and a dying river, the volume of water extracted from the Barwon-Darling river system in the year 2019-20 set a new record. About 474 gigalitres were taken for irrigation in the north, according to data published online by the Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment [DPIE]. The previous record of take from the Barwon-Darling was 302 gigalitres in 2016‑17. That was the last time all of the Menindee Lakes were filled.
The new record for the last year coincided with big floods in Queensland. The Darling had been dry for three years when the water reached northern New South Wales in February. For the first time since 2016 the Northern basin had an opportunity to harvest flood plain waters. National Party water Minister Melinda Pavey put an embargo on that so that the water could fill the Darling River first. She then lifted the embargo for three days at the request of irrigators in the Gwydir and Namoi valleys. The Minister said that only 32 gigalitres was taken off the flood plain in that event, yet she has not been able to substantiate that number. That is a lot lower than the 474 gigalitres that DPIE said was taken from the Barwon‑Darling, most of it in that February flood event.
In June this year Minister Pavey said that it was nice to see a "good lick of water in Menindee" and that the lakes were managed best when under the control of the State Government. According to the Murray‑Darling Basin Agreement, New South Wales manages the water until it reaches 650 gigalitres. At that point the Murray‑Darling Basin Authority takes over. In other words, Menindee stays under New South Wales control if the lakes are never filled. That may be achieved by maintaining over‑extraction in the north. Under the control of the Murray‑Darling Basin Authority, the lakes contribute nearly 40 per cent of South Australia's water from the Murray River.
With the lakes dry, South Australia draws its supply from the Murray alone, at the expense of farmers on the Murray in southern New South Wales, who this year faced their third year of having no water entitlements whatsoever. There are thousands of grain growers and dairy farmers on the Murray River. On the Barwon‑Darling there are 158 water licence holders but just four of them hold 75 per cent of the shares, mainly for growing cotton. Now the Government is turning to Menindee Lakes to try to get more water into the system. The Menindee Lakes water savings project is the biggest of all the water saving proposals for the Murray‑Darling Basin and it stands to lose 105 gigalitres a year. What happened to the ICAC investigation into allegations of water theft by big irrigators that was raised by theFour Corners "Pumped" program? The Natural Resources Commission has recommended urgent changes to save the Barwon-Darling from ecological collapse. From what I saw and whom I spoke to, it seems the Government is sacrificing the communities, lakes and river systems of the lower Darling to pander to extremely powerful irrigators—their mates in the Northern basin—who are prepared to kill a river for their own self‑interest.