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Living Lightly column

Watching the river flow

By Jonathon Howard

The river is important to most of us. We use its water for drinking, washing, growing food, and even for recreation.  No wonder determining how we share this resource is a key environmental challenge for the basin community.

The NSW Parliament is currently conducting hearings into Floodplain Harvesting. While ‘floodplain harvesting’ might not seem relevant to most readers, at its heart there is a concern about whether the practice is just, fair, or transparent.

Floodplain harvesting involves diverting water from the flood plains into a farm dam for later use. Given the Basin covers more than one million square kilometres, and our rivers have highly variable flows, a lot of water could be harvested.

In comments to the hearings on Floodplain Harvesting, Bret Walker SC, a highly regarded lawyer, said the practice was ‘legal’ because it was not mentioned as a specific offence. Yet he also suggested that being legal does not make it right. Indeed, he referred the failure to regulate floodplain harvesting as “a real embarrassment” for Australia.

Geography is one reason why the practice might be viewed as unfair. Northern irrigators who farm over large areas of flat land have greater opportunity than the southern irrigators who live in more undulating land.

The Basin Plan is another reason.  Rain that falls on the land and then creates a floodplain flow is difficult to measure. It is what is called “unspecified take”. This means that floodplain harvesting in the northern basin (the Darling) could create more pressure on the south (the Murray) because of the overall need to supply South Australia.

Finally, floodplain harvesting basically prevents water that otherwise would have flowed back into a river from going into the river channel. This means the river will not be as full as it would have been otherwise. So the practice is unfair to downstream users as well as to the natural flooding regime that maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems and wetlands.

With modern farming methods, including laser levelling and building levees to capture water, there are now thousands of kilometres of structures in place.

One fact is hard to ignore: we are all part of the Basin community and water remains a valued but limited resource. We need to know who is taking what, so that we all get our fair share.