Local, Independant and Effective

Landholders and MDBA praised in parliament for practical outcomes

Posted November 14, 2016

 

Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (11:06): I am pleased to support the Water Legislation Amendment (Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2016. Today I would like to focus my remarks on the management of a central piece of water infrastructure in the Murray Darling Basin—specifically the management of the Hume Dam.

 

In Indi we follow a very clear process when addressing the issues of the electorate. When constituents raise issues, we make a commitment to represent their interests, to ask relevant questions, to raise issues in parliament and to provide an opportunity where it is appropriate to resolve issues at the local level. Today I would like to share with parliament an example of this process delivering practical and significant outcomes for landholders in the Murray Valley. I acknowledge the presence in the House today of my neighbour and colleague, the member for Farrer, and the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources.

We had a problem with the Hume Dam and flooding. We were able to resolve it locally in a very satisfactory way, and I am delighted to acknowledge the work of the people who played a part in that. This year has been very wet in north-east Victoria. We have had significantly more rain than in an average year. In October this year, constituents who are landholders in the Murray Valley below the Hume weir came to me with a very clear message regarding their concerns about the management of the Hume Dam. They made a strong case. The effects of the water releases have been significant, and I have been deeply concerned about the long-term impact if the problems are not addressed.

It is important to note that I am not alone in receiving concerns from landholders. The member for Farrer, Sussan Ley, also received approaches from Murray River farmers and has acknowledged that there needs to be better communication, saying:

It is an MDBA decision, it's not a decision of government, but I think there is an information gap so I am committed to asking the MDBA … and then there can be a bit more understanding on both sides …

Landholders' concerns were twofold: firstly, that the communication to downstream landholders regarding dam releases from the management authority, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, was poor; and, secondly, that there was a fundamental flaw in management of the airspace of the dam, which means that storage of irrigation water comes at the cost of flood damage to farms and the environment. These concerns were echoed in the local media:

Lack of management of the Hume Dam has turned what could have been a constrained flood into a catastrophic one.

The fact there was not enough air-space is beyond belief.

Everything the basin authority has said has been proven wrong and the management from the authority is incompetent and inexperienced.

Mr Bill Tilley, the state member for Benambra, after observing sandbagging at Wodonga's Gateway Village, said:

I'm not necessarily confident the modelling has been good enough to inform the communities downstream from the Hume wall, particularly when you consider the inflows from the Kiewa River.

He added:

They've been slow to react to advice from state and local government authorities.

So there has been much local discussion about this particular issue.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority began increasing release from the Hume Dam in late August to retain some airspace in the dam, apparently releasing 34 per cent of the dam's capacity in three weeks. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority advised that flooding was inevitable; it was a natural phenomenon which could not be fully prevented by the dam. It added:

When conditions are very wet and Hume Dam is high—

as was the case—

the dam can store no more water and therefore has only limited impact on the passage of a flood. It's the rain that causes the flood, not the dam.

Minister Joyce acknowledges that management of the dam is a complex issue and that 'we can always be wise after the event,' adding:

It's hard to anticipate what sort of airspace you need when you really don't have a conclusive idea of exactly how much is going to fall in your catchment and how much is coming in.

Locals also know that the management of the dam is a complex issue. Andrew Reynolds, the acting head of river management at the time, admitted that his organisation had been caught out by the record amount of September inflow. But it is not an issue that can be addressed or fixed by a single authority or organisation.

It is for this very reason that I invited representatives from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority—chair Neil Andrew and general manager David Dreverman—along with representatives from the Bureau of Meteorology and WaterNSW, to meet with me, representatives of the Murray River Action Group and landholders in my electorate at a roundtable meeting on Tuesday, 1 November, in Wodonga. For the very first time, those responsible for water management and information gathering were sitting around the same table with affected landholders in a facilitated and, dare I say, relatively orderly meeting. This meeting delivered what people were asking for, which was a chance to explain their concerns directly to, and hear the explanation from, the people making the decisions at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. But, more than that, it provided an opportunity for them to suggest how things could be improved.

The landholders of my region have years of experience and knowledge, and there is clearly an opportunity for them to provide practical, firsthand advice to the managing authorities to assist in their decision-making process. Very practical suggestions were put forward at the meeting. There was robust discussion, but having the right people together in the same room meant that we walked away with some very practical steps to finding a solution. There was a view held amongst local landholders that the advice from government agencies was, compared to previous years, lacking in regularity and detail, and landholders relied on their own experience to prepare.

I thank in particular WaterNSW and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for their commitment, in response to these concerns, to convene a working group to review the early warning system and identify some practical steps to ensure timely and accurate communication to all landholders. While it was clearly acknowledged that the provision of timely and accurate communication to landholders is an area that needs further development, I would like to recognise the excellent work done by Joe Davis and his team at the Hume weir. These people work around the clock to monitor conditions and provide advice, and, for that, I and the landholders downstream say thank you. We appreciate what you have done, we appreciate your dedication and we are grateful for the work you have done for us.

I would also like to thank Neil Andrew for committing to bring together the Basin Officials Committee and the Murray River Action Group, along—I hope—with the member for Farrer and me to ensure that asset protection, irrigation water, flood mitigation and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive when managing the amount of water in the Hume Dam. I appreciate that Mr Andrew points out that 'the dam was built for the purpose of irrigation'. He states:

Protecting irrigators' water is listed as a higher priority for the MDBA in running Lake Hume than preventing flood events downstream.

He also said that current regulations do not allow the water level to purposefully drop below 97 per cent when planning for rain. Further, he said:

… when water inflows no longer occur and water outflows are needed for irrigation demand, and the dam's not full when we're running into a drought, the authority will be in even more trouble.

We need to acknowledge that the rules that govern how airspace is managed have been in place for some time now, and I really think it is timely that we review these rules. It is these rules that are the basis of the controversy of the discussions: how much is too much before we let the water out, and how much do we need to let go at any one time? The decisions on these rules will rest with the committee representatives from the federal, Victorian, New South Wales, South Australian and Queensland governments. While I will not be an advocate at the meeting, I will be very pleased to be a facilitator to ensure that there is a win-win for irrigators, landholders and the environment.

I would like to say how proud I am to be in this House and to represent the interests of my community. I was very proud to facilitate this important meeting. I am proud of the outcomes of the meeting and that they will result in better communication between government agencies and landholders. I am very proud of my staff and am grateful to them for all the work that they do, with their commitment, their loyalty, their dedication and their organisational ability. I would particularly like to acknowledge Georgina Curtis, who is in the House today, and thank her for her work.

I am proud to be of practical service to my community. On that note, I would like to draw attention to the young people in the House. I understand you are from Yea, which is also part of my electorate. It is great to have you here. Welcome. I look forward to meeting with you after I have finished this speech. I am proud of the landholders in the Murray Basin, particularly the members of the Murray River Action Group—especially their executive, who work in a voluntary capacity and who do such good work. They are: Marie Dunn, Secretary; Richard Sargood, Chairman; Greg Lumby, Vice-President; and all their team. Thank you for your proactive, pragmatic and tenacious approach to resolving issues. I am grateful to and appreciate the work of the Murray-Darling Basin, WaterNSW, the Bureau of Meteorology and the members of all my community for their goodwill and tolerance in what was a very difficult time.

In conclusion, it is timely to review the rules that govern how airspace is allocated in the Hume Weir and how that water is used. I am optimistic about the future and about our ability to work in a cooperative fashion to resolve these issues in a timely way and in a manner which meets the long-term needs of the landholders, the irrigators, the people of Albury-Wodonga and the authorities that we work for.

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