Murrumbidgee River and Lake George
Community comment on the objectives

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Overview

Community meetings to discuss the proposals for the Murrumbidgee River and Lake George catchments were held between 17 March and 24 April 1998 at Queanbeyan, Tumut, Hay, Griffith and Wagga Wagga. These were well attended; more than 300 people attended at Griffith. Twenty-nine written submissions were received. A meeting in Wagga Wagga concerning environmental objectives and other water reforms attracted Aboriginal people from several Murrumbidgee and Murray communities.

No submissions or comments specific to the Lake George catchment were received.

The local river management committees will consider the issues raised and comments made when developing management plans.

Considerable dissatisfaction with the Government's discussion paper (EPA 1997), and with the meeting processes, was recorded. Many people felt that data in the booklet were inaccurate, had little scientific basis, and showed limited knowledge of the area. Those attending the meetings would have liked to receive the booklet earlier. A common thread of criticism of the EPA and meetings is portrayed by the following comment, made after discussions with people who attended meetings at Griffith and Wagga Wagga:

'Most . . . were scathing in their criticism of the processes being undertaken. Very few people believed they were being properly consulted. Some felt bureaucrats had already made the decisions and the meetings were a charade. Most questioned the role of the EPA in the process given that it claims to be a regulator, but has in fact become resource manager.'

Many people were particularly concerned that work done by local bodies had not been recognised.

Value of the water resource

The meetings and submissions identified a range of uses and values of the Murrumbidgee River and its catchments:

These values were fairly standard along the river.

Water quality

The following problems, and their effects on water quality and people, were identified:

Many discussion groups and submissions strongly endorsed the highest water quality option (basic river health and advanced human uses, such as swimming) for the Murrumbidgee and most tributaries.

Some people preferred less costly options. Most people at the Griffith meeting called for maintaining the status quo, except in relation to carp, salinity and turbidity. However, some disagreed and supported the idea of working towards the highest water quality option. Some people felt that the water quality was currently as described in this option, and that existing programs were sufficient to maintain this quality. Others felt the costs of achieving it would be too high.

People in Tumut tended to support the status quo, except that they wanted to stop erosion and increase the water temperature from dam releases in the expectation that the water would then be suitable for all uses.

There was much concern, particularly at the meetings, that the needs of the irrigators had not been considered in developing the proposed options. Many irrigators said that they also desired the best water quality but felt that their current efforts in developing land and water management plans had been ignored.

Specific recommendations relating to water quality included:

People said that implementing and achieving the highest water quality option in the discussion paper (option 4: protect basic river health and advanced human uses) would give the following benefits:

The written submissions and meetings noted a need to better understand the cost of implementation and management of water reforms. Concern was raised over who would be responsible for paying these costs.

River flows

Some people stressed the need to manage the Murrumbidgee system as a whole. Apart from opposition or support for the processes of reforming flow management, most comments were about particular tributaries, the upper region, or part or all of the regulated reach of the Murrumbidgee. No comments appeared to relate specifically to the Lake George catchment.

Many people specifically criticised the river flow section of the discussion paper (EPA 1997), stating that there was a lack of knowledge of the flows and not enough information on the objectives, or that they had difficulty understanding them, and so it was hard to assess impacts.

Top of PageQueanbeyan and upper catchment

Each of the river flow objectives proposed in the discussion paper (EPA 1997) received some support. The objectives most commonly considered important for upper catchment streams were those relating to protecting pools in dry times (objective 1), protecting natural low flows (2), protecting important rises in water levels (3), maintaining wetland and floodplain inundation (4), managing groundwater for ecosystems (8), minimising effects of weirs and in-stream structures (9), and minimising the effects of dams on water quality (10). Some people said these were all admirable objectives but not deliverable. A few people disagreed with some of the proposed objectives.

Flow issues raised included:

Top of PageTumut area and middle-region tributaries

Discussion in some groups at the meeting was more about specific environmental flow rules than the objectives proposed in the discussion paper (EPA 1997). Support was apparent from some groups and submissions, particularly for objectives relating to protecting natural low flows (objective 2), maintaining wetland and floodplain inundation (4), maintaining natural flow variability (7), managing groundwater for surface flows and ecosystems (8), minimising effects of weirs and in-stream structures (9), minimising the effects of dams on water quality (10), and managing water for unforeseen events (11). There was also support for protecting important rises in water levels (objective 3) provided that high flows occurred in their natural season or were not too high.

A few people opposed one or two objectives, or suggested constant flow or the building of a pipeline as alternative objectives.

Many people were greatly concerned by the erosion of the Tumut River, which was said to have doubled in width as a result of high flows throughout summer. People said they were losing productive land, that pastures on the river flats were soured by high watertables, and that red gums were falling into the river. Remedial efforts were described as not working or destroying platypus habitat, and people did not want their river to become a 'rock canal'. There was strong support in the meeting and submissions for reducing maximum releases from Blowering Dam to 7800 ML/day (from more than 9000 ML/day), increasing the minimum winter releases to 750 ML/day, and increasing the releases in spring to improve fish habitats.

Erosion of the beds of several creeks near their junctions with the Murrumbidgee was attributed to a lack of flow in the Murrumbidgee when outlets from dams were closed. The lowered water level in the river then allowed storm flows to rush in from the tributary creeks with resultant scouring of the creek beds.

The effects of pine plantations on low flows in creeks was a major concern. Some people suggested that a cap be placed on pine planting.

It was suggested that the process of developing action plans to achieve appropriate objectives in uncontrolled streams (e.g. Tarcutta Creek) could involve a case-study approach, working with active water-user groups and other local people.

Strong feelings were expressed in one submission about specific irrigators said to be extracting far more water than they were entitled to. The writers were concerned that the authorities had not taken action.

Top of PageWagga Wagga

At the meeting in Wagga Wagga, maintenance of the status quo was the preferred water quality option. This could have been because, as was noted in the meeting, people felt they did not have sufficient information available to assess other options. Erosion of riverbanks was cited as a major problem that required immediate attention.

After considering the proposed river flow objectives at some length, people saw advantages in most of them. The objectives that received most support were maintaining natural flow variability, making water available for unforeseen events, minimising the effects of weirs, and protecting important rises in water levels. Many people called for more off-river storage and increased allocation for irrigators.

Top of PageGriffith area

Discussion at the Griffith meeting focused on opposing the environmental flow rules that the Murrumbidgee River Management Committee had agreed to recommend to the Government. Ten resolutions were passed, requesting:

One person at the meeting remarked, 'None of the 11 [proposed] objectives are aimed at the priorities of the irrigators or the sustainability of irrigation and the surrounding area.'

Most people did not want any river flow objectives to be set for the Murrumbidgee. Several of the groups discussed each objective and indicated support (with reservations) for some objectives-such as minimising the effects of dams on water quality and making water available for unforeseen events.

Several people said they did not have the knowledge to make some of the required decisions, particularly on issues relating to environmental flows.

The eight written submissions referring to this part of the catchment expressed a variety of views on several issues. Four of these requested further improvement in the quality or management of flows in Mirrool Creek or in the waterways receiving Coleambally outflows.

Top of PageHay area

Many people felt that possible actions outlined in the discussion paper (EPA 1997) were not costed in sufficient detail to enable considered evaluation of their impacts. There was particular concern that water supply for irrigation must be economically viable.

Many irrigators felt that their wellbeing had not been considered in the proposals. One commented that actions were not costed sufficiently to evaluate their impacts and that those with the most positive environmental outcomes were most negative on irrigators.

Although people expressed a need for more research to be done on flow regimes, they still indicated a preference for certain objectives. Most popular was the objective of making water available for unforeseen events, followed by protecting important rises in water levels, maintaining wetland and floodplain inundation, maintaining natural rates of change in water levels, and managing groundwater to support ecosystems.

One substantial submission discussed each proposed flow objective, gave economic data, and gave the results of a survey of people in Hay. The submission expressed grave concern that water available for use in this area would decline by more than 10% under the existing flow rules. It concluded that the 'program for improving water quality, native fish stocks, riparian environments and river flows needs to be completely redeveloped.'

Another submission expressed concern about adverse impacts of big new irrigation developments near Hay, and about water wastage.

Top of PageAboriginal meeting

People raised several concerns relevant to river flow objectives. These concerns related to weirs, inadequate allowance for fish passage, regulators and levee banks affecting flows through billabongs and other wetlands, flows being too unnatural, too much water being diverted to the Murray and Murrumbidgee from the Snowy River, insufficient recycling and efficiency in water use, the quality of water returning to creeks and rivers from irrigation areas, and rising saline groundwater. Swans no longer breed, and medicinal and food plants can no longer be found in some billabongs and the Lowbidgee wetlands. Native fish were much rarer.

Many sites of cultural or spiritual importance had been destroyed or altered to meet the needs of other water users. Aboriginal people wanted rights that were respected and to be consulted more. They requested training and opportunities to help restore river health. The following comment reflected a need for improved information flow: 'Land and water conservation should be as clear as the water.'

River flow recommendations and impacts

Many people wished management of water reform to involve or be under the control of local people. Other specific recommendations regarding river flow in part or all of the catchment included:

The following were perceived as positive effects of implementing the supported river flow objectives and recommendations:

Negative effects of flow reform were seen as being related to the costs of implementation and management. The effect on the economic viability of agricultural industries was also seen as negative. Reduction in water available for irrigation was seen as a major factor adversely affecting agricultural production and, in many cases, reportedly causing severe economic hardship. This hardship, it was said, would soon be passed on to local communities.

The issue of who pays was seen as unresolved. A number of people agreed that the cost should be shouldered by each community and not be the burden of individuals. It was felt that too little information had been presented about the costs involved.

Top of PageRecent changes to flow management

Many of the concerns expressed by people in the Tumut, Wagga Wagga, Griffith and Hay areas related to the process for establishing environmental flow rules for regulated rivers (see box, Section 5), or the potential effects of such rules. That process was occurring concurrently with the process of working out river flow objectives for unregulated rivers and water quality objectives for all rivers. The Murrumbidgee (Regulated) River Management Committee, which includes local community representatives, unanimously recommended environmental flow rules that have been adopted by Government and are subject to annual review.

Major issues

The process of developing the objectives has brought out the following major issues (not presented in any order) that need action:

The Murrumbidgee (Regulated) River Management Committee and the Murrumbidgee Unregulated River Management Committee will consider these issues in developing their plans for the Murrumbidgee River and floodplain below Burrinjuck Dam and for the upper Murrumbidgee and tributaries. The Murrumbidgee Groundwater Management Committee will consider those issues which are relevant when developing its plan for aquifers in its area.

Existing programs

Some of the above issues are already receiving considerable attention and resources in the Murrumbidgee and Lake George catchments. For example, local communities, industry groups and local government are undertaking important on-the-ground projects through Landcare, Rivercare and other programs. Land and water management plans for the Coleambally and Murrumbidgee irrigation areas have been developed by the local communities with significant input from government agencies. The NSW Government has already put in place and funded many programs, including the Carp Assessment and Reduction Program, Floodplain Management Program, WaterWise on the Farm, Salt Action, Blue-Green Algal Management, Wetlands Action, the Country Towns Water and Sewerage Program, and the Town Water Supply Program. At the Commonwealth level, funding is in place for programs through the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Landcare and the Natural Heritage Trust.

This page was published 1 May 2006

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