FAR West NSW landholders are concerned large water releases from the Menindee Lakes system are going to bring a return to the desperately dry times experienced in recent years.
Last month, WaterNSW was releasing 4000 megalitres a day from the lake system, which presently sits at about 57 per cent of capacity, or 990 gigalitres.
The lakes system is the town water supply for Broken Hill, NSW, and got down to a concerning 3pc of capacity in 2016 because of a lack of upstream inflows.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority said the releases were for environmental purposes and entitlement holders downstream, but that it had since reduced the releases to 3250mL/day in response to “reduced River Murray system demands”.
"By using water from Menindee Lakes in summer and autumn, rather than calling on water from Dartmouth Dam, the MDBA has increased the net volume available to water entitlement holders throughout the Murray Valley, this year and into next year,” MDBA river operations head David Dreverman said.
“This is because much less water is lost through evaporation at Dartmouth than at the Menindee Lakes.
"We expect our orders to be wound back gradually in autumn. This means the amount of water in the lakes is not likely to fall below 600GL this season.”
Earlier this month, a MDBA report also said more than 92GL (or 7.7pc) evaporated from the system in the month of February alone.
But the authority’s evaporation rates have come under fire from locals, who say they are overstated and conflict with comments made recently by NSW Water Minister Niall Blair.
“In parliament, Mr Blair said there was 2-3 years of surface water still left in the lakes for Broken Hill,” Broken Hill Darling River Action Group president Tom Kennedy said.
“While in the same week, the MDBA claimed up to 155GL had evaporated from the lakes in the past six weeks. That maths means that when the Menindee Lakes is full (1794GL), it is only holding 12 months worth of water.
“They’re just pushing evaporation rates up to justify not keeping water in the lakes and to push their case for a pipeline.”
Mr Blair said the “system operator WaterNSW provided this information based on sophisticated modelling that incorporates evaporation, projected usage and prevailing weather forecasts”.
The MDBA said Broken Hill used about 6GL a year and “ensuring its water security was the highest priority for river managers”.
WaterNSW will call for tenders on the proposed $500-million 270-kilometre pipeline from the River Murray to Broken Hill – as an alternate town water source – next month.
Mr Kennedy said the biggest concern was the cost recovery of the pipeline being imposed on Broken Hill residents.
“All that matters to bureacracy is their modelling and how they can best move water elsewhere,” he said.
“The MDBA have always wanted Broken Hill to be on an alternative permanent water supply, so they can manage the lakes however they want to.
“The bores they sunk are unreliable so the pipeline is now the focus.”
Mr Blair said the future price of water for customers in Broken Hill would be determined by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal.
“The IPART process takes into consideration a number of factors, including the impact of price increases on vulnerable customers, such as pensioners,” he said.
“At $500m, the pipeline is the single largest investment in regional water security in NSW history and will provide a reliable and high quality supply of water to Broken Hill that has a long history of water shortages, which undermine community and economic development and business confidence.”
The MDBA Ministerial Council is meeting in Mildura, Vic, tomorrow to discuss progress of matters and programs relating to implementation of the Basin Plan.
Meanwhile large-scale Far West NSW landholder Rob McBride took to YouTube last week to highlight what he calls “incompetence” in the management of the river system in his region.
“In the past 20 years, the NSW Office of Water has shown incompetence in managing the Menindee Lakes and Lower Darling, leaving these communities high and dry,” he said.
“Too much water is being extracted by big irrigators in Qld and northern NSW to supply environmentally unsustainable crops and industries.
“Short-sighted politicians are kowtowing to these big irrigators...prioritised over the communities and businesses downstream and the long-term environmental sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin.”
Mr McBride called for NSW Water Minister Niall Blair’s resignation because he “refuses to listen to community concerns, and provide a commitment to Menindee Lakes and Lower Darling communities”.
“A $500m taxpayer-funded pipeline from Wentworth to Broken Hill suggests that the NSW Office of Water has no long-term commitment to maintain water in the lakes,” he said.
“This tolls a death knell for the environment and Menindee Lakes and Lower Darling communities”.