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The Lower Balonne Measures Up

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Smartrivers' members support for the National Plan for Water Security (NPWS) in principle and can demonstrate that the Lower Balonne community is committed to and measures up against all of the strategic objectives of the Plan as they are currently understood.

 

There is strong community support for information-based decision making which is a key component of the NPWS and the Lower Balonne community has been diligent in pursuing this in the development of water resource plans over the last decade or so.

Unlike most other rivers developed for irrigation in the Murray Darling Basin the Lower Balonne has no headwater storage and a very modest regulated storage. The Lower Balonne is largely a water harvesting system where extractions are staggered along the length of the system. Small in-stream structures and/or pumps divert water into off-stream storages. This arrangement together with sophisticated hydraulic modelling of infrastructure development allows the natural flow paths on the floodplain to function in much the same way as under natural conditions even though water is diverted to consumptive use. 

The Condamine and Balonne Water Resource Plan (WRP) were gazetted as subordinate legislation to the Water Act 2000 on 12 August 2004. The WRP has been partially implemented through the Interim Lower Balonne Water Sharing rules in late 2006

Key features of the plan as it relates to the Lower Balonne include:

  • Establishment of the sustainable level of diversions for a 10-year period with a mid term report to test the assumptions within the plan;
  • Eminent scientists have identified ecological assets;
  • Event based flow management to deliver the water requirements of the ecological assets and minimize impacts on social and economic assets – a first in Australia;
  • Diversions capped and sleeper and dozer licenses resolved – a first in Australia;
  • Access to flows for diversion managed to ensure entitlement holders receive their share;
  • Regulation of overland flow-take for the first time in Australia, with the intention to meter all take over the life of the plan.  This is in the form of a licence that can be amended at review time, as opposed to being an allocation;
  • All diversion structures and on farm storage used for the diversion of water harvesting and overland entitlements have been measured and certified by registered engineers – a first in Australia;
  • High compliance with metering and daily reporting of extractions during events.
  • Water trade enabled, except for overland flow;
  • Continuation of ecological health monitoring with a new partnership between community and government; and,
  • Formal process for community engagement with government.

 

Ecology

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There are important ecological assets in the Lower Balonne that need to be managed. These include the biota of the rivers and distributary channels of the Lower Balonne and their associated wetlands, the internationally recognized Narran lakes, the National Parks of the Culgoa floodplain, and the Darling River itself. At the same time, there are significant economic and social benefits to the community from the irrigation developments of the Lower Balonne. The irrigation community itself recognizes the importance of protecting these natural areas and stated in their submission to the Cullen Review (Cullen et al, 2003) that significant degradation of the protected natural areas would be unacceptable to them.

Since June 2000, Smartrivers has funded what it believes is the most significant community sponsored river ecology monitoring program in Australia. We do this because we believe that the current ecological monitoring by Government or regional bodies is totally inadequate.   The program has been peer reviewed at several stages, including through the “Review of the Science Underpinning the Assessment of the Ecological Condition of the Lower Balonne System” (Cullen et al 2003) conducted by Prof Peter Cullen, Prof Russell Mien and Dr Richard Marchant, and sponsored by the Queensland government.

At the time of the review, the Smartrivers’ data demonstrated that the aquatic invertebrates in the rivers did not indicate evidence of human disturbance either in a downstream direction, or in comparison to adjacent catchments. The fish communities did show a trend downstream, but it was not possible to say conclusively that this was due to water management or to natural changes that occur in this distributary system (Cullen et al, 2003).

Ecological impacts on our river systems accrue from far more sources than volumetric extraction of water and little has been done to understand the relative impacts in the Condamine Balonne, or indeed in any river in Australia.

The river system has been in an extended period of low flow from 1999 to the present due to drought, and there is no new evidence to suggest that ecological response has been impacted by irrigation. Indeed, the fact the river has survived well during the drought may indicate that the current level of extraction is conservative compared to the true sustainable level.

  

Information

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You can’t manage what you don’t measure" 

 

This is why Smartrivers’ members:

  • Voluntarily installed meters on their intakes
  • Actively took part in the Lower Balonne Floodplain Management Committee, and supported the development of the Floodplain Management Guidelines and the Floodplain Decision Support Tool (prepared by SMEC);
  • Have supported ecological monitoring of the aquatic environments since 2000 – without any Government support, despite challenging financial restraints;
  • Have supported the Airborne Geophysics study of the region, and the establishment of bores to monitor groundwater levels and salinity;
  • Commissioned two reports to study the accuracy of DNRM Ratings Tables of flow gauging at the NSW/Qld border:   Lower Balonne Hydrology Checks by SKM, and, Lower Balonne InBank Stream Flow Measurements Report by Greenspan; and,
  • Undertook works certifications of all water storages in the region.

There is general agreement that the St George gauge gives good estimates of flows into the Lower Balonne system, over the whole flow range. At this important site, event flow-rates and volumes are well defined for management purposes. Ratings for other (downstream) gauges are considered generally satisfactory (by accepted standards) in the low to medium flow ranges. While efforts should continue to be made to obtain the information needed for the higher range, this is not considered crucial for management targets based on flow events of most interest (Cullen et al, 2003).  As part of this review, Prof Russell Mein stated that floodplain gauges were commonly only accurate to within +/- 25%.  A specific review of gauges in the Lower Balonne by Dr John Porter, peer reviewed by Prof Tom McMahon and Prof John Fenton, clearly showed that floodplain flows were significantly underestimated.  It is impossible to define over-allocation or to determine levels of sustainable extraction within such a data-poor environment.

Smartrivers suggests that in accordance with the proposal to establish uniform water resource monitoring and reporting procedures, the Commonwealth establish uniform environmental monitoring and reporting processes tied to the need to establish and monitor sustainability targets. This could be implemented through an expansion of the already established Sustainable Rivers Audit with appropriate community involvement and cost sharing arrangements.

In addition, there must be increased investment in new ecological research to fill current knowledge gaps, allow targets to be refined and appropriate flow management modifications to be developed. This is not saying that decisions aimed at environmental protection should be delayed until we have certainty of the outcomes; it merely asks, when stakeholder funding (alone) has conclusively shown that nothing has yet been significantly impacted, why should we be punished?

 

Community

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The challenge for Government is to use the best available science to ensure management provides a wetting regime appropriate to protect these important ecological assets, and yet provide the maximum amount of water for irrigation that is possible without causing significant degradation of the system (Cullen et al, 2003).

Achieving a critical mass in size and economic activity has been a significant achievement for the townships of St George and Dirranbandi.  Development of irrigated agriculture has resulted in increases in population, skills, income, infrastructure and services.  This has provided substantial qualitative social benefits for the local community.

The Lower Balonne community is committed to maintaining the health of the system and has worked with government, scientists and environmentalists for a long period of time to understand its function and develop management arrangements that meet the needs of all. 

A whole of community approach is taken with regard to engagement and problem solving and irrigators, environmentalists, graziers, small business, banking and indigenous interests actively participate.

 

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