ABC's Murray Darling Basin floodplain harvesting policy coverage misleading, government says

The NSW floodplain policy to licence harvesting was initiated by the former Labor government.
The NSW floodplain policy to licence harvesting was initiated by the former Labor government.

An ABC report on floodplain harvesting is drawing angry responses from government and irrigation groups.

The National broadcaster has refuted claims of error and bias, following an interjection from the NSW Department of Industry, which took the unusual step this week of demanding the ABC correct ‘significant factual errors’ in its weekend report.

At issue are floodplain harvesting rules that, for the first time, quantify and licence the volume of water captured in overland flows in five northern NSW valleys.

Regional Water Minister Niall Blair has released a draft Bill that proposes to issue a water entitlement to farmers who harvest floodwater and run-off, with the licensed volume based on their take, which is collected by earthworks that direct water into storages.

At the weekend the ABC TV and online reports said “irrigators in NSW are set to receive vast new licences to take water from the Murray-Darling Basin, handed out for free under a state proposal that some say will undermine the national $13 billion plan to save the country's most important river system.”

The Department said the story contained significant factual errors about the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy and it requested the ABC issue a correction to its online report. It said the report wrongly asserted that floodplain licensing was a new proposal which undermines the Basin Plan, and that it would shortchange downstream states. 

The ABC coverage said the volume extracted under floodplain licences could come in addition to the amount authorities had used to calculate the Basin Plan water recovery.

It quoted the NSW Environment Defenders Office which said this aspect of the licensing policy may be unlawful.

In fact the Water Sharing Plans for individual catchments, set in 2012 in NSW, do include floodplain take.

The sharing plans use modelling to calculate water loss that occurs during a flood due to harvesting, runoff, evaporation and so on.

These sharing plans fed into calculations for the Commonwealth’s overall 3200 gigalitre water recovery target under the Basin Plan. 

There is conjecture, however, over accuracy of the modelling used to calculate harvested volumes and floodplain losses.

And to date the modelling has not distinguished between floodplain harvesting and other losses, which is an issue the Department said the new policy would address.

The ABC said in a statement that it stood by its coverage, arguing the stories raised valid questions issued by graziers, environmental lawyers and a former water manager with the Murray Darling Basin Authority, concerning the impact the floodplain harvesting policy might have on the Basin Plan.

An ABC spokeswoman said the reports made clear the proposal was not new and that floodplain licences would “formalise however much irrigators have taken in the past”, and that those who took the most water historically would receive the biggest share of licences.

The coverage quoted former MDBA environmental water manager Bill Johnson, who suggested the policy could negatively impact the Basin Plan in other states.

Reacting to ABC’s coverage NSW Irrigators chief Mark McKenzie has slammed what he said was the report’s use of “unsubstantiated opinion as fact”.

“Harvest volumes will be capped at historical levels as at 2000 and harvested volumes were included in the baseline extraction levels in the Basin Plan,” Mr McKenzie said.

“This is the seventh time in less than 12 months that the ABC has taken a one-sided pro-environmental lobby position on reporting Basin Plan matters – once again claiming that irrigators are threatening the Murray Darling Basin Plan by over-extraction.”  

Policy proposal

The Department expects that the volume licensed for floodplain harvesting to be less than the current amount. 

Licences would require a harvester to comply with state laws regulating earthworks. Only approved and constructed floodplain valid applications and harvesting works in place at July 3, 2008 would be eligible to be licensed. 

The volume of take, capped at year 2000 levels, must be monitored in private storages. 

The volume of licensed floodplain take must fit within existing Water Sharing Plans.

“This improved estimate of floodplain harvesting will not allow additional water to be taken and will not reduce flows for downstream systems,” a spokeswoman for Mr Blair said.

“The new hydrological models that are used to improve the estimate of floodplain harvesting within Water Sharing Plan limits will be submitted to the MDBA for review and accreditation as part of Water Resource Plans (due in 2019).

  • Editor’s note: A previous version suggested the ABC coverage said “the volume extracted under floodplain licences would come in addition to the amount authorities had used to calculate the Basin Plan water recovery.” This has been corrected to say “floodplain licences could come in addition to the amount”.