Submission to the Water Plan Project Team in response to the Water for Victoria Discussion Paper
People for A Living Moorabool 13 May 2016
People for A living Moorabool (PALM) is grateful for the opportunity to make a submission to the “Water for Victoria” discussion paper. In particular, PALM would like to offer our sincere thanks to the staff at the Minister's office, to Sarah Harbidge and Scott Hamilton who both gave their time to hear our concerns, and to other members of staff involved in the process including Tony Overman, Stephen Sonnenberg and Anna Lucas.
People for A Living Moorabool (PALM) formed during April 2008 in response to the dire condition of the Moorabool River. The PALM Charter reads:
“Our group unites those who want to keep the full length of the Moorabool River alive. This one idea of a ‘living Moorabool’ is our guiding principle. It means that our commitment to be a voice for the river will override any support for the rights of particular water users. We have a single focus the right of this magnificent, but highly stressed river, to an effective environmental flow. We are motivated by the politics of unity not division.”
Our members and supporters are from communities along the whole length of the Moorabool catchment and beyond. They are urban and rural dwellers, and include 3rd generation farmers, scientists, artists and Waterwatch volunteers.
PALM has lobbied extensively to secure environmental flows for the Moorabool River, and succeeded in getting the Bracks government to bring forward flow recommendations detailed within the Central Region Sustainable Water Strategy (CRSWS).
This submission will understandably focus on the implications for the Moorabool River of the Water for Victoria discussion paper. PALM believes that the issues facing the Moorabool River extend to numerous other catchments within the state. We hope the example of the Moorabool arguably the most overallocated river basin in Victoria will assist the formulation of policies and actions that best serve all our rivers.
Our submission will cover the following topics;
- The deplorable condition of the Moorabool River
- The Moorabool's sustainable diversion limit
- Previous governments' responses to the river's plight
- Critique of the Water for Victoria discussion paper against the issues facing the Moorabool River
- Possible transfer of Geelong's allocation to Ballarat
- Promises of increases in environmental allocations
- Recognising the environmental utility of water authority dams
- Distribution of environmental water within the Moorabool catchment
- Tying the delivery of environmental water reserves to targets set in waterway strategies
- Catchment dams and riparian rights
- Groundwater extractions
- Discussion Paper language
The headwaters of the Moorabool River are to the north east of Ballarat. Its confluence with the Barwon River is near Geelong. The river and its major tributaries extend for over 400km. Much of this length has been identified as priority waterway by the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority (CCMA). The river has some extraordinary reaches of great beauty and extensive biodiversity.
However the Moorabool is the most over-allocated and flow stressed major river in Victoria. A collation of figures from the Water Accounts 2013-14 reveals that the Moorabool Basin has 68% of its water resources allocated (compared to a statewide average of 24%), 42% is in Bulk Entitlements primarily for two water authorities – Central Highlands Water supplying Ballarat, and Barwon Water supplying Geelong.
There are 11 water authority reservoirs either on the Moorabool River or being fed from it. Together they represent a storage volume of over 100,000ML. In comparison the neighbouring Barwon Basin has less than half this storage volume, but three times the water resources. Farm and irrigation dams hold over 23% of the available water resources in the Moorabool basin compared to a statewide average of 2%.
The impact of this overallocation and storage on the Moorabool River has been dire with flows in every reach being severely impacted. As a cumulative result near its confluence with the Barwon River; “the median flow in the Moorabool River has dropped from 90 ML/d to 10 ML/d.”
Moorabool River Water Resource Assessment, Sinclair Knight Merz 2005 Page 18
“Sinclair Knight Merz have carried out a statewide estimation (SKM, 2002a) of the amount that can be harvested catchment wide in the winter months (July to October inclusive). This is known at the Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL). The SDL provides a conservative estimate of limits to extraction. The SDL for the Moorabool River has been determined to be 3,482 ML/yr (SKM, 2002a). The base case REALM model indicates that the average current diversion (including the effect of harvesting at storages) over these months is 38,000 ML/yr indicating the system is substantially over developed.” Moorabool River Water Resource Assessment, Sinclair Knight Mertz 2005 Page 19
This study clearly shows that the recent extraction rate is over 10 times the Sustainable Diversion Limit for this river.
In 2006 the then Premier of Victoria Steve Bracks recognised the Moorabool River as the most flowstressed in the state and the Central Region Sustainable Water Strategy(CRSWS) instigated under his government confirmed this.
The CRSWS (page 73) states:
“It is estimated that environmental flows would need to be enhanced by about 20,000 ML to meet the scientific environmental flow recommendations.”
The report goes on to identify 6,000ML of environmental flows to be delivered by 2015. Under Action 4.8a of the CRSWS, 3,000ML was water to be pumped from the Fyansford quarry. This was delivered, but only impacted on the last few kilometers of the Moorabool River. Action 4.8c was the freeing up 500ML from the buy-back of existing unregulated surface water diversion licences. This was investigated but not acted upon.
Only Action 4.8b, the transfer of 2,500ML of the water authorities' allocation in the Lal Lal Reservoir to the Environmental Water Holder has managed to impact the health of a measurable section of the Moorabool River. The effectiveness of this small amount of water has been enhanced by cooperation between Barwon Water and the CCMA. This alliance has allowed environmental releases to be 'piggy-backed' past the weir at She Oaks to give some relief to the lower section of the Moorabool River.
The CRSWS also mapped a longer-term path for recovery of the river by identifying options for future water flows of 14,000ML. These steps were;
- Further transfer to the environment of part of the entitlements of Barwon Water and/or Central Highlands Water in the west and lower Moorabool catchments (assumes Geelong and/or Ballarat have suitable replacement supplies, for example from the Newlingrook or Waranga connections) 5,000 ML
- Transfer to the environment of part of Barwon Water’s entitlement in the west and lower Moorabool catchments (assumes Geelong has suitable replacement supplies via augmentation of supply from Jan Juc aquifer) 2,500 ML
- Transfer to the environment of part of Central Highlands Water’s entitlement in the west and lower Moorabool catchments (assumes Ballarat has suitable replacement supplies due to the substitution of potable water with treated recycled water from Ballarat South Treatment Plant) 4,500 ML Transfer part of Barwon Water’s water entitlement in the west and lower Moorabool catchments to the environment (assumes Geelong has suitable replacement supplies due to the substitution of potable water with treated recycled water from Black Rock Treatment Plant) 2,000 ML
Under the last Coalition government, the initiative Ballarat and region’s water future flagged urban storm water and groundwater as further pathways for permitting more water to be left in the Moorabool River.
"The Moorabool and Yarrowee/ Leigh Rivers are highly stressed. Extractions of fresh water from both these rivers are over-allocated and their locations mean that their management is split between several agencies and organisations. One of the desired outcomes from this framework is to build upon the existing and positive partnerships between agencies and organisations, to help decrease the region’s reliance on these systems through increased use of alternative water sources wherever possible." Page 18
"The Living Ballarat Project identified a significant stormwater resource opportunity for the Ballarat region. Making better use of this stormwater resource could reduce the need for extractions from the region’s natural streams and waterways, leading to increased self-sufficiency for the region and improved waterway health." Page 35
"Reduce the need for extractions from the Moorabool system and reduce the impacts of stormwater run-off into local waterways, particularly the Yarrowee/Leigh and Burrumbeet systems;" Page 35
These are all high quality, well researched and very effective actions that would substantially reduce the urban demand for water from the Moorabool River.
PALM believes the discussion paper should be judged on how it addresses the very real and very serious impacts of historic overallocation of water resources inflicted upon the Moorabool Catchment. PALM considers that the paper fails to do this. Simply having plans to curb future excesses by initiatives such as 'fit for purpose' criteria for new dams will in no way pull rivers like the Moorabool back from the brink. Slowing the trajectory of flow stress is not enough. We call for leadership and a willingness by the state government to remove the existential threat to the second largest river in the Corangamite region.
The most substantive issue of concern to PALM with the discussion paper is the possibility that Barwon Water's entitlement in Lal Lal Reservoir may be transferred to Ballarat as part of the future operation of Victoria's 'Water Grid'.
As it makes its way from Lal Lal to Barwon Water's off take at She Oaks this water serves not only to help sustain the ecology of over 30 kilometers of a high value section of the river but as stated earlier it also has been used to piggyback environmental releases. This has allowed more of these flows to progress a further 70 kms to its confluence with the Barwon river.
The potential impacts of a transfer of this water to Ballarat were identified 10 years ago by Simone Gunn, then Environmental Water Reserve Officer CCMA (Gunn S, 2006):
“The transfer of the Geelong entitlement has the potential to significantly degrade this river reach if the flows currently provided to the river as a result of the river being used as a conduit cease...This would obviously lead to a decline in river health in the immediately affected reach but also further downstream for the river.”
Any moves to reduce this flow would impact national environmental values listed under the EPBC Act and should be referred to the Commonwealth Department of Environment as a controlled act to determine if it should be allowed to proceed. Fish surveys identified an increase between 2008 and 2014 from 5 native species to 9 native species in the Moorabool River and an abundance increase from 1000 fish to 6000 fish collected (Raymond 2015).
PALM considers these flows are a vital part the struggle to keep this river alive. We would harness the obvious community concern to fight any reduction in flows. We instead invite the government to identify parts of the grid that would see greater environmental outcomes through the appropriate movement of water. For example the manipulation of water flows through the grid could supply Ballarat with increased volumes of water. This would allow greater volumes of dual purpose water to be released down the Moorabool for Geelong. The benefits to the Moorabool River would be substantial.
Principle: No section of any river identified as flow stressed should receive less water because of the final Water Plan.
The discussion paper states (page 45) that the government will continuously improve environmental water management by:
"reconfirming the environmental water recovery targets in the Central Region Sustainable Water Strategy and identifying options to meet existing shortfalls with local communities and stakeholders in the Moorabool, Barwon, Werribee and Maribyrnong Rivers"
PALM welcomed this commitment. Our understanding has always been that the CRSWS target for the Moorabool River is 20,000ML. However after seeking clarification from Water Plan review managers through this consultation period, we now understand that the department has not adopted this figure. This is disappointing as PALM sees this as a significant weakness in the process as we applauded this part of the plan through our networks.
PALM will continue to firmly assert the case for this target for improving the condition and status of the Moorabool River not just at a local level but also at the state, national and international levels. PALM expects that DELWP will remain open to all options in assessing possible pathways for leaving more water in the Moorabool River.
Principle: The final plan should not dilute aspirations for better outcomes for rivers like the Moorabool River. Pathways to recovery have been detailed for many years and are backed by solid research and science.
While water authority dams have been a huge part of the overallocation problem for the Moorabool we believe they can also assist in solutions for the river.
There have been dramatic changes within the Moorabool catchment over 150 years. What was once an extensive forested area is now mostly cleared for farming. Consequently PALM considers the on-stream dams of the two water authorities not only have a function in collecting and storing water for consumptive use but they can also play a vital role in doing the same for the environment.
Substantive rainfall events now see water quickly entering the river to cause 'flash' flow regimes rather than being slowly released from a previously forested landscape. The water authority dams are able to hold flows to be released in a manner better mimicking natural conditions.
PALM considers that reserving 20% of the capacity of each dam for environmental utility would make a major difference to the Environmental Water Holder's capacity and flexibility for managing releases that benefit the entire catchment and specific stretches of this highly stressed river system. It should be noted that this is referring to storage capacity rather than annual allocations. How this storage capacity should be used is discussed in the following section.
The earlier referenced cooperation between the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority and Barwon Water enabling environmental releases to be piggybacked on releases for consumptive use has markedly improved the effectiveness of those flows for environmental benefits.
Principle: The plan should formalise the idea that water authorities are proper participants in protecting the environment and that their infrastructure can play a significant role in realising positive outcomes for the environment. The authorities should have strong internal environmental units guiding decisions within the utilities and being enabled by strong legislation directing such environmental activities.
PALM calls on the Victorian government to institute a pathway for achieving a further 7,500ML in environmental allocations for the Moorabool River. Combined with the existing 2,500ML this would equate to half the 20,000 ML recommended in the CRSWS (page 73).
1. Minimum Water Recovery Targets
PALM proposes that 2,500ML be immediately added to the current environmental reserve in the Lal Lal reservoir. This would meet the 'Minimum Water Recovery Target 1' as prescribed in the Moorabool River Environmental Water Management Plan Draft Version 2.3.
2. Passing Flows
There are substantial deficiencies with the passing flow regimes of the majority of the current Bulk Entitlements. For instance outflows from the Lal Lal reservoir drop by 75% when there is a 10% drop in the cumulative inflows over a 24 month period. PALM proposes that 2,000ML be assigned to provide better tapering of passing flows and that the government conduct an immediate review to examine the adequacy of passing flow clauses in all Bulk Entitlements within the catchment in light of the latest scientific knowledge on the environmental values of the river.
In the face of rapid climate change the future resilience of our rivers will require a proactive approach to modifying flow regimes.
Principle: The final Water Plan should include a commitment to resource identifiable minimum water recovery targets for all rivers recognised as flow stressed and to institute a more flexible/adaptable process for reviewing and adjusting passing flows within them.
The remaining 3,000ML of the proposed extra 7,500ML should be shared by the 10 major on-stream water authority dams as environmental reserves. PALM recognises that the downstream reaches from some of the storages in the upper catchment have little riparian fencing or vegetation thus lessening the value of releases. We propose that these amounts are properly gazetted but are temporarily withheld until the corresponding fencing and vegetation goals detailed in the Corangamite Waterway Strategy for these reaches are met. Most dictate targets of between 25-50% of river frontage.
PALM's opinion, supported by a number of Landcare leaders to whom we spoke, is that such a measure would help stimulate action among their members. The principal concern is that the promised delivery of water be ironclad. Virtually all the reaches within the Moorabool catchment directly feed either urban water storages or off-takes. The broader community will benefit directly from limiting stock access. Increases in riparian vegetation will limit nutrient loads and assist mitigating the risk of algal blooms, something several storages have experienced.
Tying future environmental allocations to catchment management goals would be a driver for the actions set out in the discussion paper;
implementing long-term programs in partnership with communities
improving environmental water management
protecting waterways from adverse impacts of human use
strengthening community engagement and participation
improving waterway health knowledge, monitoring and innovation
They would also be firmly consistent with the indicators of success;
priority waterways show improved health, in accordance with the targets set for them in regional waterway strategies.
the environmental, social, cultural and economic value of Victorian waterways is increasing over time.
PALM would like to see an additional indicator included one that covers;
real gains in restoring water balance to our most over-allocated and flow stressed rivers. Principle: Environmental allocations should be not provided only to 'protect the best' but instead should, under the right scenarios, work hand in hand with Regional Waterway Strategies to be a driver for works to restore degraded reaches of our state's rivers.
The Moorabool basin now has 23% of its water resources tied up in dams other that those of urban water authorities. The state average is 2%. These are dams on farms, some on-stream some off, some are winter fill only, others fill year round. While their size varies some are significant and consequently have extreme local impacts on water flows.
The Moorabool River catchment itself contains over 4,000 dams that prevent over 12,000ML reaching the river. Some sub-catchment dam densities are over 7 per square kilometer.
This is clearly excessive and far exceeds figures for any other basin in Victoria. Their continued proliferation means there is a very real risk that gains in environmental water for the Moorabool River will be continually eroded.
PALM is aware that dams have been constructed in some areas of the catchment in recent years, possibly without proper licencing and analysis. Others are increasing the size of onstream dams and excavating drainage lines to feed them further diminishing river flows. On the other hand we are also aware of farmers who are working to consolidate their water holdings into deeper, sheltered dams. We believe this last group need to be supported in their efforts.
While 'fit for purpose' requirements within the discussion paper are a positive step, PALM considers the Moorabool basin as a special case requiring immediate intervention by government. The government needs to halt this hidden encroachment on river flows and deliver a plan to claw back these excessive volumes.
PALM calls for:
- the Moorabool Catchment to be declared a special farm dam control area and a public notification program be instituted to ensure landholders throughout the catchment are aware of this and their responsibilities.
- the 500ML promised through Action 4.8c of the CRSWS be obtained through the purchase of existing large dams within the catchment. It is envisaged the these dams would not be decommissioned but rather the water from them be used by the CCMA as part of an ongoing environmental watering regime.
- a requirement that the proponent of any new dam would need to negotiate the decommissioning of existing upstream dam before permission is given and a 10% transfer deduction be applied to the permitted volume of any new such dam.
- assistance for landholders to consolidate their dams into better sheltered constructions that minimise evaporative losses, and to install reticulated systems.
PALM acknowledges the approach taken by Southern Rural Water in recognising the state of the Moorabool System and not approving the construction of new commercial irrigation dams. However we feel this needs to be properly codified and backed by regulation. Again a publicity program is needed for this change.
PALM has argued that in normal circumstances it is preferable that water is allowed to flow down the river to be taken for stock and domestic use at a property rather than being taken from the upper catchment by a water authority and piped to that location. Further, we understand that regulations around subdivisions of river frontage stipulate that only one of the properties is permitted to retain riparian pumping rights. However it is our on ground experience that this is rarely adhered to and hardly every policed. We suggest that an online publicly accessible register be maintained to identify those properties with riparian pumping rights and large farm/irrigation dams.
Principle: The final Water Plan should contain a mechanism for identifying and then capping catchments and sub-catchments where the level of dam construction is impacting heavily on either the environment and/or other water users downstream. It should also contain incentives for landholders to reduce dam numbers and evaporation.
The SKM (2004) study:
“estimated that groundwater use in the upper west catchment is resulting in direct base flow reduction in the stream. For every megalitre of water pumped from groundwater it is estimated that base flow in the stream is reduced by 0.6 ML.”
The Bungaree water Supply Protection Area in the north-west of the Moorabool catchment has restricted the issuing of further licences. However, the total licence allocation stands at 5,180ML/year exceeding 70% of the permissible volume (PAV), which itself has been set at 4,436ML/year.
PALM deems the relationship between groundwater and base-flow within the Moorabool catchment to beso tightly linked that there is a compelling argument for this protection to be extended over the whole catchment.
Principle: A mechanism is needed whereby any decision about the granting of licences for groundwater extraction must properly take into account the potential impacts on stream flows. The burden of proof should rest with the licence applicant, at least for catchments that are identified as highly flow-stressed. Further, when a catchment is identified as highly flow-stressed, that the default position is that no new licences be issued without an equal or greater amount being revoked in the same ground water aquifer. In essence, a cap and trade system.
PALM is deeply concerned by the language used both in the document and during the consultation meetings. It seems to indicate a “shallow ecology”/human-centric/resource use approach (Routley, 1980) dominates the thinking that drives this inquiry. This is epitomised in the opening paragraph of the Waterway and catchment health section:
“Healthy waterways (including rivers, wetlands, estuaries and their catchments) underpin a strong economy, provide opportunities for recreation and enhance the livability of our cities and towns. Waterways play a vital role in the physical and mental health of people and communities and connecting with nature has proven to be beneficial for wellbeing.”
Also, during the stakeholder meeting in Ballarat a presenter remarked that the 'Environmental Water Holder was sitting on around 2 billion dollars of water'.
While both these statements might be true, this emphasis on the economic value of water helps create a 'mindset' that makes the intrinsic and ecological values subservient to a narrow utilitarian economic perspective.
A major responsibility of government is stewardship of the environment. This job cannot be done properly unless the intrinsic value of our natural world is recognised. If all actions are bundled with an economic justification non-economic values will not be fully appreciated nor protected.
One of the welcomed pillars of the discussion paper is 'Recognising and managing for Aboriginal values'. Caring for country centers around an ethic of equitable and sustainable use and an appreciation of 'mother earth'.
The government should be able to argue the case for the environment without continually referring to 'human-centric' overlays. As humans we should be able to share resources such as water with the rest of the living world. When our take is manifestly excessive and impacting dramatically on ecosystems then the government should have the courage to unashamedly act to correct the imbalance.
PALM considers that a critical and essential component of the final Water Plan must be the provision of legal status to the ecological and other values inherent in the water cycle. This would put these values on a par with the legal protection given to the economic value of water 'resources' exploited by water authorities and others.
The Moorabool River has been brought to a depauperate condition by the application of expedient, narrow values and perspectives. To improve its condition requires a broadening of the government's, manager's and citizen's perspectives to put these other values at the base of future management and the long-term future of the river requires that these priorities be protected through legislation and regulations.
Principle: That the language used around water rights and responsibilities reflect the intrinsic natural values of the environment sustained by our rivers, streams and wetlands.
PALM believes that this government needs to honour the stewardship responsibilities for our environment that come with attaining legislative power. We recognise that issues around water require strong leadership. Given the prediction of changed water regimes due to climate change impacts, creating effective and innovative responses to the problems faced by the Moorabool River would assist in building resilience in other catchments.
The ability to balance budgets is rightly considered an important role of government. Water is no different. That the water resources within the Moorabool Catchment are so heavily 'overspent' should be both recognised and acted upon with a greater vigor than is presented in the discussion paper. PALM's proposed principles and actions are a minimum for what should be adopted in the Moorabool catchment. The water inquiry team should investigate the extension of these principles across Victoria. Future generations will judge this government by the way it acts in response to the critical situation faced by rivers like the Moorabool.
Gunn, S (2006): River health implications of water transfer in the flow stressed Moorabool River catchment. Unpublished presentation to River Symposium.
Raymond, S (2015): Assessment of Fish Populations in the Moorabool River to inform Environmental Flows, Arthur Rylah Institute, unpublished report for Corangamite Catchment Management Authority, October.
Routley, R & V (1980): 'Human chauvinism and environmental ethics' in Mannison et al (eds) Environmental Philosophy, Chapter 8, Pages 134-151.
Sinclair Knight Merz (2004): An assessment of water use and environmental flow requirements for the Moorabool River (Outcomes of the Moorabool Water Resource Assessment Project)
Summary of: Moorabool River Water Resource Assessment, Report prepared for Corangamite CMA.