“Managing the impact of variable climatic patterns is a critical issue for NSW local water utilities with potentially severe consequences if not addressed properly,” the paper noted.
Despite these warnings — and a clear concern that dire conditions during the millennium drought, the worst in the country’s history, could return — the Coalition under then state water minister Kevin Humphries changed regulations that would have let more water into dams the following year.
Stuart Khan, an environmental engineering academic at the University of NSW, said the guidelines had “not been clearly implemented”.
“The millennium drought should have been a very clear wake-up call, informing us that we need to be much better prepared,” Professor Khan said. “This draft document was produced during a wetter period for NSW, which is exactly when planning should have occurred.”
Water Minister Melinda Pavey last week confirmed several significant regional centres — including Tamworth, Orange, Bathurst and Dubbo — could run out of local water supplies, while smaller towns had reached a critical point, forcing the state to spend $15 million delivering water by truck.
Ms Pavey last month criticised her departmental bureaucrats for being slow to act on water issues, telling the NSW Farmers Association’s annual conference that she feared many public servants did not want dams to be built and that she was “finding some internal challenges every day”.
Another draft report — authored by NSW Natural Resources commissioner John Keniry — found separate water sharing rules introduced by former water minister Katrina Hodgkinson and later overseen by Mr Humphries had helped bring on water shortages in far-western towns three years earlier than could have been the case.
A Department of Primary Industries spokeswoman confirmed it had been “determined that a subsequent report was not required” after the water security draft report was delivered in late 2013.
“There was no need for a final report as all local councils, and water utility providers in regional NSW, subsequently adopted the guidelines in the draft report into their future strategic planning,” she said.
The Herald has confirmed a number of local governments did incorporate the guidelines subsequent to December 2013, but in many occasions not for years after the release of the draft report.
But Nature Conservation Council campaigns director Brad Smith accused the government of ignoring “unambiguous advice that climate change is causing massive reductions in water for regional towns”.
“It not only ignored this advice, it made matters worse by adopting a water policy that siphoned off even more water for big irrigators,” he said. “This explosive document shows the National Party’s climate change denial is hurting the very people they were elected to serve.”
However, Sydney University hydrologist Willem Vervoort said he could “see good reasons why this [report] never got past draft stage”.
“There are all kinds of assumptions that need to be made to make an educated guess at the future yield that might be expected,” Dr Vervoort said. “I would not be surprised that, upon review, the decision was made that the report depended too much on assumptions and therefore could not be used as a firm guideline.
“In simple words, while the temperature increases for the future are well established, we are still struggling to understand the impacts it will have on rainfall, vegetation and runoff.”
Kylar Loussikian is The Sydney Morning Herald’s CBD columnist.