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Fight looms between Commonwealth and NSW over water-sharing plans

Draft plans by NSW indicated the Berejiklian government intended to battle the authority over key definitions.

“NSW has different definitions of planned environmental water than the Commonwealth,” a spokeswoman for NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey said.

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The Namoi Water Sharing Plan could become one flashpoint. Under current rules, irrigators are only permitted to take 10 per cent of any so-called supplementary flow – or floods – with the environment collecting the rest. Such flushing flows are important for fish breeding and water quality.

The NSW government, though, has proposed to increase the proportional take by farmers to half.

“There was overwhelming [community] support for 50:50 sharing of supplementary water events throughout the water year with some modification in threshold flows to minimise potential environmental impacts,” Ms Pavey’s spokeswoman said.

Independent NSW MP Justin Field said NSW had submitted “substandard plans” and the authority “should stamp ‘RESUBMIT’ on the cover and send them back”.

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“These plans are not fit for purpose. They fail to prepare NSW rivers for the impacts of climate change, don’t adequately protect environmental flows and haven’t implemented many of the [NSW] Natural Resources Commission’s critical recommendations for the Barwon Darling River,” Mr Field said.

He said the NSW Nationals were relying on “constant brinkmanship” over the Basin Plan, including removing NSW, as a method to get the Morrison government to weaken its targets.

Emma Carmody, a special counsel with the Environmental Defenders Office, said the authority’s comments on holding the water plans to account were encouraging, “particularly as our clients would prefer to avoid litigation”.

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“However, we will be carefully scrutinising final water sharing plans on behalf of various clients to ensure that they meet all legal requirements, including in relation to planned environmental water, and rules to protect first flows after drought, low flows and environmental flows,” Dr Carmody said.

“Any water sharing plans gazetted under state laws but which are inconsistent with the Water Act and Basin Plan would need to be remade to bring them into line with those national laws,” she added. “Failure to do so would open them up to the possibility of a constitutional challenge.”

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