New South Wales has been told to revise almost all of its detailed 20 water resource plans (WRP) after they failed to pass muster with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and were criticised for failing to include input from Indigenous groups.
The NSW plans are a critical building block in the overall Murray-Darling Basin plan covering many of the important tributaries and 100km of the Darling. They were originally due in February 2019, but were only submitted in June 2020. They set out detailed rules about who has rights to water, the licensing regime, when water can be extracted by agriculture, measures to protect water for the environment and rights to cultural water for indigenous people.
All other states have now had their plans accredited but NSW, which had the largest number of plans to produce, has been lagging.
On 20 April 2021, the Senate committee investigating the management of the basin plan heard that up to 19 of NSW’s 20 water resource plans may be withdrawn for resubmission. There will now be further delays while it revises the plans.
Exactly what has caused the plans to be rejected is unclear.
A spokesperson for the NSW water minister, Melinda Pavey described them as “formatting errors and typos”. Other states had also been required to make changes to their plans conformed with the MDBA’s template, the spokesperson said.
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Tim Goodes, executive director, basin plan implementation at the MDBA said that four plans including Naomi (both surface water and groundwater), the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee surface water had been withdrawn by the NSW government “to consider revisions to make them consistent with the basin plan”.
“Some of these inconsistencies are policy related and others are technical,” he said.
However, NSW also appears to have fallen short in their consultation with First Nations representatives.
Two peak Indigenous bodies, Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations (NBAN) and the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), have a formal role in certifying that consultation with first nations’ people has been meaningful and that their cultural objectives for managing each catchment are properly represented in the plan.
“Unfortunately, NSW failed to plan properly for this significant consultation work and marginalised First Nations throughout much of the process, the executive officer of MLDRIN,” Will Moody said.
“First Nations were left off Stakeholder Advisory Panels until 2017, following pressure from MLDRIN and other organisations. Most First Nations weren’t even approached to provide their views until after WRPs had been placed on public exhibition,”
“This is despite NSW having since 2012 to plan and undertake engagement,” he said. Critical risk assessments undertaken for WRPs also ignored risks to First Nations values and uses, despite devastating impacts such as the fish kills on the Baarka/Darling River in 2019.
Moody said the groups’ assessments of the NSW plans had highlighted major gaps and omissions in the plans.
In one case the cultural objectives of local groups in one catchment had been cut and pasted into another plan – along with the incorrect name of the catchment.
A spokesperson for the minister blamed Covid-19 for the truncated consultation with Indigenous groups.
Moody said he welcomed NSW’s commitment to amend and update these plans to make sure First Nations’ rights and interests are properly considered.”