Ms JO HAYLEN (Summer Hill) (12:04:58): The Water Supply (Critical Needs) Bill 2019 aims to protect water supply to drought-ravaged towns by declaring developments to Wyangala, Mole River and Dungowan dams to be critical State significant infrastructure. This allows the Government to fast-track approvals for these projects by cutting short the environmental impact statement and consultation processes. It also empowers the Government to change water-sharing plans to potentially limit its liability for compensation claims arising from these projects. The Opposition acknowledges the dire needs of our regional communities and does not oppose the bill but does raise significant concerns with the lack of water strategy from the Government.
Many towns and communities face day zero, a term coined in Cape Town, South Africa, which generally means the day that municipal water is turned off and residents are forced to queue for rations of water that is trucked in from other municipalities. The concept was created to sharpen the minds of Cape Town residents, who successfully pushed back their own day zero through a regime of water restrictions and behavioural change until the rains eased pressure on the city's water supply. For many communities across New South Wales the notion of day zero is not just a theory or concept—they are living it right now. The ABC's7.30 program recently reported on the town of Murrurundi in the Upper Hunter, which has effectively run out of water. Water is now trucked in as residents struggle with level 6 water restrictions. They fear the water has become undrinkable and families now often rely on bottled water. Local businesses have been impacted and long-term residents are considering the unthinkable—moving from their homes and starting again elsewhere.
With 97.2 per cent of our State currently in drought there is no doubt other towns will soon follow. Major centres like Armidale, Tamworth, Orange and Dubbo are preparing to truck in water to bolster their dwindling town water supplies. Armidale, with a population of 25,000, is throwing everything at the task of delaying day zero. It has instituted level 5 water restrictions and may have to cancel summer and winter sport if it does not rain soon. It is creating contingency plans and each day it is carting in 100 B-double trucks filled with water. Armidale's day zero is currently slated for October 2020.
Tamworth, with a population of 62,000, is urging visitors to attend the world-famous music festival in January following a study that the event will not significantly impact water usage. Tamworth has refused to name its day zero but Chaffey Dam sits at less than 20 per cent. Some reports suggest that even Sydney, with a population of five million, faces its own day zero. The city is set to run out of household water supplies within two years if there is not substantial rain in the years ahead. As I said, 97.2 per cent of New South Wales is in drought and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has signalled there are 40 water storages in New South Wales with less than six months' supply if there is no rain soon. There is no question that we need to act and act fast. Regional communities know we cannot afford to sit on our hands.
However, for eight long years that is exactly what the Liberal Party and The Nationals have done. We cannot expect the New South Wales Government to make it rain but the community has every right to expect that, in our name, they will be guided by science from the experts when it comes to the management of one of our most precious resources—water. Instead The Nationals members have mismanaged, engaged in secret deals with big irrigators and have denied climate change. In August this year the water Minister ignored independent scientific findings from the Natural Resources Commission that showed over-extraction of water in the Barwon and Darling rivers, which brought the system into hydrological drought three years early. The commission pointed the finger at the water sharing plan in conjunction with climate change and highlighted years of mismanagement. The commissioner said:
There is an urgent need to remake the plan so the current trend of a river system heading towards collapse is reset and the river and its dependent species, communities and industries are put on a path towards long term health and resilience.
A cloud has hung over the 2012 water sharing plan since allegations emerged that the former Nationals water Minister made eleventh-hour amendments to benefit big irrigators. Those alleged changes made it easier for irrigators to pump during low-flow events and for irrigators to take up to 300 per cent of their contractual entitlements in a single year. Interestingly the natural resources report showed that there were 158 licence holders in the system. However, 86 per cent of the total amount of water extracted from the system is by just 10 licence holders. Astonishingly, 75 per cent of the total amount of water is extracted by just four licence holders.
Earlier this year New South Wales citizens were shocked by viral images of over a million dead fish in the Barwon River at Menindee. The then regional water Minister, Niall Blair, blamed the drought. However, experts including Professor Robyn Watts from Charles Sturt University believe climate change, drought and mismanagement all played a part. Professor Watts said:
There's a lot of complexity around this fish kill. It's hard to know if that could be avoided because there's so much complexity around the Menindee Lakes system in terms of who's been taking water upstream and whether it's been taken legally.
Further, Adjunct Professor John Williams from the Australian National University clearly pointed the finger at mismanagement. He said:
Yes, it is hard to manage rivers like the Darling through drought, but that's Australia. If you haven't got a management plan that can manage the water through drought in the Darling, you haven't got a plan.
It is pretty clear what has been going on. What this bill demonstrates is that the last thing The Nationals have for water security is a long-term plan. This bill is a fast-track attempt to look like they are doing something when in fact they have done next to nothing for a very long time. We have heard a lot from The Nationals recently about dams, but the fact is they have not built one in eight years. Instead of planning for greater water security as the drought has intensified, they have pinned their misguided hopes on the drought breaking and getting them off the hook. Instead of proper planning, we are being foisted with this bill at the eleventh hour, and the bill raises a number of questions. I will go through those questions one by one.
Firstly, by declaring key projects as State significant infrastructure this bill will truncate environmental impact statements and silence the community through curtailed consultation processes. I am concerned this represents more of the same from The Nationals when it comes to sidelining science, expert advice and due process. Environmental impact statements [EISs] are critical to assessing at arm's length the social, ecological and economic impacts of a project. When done properly they ensure expert advice is heeded, errors are avoided, valid concerns are heard and adjustments can be made. Above all else these processes ensure that the proposed project is in the long-term interests of the community.
Ministers are not the bearers of all wisdom and the EIS and consultation process ensures all the information is on the table and the community is on board. This is all the more important when dealing with the fragile and sensitive nature of how we manage our riparian zones and waterways. I am deeply concerned that Ministers will be making decisions with little regard to the views of experts and the community. I note thatThe Australian reported yesterday that Infrastructure Australia is yet to receive a business case for the development of the Wyangala Dam, despite this bill fast-tracking works and despite the high profile announcement from the Prime Minister earlier this month. The community is right to be concerned about any move to strip back processes around consultation and expert advice.
Secondly, I raise concerns specifically about how the bill will interact with native title. As other speakers from this side of the House have mentioned, we want the Minister to clarify whether they have consulted with land councils and Indigenous bodies when drafting the bill. The Barkindji people call the Barwon River "Barka". It is key to their Dreaming stories and songlines. The Barkindji won native title over 128,000 square kilometres of far western New South Wales but they now refer to the river now as "dead water". It is unclear to what extent the provisions of the bill will override native title and the rights of Indigenous communities to preserve and use the river.
Thirdly, I note that the bill gives the Minister power to amend water-sharing plans. While I agree that substantial changes are needed in the case of the water-sharing plans for the Barwon-Darling, it is not appropriate for the Minister to use this bill as a Trojan Horse for changes that require proper management and oversight. I ask the Minister to clarify the extent to which these plans will be able to be amended under the auspices of the bill. [Extension of time]
Lastly, I raise concerns about the apparent move to limit the Government's liability for compensation under part 6, clauses 17 and 18. The bill strips back important protections and limits engagement and consultation with affected communities. This could raise the potential for communities to be negatively impacted. I am concerned that the Government is shielding itself from proper process and liability. Additionally I note works are also likely to be undertaken by private contractors, which may further shield the Government from appropriate scrutiny. I ask the Minister to clarify the provisions around liability for compensation and to provide assurances that no-one will be left worse off. I think that is a very reasonable question to ask of the Minister in these circumstance.
Labor supports this bill because we must act immediately to meet the water needs of residents. But it is clear we also have to give regional communities the confidence that we are working towards long-term water security. This bill does nothing to give them that confidence. The Nationals are moving this bill because they do not have a long-term plan. They do not have a long-term plan rooted in science and expert advice. They do not have a long-term plan that puts the needs of regional people before their local politics. I call on the Minister and those opposite to pull their heads out of the sand and to work with communities, environmental experts, First Nation peoples and scientists across this great State to deliver water security for all our residents.