Lessons to learn from Snowy

GOVERNMENTS have failed the mighty river, writes LOUISE CRISP

The big spring releases from Jindabyne Dam into the Snowy River will capture the media’s attention this week.

Snowy Hydro Ltd will allow up to 84 gigalitres to flow down the Snowy River during the next two weeks.

Although they are much reduced, the spring releases are intended to mimic the huge spring snowmelt flows the Snowy was named for.

Most people now believe the Snowy has been saved.

When Jindabyne Dam was completed in 1967, the Snowy River had 99 per cent of its headwaters captured and diverted west to the Murray-Darling Basin for electricity generation and irrigation, resulting in severe degradation of the Snowy and considerable economic loss to the downstream communities.

In 1996, an expert panel scientific report identified that a healthy river needed the equivalent of 28 per cent annual natural flow below Jindabyne.

Ten years ago, the Victorian, NSW and Commonwealth governments signed agreements and legislation to fund a 10-year plan to return environmental flows to the Snowy.

The three shareholder governments of Snowy Hydro Ltd were committed to providing $375 million to Water for Rivers for savings in the Murray and Murrumbidgee systems to off-set increased flows by 2012 to:

THE Snowy River below Jindabyne Dam – up to 21 per cent of annual natural flow.

SNOWY montane rivers – up to 118 gigalitres a year.

SEVENTY gigalitres a year to the Murray.

The three governments also agreed to return up to 28 per cent to the Snowy below Jindabyne Dam post-2012.

The legislation also required the NSW Government to establish an independent Snowy Scientific Committee to provide advice on the best environmental flow release regime and produce annual state-of-environment reports on the rivers affected by the Snowy scheme.

So where are we 10 years later?

In November 2010 and October last year, large spring flows were released into the Snowy River below Jindabyne from water savings obtained by Water for Rivers.

While the Snowy has seen some good flows this year, it is far from saved.

The annual allocation to the Snowy below Jindabyne this water year (beginning May 1) is only about 15 per cent of the annual natural flow, and half the required minimum environmental flow identified by scientists in 1996. Releases below Jindabyne are unlikely to be much more than 15 per cent, as half the water acquired by Water for Rivers is general security or low reliability.

These entitlements would only deliver much real water to the river in exceptionally wet years.

The upper Snowy River in Kosciuszko National Park was scheduled to receive increased flows from 2007-08 (below Guthega Dam) and from 2009-10 (below Island Bend Dam). However, these sections of the Snowy have not received environmental flows.

For months the Snowy River in Kosciuszko National Park remains a dry stony riverbed.

In addition, the main eastern tributary, the Eucumbene River, and many other tributaries were not included in the original Snowy legislation and will not receive environmental flows.

Snowy Hydro Ltd has made one release to the Murray in 2005-06 of 38 gigalitres.

There is now 230 gigalitres of taxpayer-funded water savings owed the Murray River held by Snowy Hydro Ltd in Snowy Scheme storages. Nevertheless, the Murray Darling Basin Authority has included it in baseline modelling for the proposed Basin plan.

The 2002 legislation also required NSW to establish the independent Snowy Scientific Committee but it was delayed until 2008.

The committee produced a series of invaluable public reports on the adequacy of flows to the Snowy and the upper Murrumbidgee.

The committee’s term expired on May 15 last year and despite commitments from the three relevant NSW ministers, it has still not been re-established.

The 10-year plan to restore the Snowy is a simpler and smaller version of the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The failure of governments therefore, to deliver the environmental outcomes for the Snowy, does not bode well for the future of the Murray.

Louise Crisp is vice chairwoman of the Snowy River Alliance




Originally Published at http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/article/2012/09/19/540891_opinion-news.html

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