Choke feasibility study rings alarm bells

Victoria's Water Minister cool on MDBA Choke study

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MISLEADING CLAIMS: Southern Riverina irrigator John Lolicato says misleading claims are being made about the Barmah Choke.

MISLEADING CLAIMS: Southern Riverina irrigator John Lolicato says misleading claims are being made about the Barmah Choke.

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Increasing Barmah Choke capacity seen as one way of overcoming Murray River delivery issues.

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There's been a cautious response - and a warning - from Victoria's Water Minister over plans to investigate increasing the capacity of the Barmah Choke.

Last weeks Murray-Darling Ministerial Council meeting agreed to comission the study, into ways of optimising the Choke's capacity.

The Barmah Choke is a narrow section of the Murray River, which runs through the Barmah-Millewa Forest.

The Barmah Choke

The Barmah Choke

But Victorian Water Miniser Lisa Neville said she would be making sure any feasibility study thoroughly considered the impact on Victoria's environment and entitlement holders.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been asked to undertake the study.

"As I said at Ministerial Council, similar studies in the past have found the idea not to be feasible - it's not just about one off capital costs but ongoing costs for operation and maintenance, which are likely to be passed on to water users,' Ms Neville said.

"The Basin Authority should focus more on running the river system in such a way that prevents any further environmental damage and minimises delivery risk for irrigators and other entitlement holders.

"I'm also calling on NSW and South Australia to limit any new extractions below the Barmah Choke, as I've already done here in Victoria."

Murray-Darling ministers were told optimising the capacity of the Choke would reduce the risk of a delivery shortfall in the river.

"The risk of being unable to meet demand downstream of the Barmah Choke is real and increasing due to several factors, including a 20 per cent reduction in river channel capacity over the past 20 years," ministers were told.

"It impacts irrigators, regional communities and the environment.

"The feasibility study is one part of a broader suite of work across the river system, to address water delivery shortfall across the southern Basin."

Ministers were told the work would build on similar reviews, undertaken in the past, to find a cost-effective option, which may be acceptable to communities.

While the study was yet to be commissioned, it would be supported by experienced consultants.

The feasibility study is expected to examine the costs and benefits of addressing declining capacity in the Choke and options to support a sustainable flow regime through it.

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Bad management

Southern Riverina Irrigators chair Chris Brooks, who farms at Barooga, NSW, said the decision was further evidence of bad management, by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

"It's just further evidence of an insane requirement to move water out of the region, cutting across all economic and community interests," Mr Brooks said.

"They just seems to be irrelevant."

He said it appeared the MDBA had forgotten the Choke was part of the Ramsar listed Barmah Forest.

The Ramsar Convention encourages the designation of sites containing representative, rare or unique wetlands, or wetlands that are important for conserving biological diversity.

"It's environmentally protected," Mr Brooks said.

"But they now want to go into an environment they are killing anyway, by flooding, and dredge the Choke."

Mr Brooks said another option to loosen constraints was to use the Mulwala Channel," to take all our water, using our assets."

The third option, proposed by the Victorian National Party, was to dam the Ovens River, and run the water down Broken Creek.

"That would take millions of megalitres away from the Murray River, and put it downstream," he said.

"Am I missing something here?"

Southern Riverina primary producers have previously raised concerns about the effects of pushing too much water through the Choke, saying that's eroding river banks and reducing capacity.

"Head banging"

Wakool Rivers Association chair John Lolicato said it took almost "ten years of head banging", and a pending court case, to get the MDBA to finally admit channel capacity at the Choke had reduced from 8500megalitres a day to 7000ML/d.

"MinCo ministers and the public are being misled by indicating that by overcoming the restriction of the Choke, all their capacity problems will be over," Mr Lolicato said.

There were three main chokes, on the Murray River.

"The main ones, in the mid-section, are Hume to Yarrawonga (25000ML/day), Millewa or Tocumwal (9200ML/day) and the Barmah (7000ML/day)," he said.

"You hear very little about the other chokes."

Added to that was the bypass of the Edwards/Gulpa Rivers, of about 2000/ML/day.

"That is why, on occasions, you will see the MDBA and others quote the Choke as having a capacity of 9200ML/day, which is not only confusing but misleading," Mr Lolicato said.

"It is not only the Murray and Edwards that are collapsing under the strain, but also the Goulburn."

Mr Lolicato said authorities used the Millewa Choke as a guide, to show how much water they could get through the system.

"If they want it to sound a bit better, they will always quote the Millewa Choke,' he said.

Mr Lolicato said the inability of ministers to understand complexities around water management and delivery was of extreme concern.

"We know from responses to letters we have sent that there is limited understanding of the Barmah Choke and its impact on the environment and deliverability of water," Mr Lolicato said.

"Our confidence gets further dented when we read that "options for optimising the capacity of the Barmah Choke" were discussed by Water Ministers and managers, including the MDBA.

"They are making decisions which will significantly impact our livelihoods, yet they have limited knowledge about the Choke, its history and its environmental fragility. "

He said federal Water Minister Keith Pitt had a fleeting visit to the region, after he was appointed, but hadn't returned for any discussions with knowledgeable local people.

"We don't think some other Ministers have even seen the Choke,' Mr Lolicato said.

Mr Lolicato said a grave concern was that Mr Pitt, an engineer by profession, may favour infrastructure works to by-pass the Choke, which is the easy option being preferred by the MDBA.

"But where does that leave our food and fibre producers?," he said.

"It could again reduce affordability and reliability, allowing more water to leave our region and is again abandoning the promise that our communities would be protected under the Basin Plan.

"We constantly tried to warn of the damage to the Choke and its limitations, but were ignored.

"If those in charge of our water actually understood the system and its problems, their discussion priorities at MinCo should have been centred around how to address unregulated, unlicensed and non-compliant floodplain harvesting, rediverting the south-east drains into the Coorong, how to manage the Lower Lakes in a drying climate and how to ensure sufficient water is available to produce home-grown staple foods."

Instead, ministers from Victoria and New South Wales were, like irrigators, getting increasingly frustrated by a failing Basin Plan and the failure of their colleagues in other states to address the problems.

"It is disappointing, but given the history not surprising, that those who have contributed the least - South Australia, Queensland and the ACT - have little care for the sovereignty of our nation or protecting the environment of the mid-Basin."

MinCo also heard from Dr Jane Doolan, who prepared a report on the capacity of the Murray River.

As part of that report, Dr Doolan recommended jurisdictions should develop a contingency framework, for making decisions on how they would manage shortfalls.

States should also agree on key steps, roles and responsibilities for implementing and communicating those decisions.

Dr Doolan's committee also recommended that previous work on Choke bypass options be considered, and a "first-cut" feasibility analysis be undertaken, to bring forward a revised set of options by mid-2020.

The report also called on ministers to "determine the rate of sedimentation of Barmah Choke and feasibility of extraction to increase capacity."

Jan Beer

Jan Beer

Increased risk

Yea beef producer Jan Beer, who has campaigned for protections for the Goulburn River and suspension of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, said the risk of being unable to meet downstream demand was increasing.

That was the result of the Basin Plan being "tipped on its head" by the MDBA, state and federal governments.

"The initial intent of the plan, stated in so many documents, was to return river flows to their more natural state - with higher flows in winter and lower flows in summer - improve the environment and ecological habitats and give irrigators water security, so improving the well-being of basin communities,' Ms Beer said.

"Instead we have seen environmental damage caused by constant high environmental flows gouging out the banks of the Barmah Choke, Goulburn and Edwards Rivers, with loss of mature red gums, a proliferation of carp, massive fish kills and much higher incidence of blackwater events.

"Irrigators have little to no security of water allocations, and we have extremely high unemployment in some regional communities due to inability to access irrigation water, with a consequent domino effect on local businesses."

The ratification, by governments, of continual development of plantations, at increasing distances from water storages, had created more significant conveyance losses.

"Governments have issued more and more entitlements downstream - and have then discovered they cannot deliver all this water plus the environmental water plus the 1850gigalitres each year to SA, without having to run the river system full bore all year round," Ms Beer said.

"No matter what options they come up with for the Barmah Choke, running the rivers to satisfy SA demands for the Lower Lakes to remain full of freshwater, instead of the natural estuarine system it has been for 7,000 years, will destroy the rivers the Plan set out to improve," she said.

An MDBA spokesperson said the organisation would continue to work closely with NSW, Victoria and South Australia, to manage capacity issues in the Choke, so it could continue to operate the Murray River and safely deliver water, when and where it was needed.

"The Barmah-Millewa forest is an internationally significant wetland, and we work with Basin states through The Living Murray program to provide water to the forest and monitor forest health,' the spokesperson said.

"Since 2006, we have been monitoring the forest habitat, and the results of this extensive program are available publicly on the MDBA website."

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