‘Water for food growing and drinking is the new gold and we have to protect it,’ says Tamara Smith, state Member for Ballina (Greens).
With data from the Bureau of Meteorology showing total dam capacity in NSW as of 20 November at just 27.9per cent, the lowest in the country, water restrictions, it seems, are the new black.
Ms Smith’s comment was in relation to the Ballina Shire Council’s recent rejection of a controversial development application for a water extraction business in Alstonville.
Water extraction is the process used by most water bottling companies and is more commonly referred to as water mining, since the water comes from beneath the ground as mineral, oil and gas reserves do.
As local governments across the Northern Rivers announce increased water restrictions, more regional politicians are backing an end to water extraction for the bottled water industry.
Tweed bores running dry, says water alliance
The Tweed Water Alliance says it has the support of the Lismore and Ballina state members as well as the Tweed and Ballina mayors in calling on the NSW water minister to ban water mining for the bottled water industry.
Alliance spokesperson Pat Miller says the minister, Melinda Pavey, has extensive powers over water extraction and can order a temporary ban.
Mr Miller says with the state suffering the worst drought on record and an unprecedented bushfire season, water resources are being drawn down at rapid rates.
The environmentalist says some people are resorting to bores to keep stock and crops alive, only to find them dry, and firefighters are struggling to find standing water to protect communities.
Meanwhile, Mr Miller says, water extractors are still pumping water out of the ground and profiting by sending the water out of the region.
Water mining on the Tweed
So far, the Tweed Shire Council has used local planning laws to stop new water bottling companies from starting business in the region.
But the council has reportedly had to bear costly court appeals from rejected applicants and requests from existing operators to extract more water than initially approved.
Some residents, most notably in and around Uki, have long complained of water extractors breaking development consent conditions, including allowed business hours and limits of water taken.
In early November, the Tweed Shire Council refused a land swap with a water miner at Nobby’s Creek.
The council’s planning department had proposed the swap after the Nobby’s Creek operator built unapproved infrastructure on crown land.
Mr Miller said since the department ‘had some latitude in reallocating land use’ he would like to see the power used ‘to support productive local and community industry’.
‘This always seems to be impossible with enterprises like the Uki Community Garden waiting over five years to have their small plot given the go-ahead for a positive, beneficial purpose,’ he said in a media release.
The council gave landowner Garry Appleby 90 days to remove the illegal infrastructure with Councillor Warren Polglase telling Echonetdaily failure to do so could prompt the council to take Mr Appleby to court.
Council crack-downs costing rate-payers
But Cr Polglase, who voted against the land swap refusal, said it was also possible Mr Appleby would decide to sue the council for refusing the land swap.
Cr Polglase said similar land swaps had been approved before, thereby setting a precedent.
‘I voted against the refusal because I thought it was unfair and unjust,’ Cr Polglase told Echonetdaily, saying he suspected prejudice against Mr Appleby because of the nature of the Nobby’s Creek water extraction business.
Tweed Mayor Katie Milne said land swaps had to feature a community benefit and ‘there were concerns raised in the community in relation to this not being in the public interest’.
Cr Polglase said the council would have benefited via a ‘dedicated road’ as part of the swap.
Tweed residents facing water restrictions
Water security has been a consistent theme for the Tweed Shire Council this year, with most residents relying on water from the Clarrie Hall dam.
Selling council water outside the shire is now banned as part of level 1 water restrictions. Further water restrictions are due to be put in place once the dam’s capacity falls below 75 per cent, an event authorities predict will happen by Christmas.
The council unanimously voted against granting an exception to the ban for the Falls Festival planned for the New Year period in the neighbouring Byron Shire.
There are also plans to raise the wall and thereby capacity of Clarrie Hall Dam.
‘It took us eight years to decide to do the studies and acquire the land,’ Cr Polglase told Echonetdaily, citing a cost of $12 million.
Cr Polglase said the project would cost up to $70 million to realise and relied on a combination of state and federal funds.
Call for Nats to lose water management responsibility
Meanwhile, The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported the NSW government had ignored multiple warnings since 2012 the state would need new water supply sources in regional areas within ten years.
Independent NSW upper house member Justin Field said the Nationals should be ‘stripped’ of the state’s water portfolio.
The Climate Council had previously called for immediate action across Australia on water security and climate change after last year’s report on deluge and drought in the country.
That report linked climate change with worsening droughts, including the current ongoing one, and other extreme weather events such as bushfires and floods.
It also identified water security as a source of grave concern.
The report showed if climate change effects were left unchecked, results for farming and other sectors would be devastating.
Drought lingers on the Northern Rivers
A year later, residents in the tiny towns of Mullumbimby, Nimbin and Tyalgum have all been told of tightened water restrictions in the past fortnight and the Rous County Council has voted to increase the Rocky Creek Dam water level needed to trigger level one restrictions.
Mullumbimby went straight from level one to level three water restrictions in less than three weeks this month; Nimbin is on level two; and Tyalgum starts level four restrictions from midnight Sunday.
Meanwhile, Rous County Council Chair and Ballina Councillor Keith Williams says levels in the Rocky Creek dam are currently dropping by two – two and a half per cent each week.
Rocky Creek Dam supplies most town water in the region, including to most residents and businesses in the Byron, Ballina, Lismore and Richmond Valley shires.
Previously, level one restrictions for Rocky Creek dam users wouldn’t happen until the dam’s capacity fell to 60 per cent.
But advice to users in mid-November was to save water wherever possible to ensure ‘enough water in the system should fire impact any infrastructure that Council staff cannot immediately attend to’.
The warning came as an out-of-control bushfire on Mount Nardi moved towards the Whian Whian state forest, home to the Rocky Creek dam.
The dam was at 83 per cent capacity at the start of November and without significant rain, the figure reported via the Rous County Council website three weeks later was 76 per cent.
On Wednesday this week, the council voted to change the level one trigger to 70per cent.
Water restrictions: business as usual?
But most residents in the Richmond Valley and Kyogle shires have been on restrictions all year.
Kyogle Mayor Danielle Mulholland said when announcing level one restrictions back in January that it was an unusual time of year to have them.
Low flow in the Richmond River and a lack of input from Peacock Creek into the dam at Bonalbo had left authorities with little choice.
Richmond Valley Council Acting General Manager at the time, Angela Jones, told media that flow in the Richmond River was trending downwards even with WaterNSW increasing release from Toonumbar Dam from 18ML per day to 28ML per day.
Right now, most of the Kyogle shire is on level two except for Bonalbo, which is on level three.
The western half of the Richmond Valley shire, including residents in Casino, has been on level three restrictions twice this year.
Decent rain prompted a move back to level one in April but less than six months later, the Richmond Valley Council announced level three restrictions again.
Businesses including the Northern Co-operative Meat Company, Norco, concrete company Holcim and others who needed water as part of essential business activity were exempt and there weren’t any restrictions on stock watering.
But as Tenterfield residents have experienced since mid-February, level four restrictions are significantly tougher.
Getting bore-ing yet?
Owners of livestock in the village of Jennings were instructed to stop giving the animals water from the town’s water dispensing station in March.
In August, the Tenterfield Shire Council called for residents with knowledge of old water bores to share the information.
By then, the council had declared level four-and-a-half water restrictions and was hoping there were unregistered bores around that may have been missed in its search for water.
The council said level five restrictions were a last resort as they would have a dire effect on tourism in Tenterfield and would force the closure of many businesses.
Business chamber echoes calls for stronger water plans
By late September, Northern Rivers businesses were calling for immediate water solutions to ensure the region’s long-term future.
Northern Rivers Manager of the NSW Business Chamber Jane Laverty said after many reviews, there was still no long-term water strategy to prepare the state adequately for drought.
Ms Laverty told the media the drought had been made ‘so much worse’ through widespread water mismanagement and waste, over extraction, meter tampering, and over-bank flows.
The NSW Business Chamber called for an urgent state-wide water management strategy and for the NSW and federal governments to start talks on short-term and long-term actions they would take to address the water crisis.
New levels of water desperation
While impacts of the state’s continued drought on rivers, creeks and dams are obvious, NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey is yet to release the findings of a second report from the state’s chief scientist on water extraction sustainability.
The Tenterfield Shire Council has delayed moving to level five restrictions in response to continued pressure from worried residents and instead declared a new level as of November: level four-point-seven.
This was despite wide-spread news of the council’s joy at finding two well-stocked bores in late October.
Tenterfield Council Chief Executive Terry Dodds said the council was about to advertise a contract for a $9.3m water filtration plant so recycled water could be introduced to the shire’s supply.
Will the water the Northern Rivers region was once so famous for soon only be as famous when bought in a bottle?
Residents in other parts of the country, including in the Gold Coast hinterland areas of Springbrook and Mount Tamborine are asking similar questions.
‘There is no social license or environmental license to use underground aquifer water on food growing land for industrial extraction,’ Greens Member for Ballina Tamara Smith has said.
Her party is against water mining but there are so far no signs of support from the government other than the delayed release of the second report.