LACK of government accountability is condemning the restoration of the Snowy River to failure, says LOUISE CRISP
The Snowy River story is a micro-version of arrangements pending for the Murray River. Think of it as the precedent for Murray rescue package.
When Jindabyne Dam was completed in 1967, the Snowy River below Jindabyne was left with 1 per cent of annual flow.
Following a national campaign, legislation was passed in 2002 by Victoria, NSW and the Federal Government, to return 28 per cent of its annual natural flow to the Snowy.
A total of $425 million of taxpayers money has been invested to return 15 per cent of Snowy's annual flow by 2009 and 21 per cent by 2012.
Yet this year the Snowy River will receive a mere 4 per cent environmental flow.
A recent Snowy Scientific Committee report concluded none of the legislated ecological objectives had been met.
Expert advice indicates that if the Snowy doesn't receive major increased flows in the next 18 months, the upper catchment will die.
How could it all have gone so seriously wrong?
Last week, the Snowy River Alliance received legal advice that revealed the Snowy Water Agreements were basically a sham.
The legislation seems deliberately designed to ensure that relevant governments are under no legally-binding obligation to deliver the legislated increased environmental flows.
Did Victoria and the Commonwealth hand the NSW Government the Snowy River on a platter?
The actual volume of flows the Snowy receives is at the discretion of the NSW Water Administration Ministerial Corporation and, ultimately, the NSW Minister for Water.
There are serious concerns the interests of Snowy Hydro Ltd may comprimise the national interests of river health.
NSW continues to use the drought as a convenient excuse for its failure to deliver increased flows.
No one denies the drought has had a severe impact.
However even if a full allocation on environmental entitlements was made this year, the Snowy would have received only 9 per cent of its annual natural flow.
So much for 15 per cent by 2009, or the 28 per cent scientifically identified as the minimum environmental flow.
Worse still, the Snowy is in debt. Remember the photos of the NSW and Victorian premiers (and Peter Garrett) at the Mowamba weir in 2002 when the Aqueduct was decommissioned to return the first environmental flows?
The Snowy has to repay Snowy Hydro Ltd the water that flowed down the Mowamba River for almost four years until 2006, when the Aqueduct was re-commissioned.
It is known as the Mowamba Borrowings Account. The equivalent of 5 per cent annual natural flow still has to be repaid from the Snowy's annual environmental allocation.
Meanwhile, in the past seven years, the NSW Government has delivered huge amounts of water from Snowy storages in "forward borrowings" to irrigators who have six years to make repayment.
Much of the water savings acquired by Water for Rivers to offset the Snowy's increased flows is general security or low reliability water which delivers little or no water to the river.
The lack of government transparency and accountability in the "legally binding" agreements has doomed the river's restoration to failure.
If the NSW Government were serious about the Snowy, it would immediately decommission the Mowamba Aqueduct to establish a surrogate natural headwaters for the Snowy, and suspend repayment of the Mowamba Borrowings Account.
At the heart of the problem, it seems, is a deep unwillingness by government legislators to enact binding legislation that will deliver genuine environmental flows to Australia's rivers. If governments cannot competently manage the limited resources now, are we looking at a future in which we have dead rivers across the continent?
If governments cannot save the Snowy River, what hope have we for legislative frameworks to save the Murray?
- Louise Crisp is the vice-chair of the Snowy River Alliance.