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Snowy Hydro tops up floods with environmental flow

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Tuesday, 1 February 2011


WHILE residents of Wagga Wagga scrambled to save their belongings from rising flood waters there was a rumour circulating that the crisis was exacerbated by bureaucratic incompetence, in particular that Snowy Hydro was releasing environmental flow water into the already flooded Murrumbidgee River. 

I was angry at even the concept. It was inconceivable. I phoned Snowy Hydro early on December 10 to set the record straight.

I was put through to their media spokesperson, Paul Johnson, who assured me that Snowy Hydro would do nothing to exacerbate the flood crisis and in particular that no water was being released from Lake Eucumbene. The lake has a capacity nine times Sydney harbour, he said. It was only about 25 percent full because most of the rain had been falling below the Lake.

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When I fed that reply back into the email stream from which the rumour originated, Ron Pike, a retired rice farmer and tireless advocate for agriculture, asked, “Why then have water levels in Lake Eucumbene been falling despite significant inflows?”

Perhaps water was being sent to the Snowy River, I thought, but surely not to the Murrumbidgee?

I phoned Mr Johnson back, to put that question to him, but he won’t speak to me anymore.  I phoned him back several times during the remainder of last Friday. His assistants initially assured me that he would return my call, but by 4pm, could only confirm that he was in his office and had received my many phone messages.

Earlier in the day I had asked to speak with Mr Johnson’s boss, David Harris, but was told he was unavailable. It was at about 1pm that I phoned around all the Snowy Hydro offices asking the same questions and leaving the same questions with the pleasant women who answer the phones. I hoped that someone knowledgeable would phone me back and explain why water levels were falling in Lake Eucumbene if no water was being released.

Eventually someone did ring me back, a Mr James Muddle from NSW Office of Water.  I said it was very kind of him to phone me, but that I really wanted to speak with someone from Snowy Hydro. He insisted that perhaps he could help. So I asked him, “Is Snowy Hydro releasing water from Lake Eucumbene?” He replied he couldn’t answer that question, that it would be an operational issue for Snowy Hydro whether any water was being released or not.  So I asked Mr Muddle what he did – wondering if I could ask him a question that he might be able to answer.  Mr Muddle replied that the NSW Office of Water was concerned with water policy issues.

“Ahh,” I thought and asked, “Is Snowy Hydro releasing water from Lake Eucumbene because of commitments to the NSW Office of Water to return water as part of its environmental flow obligations?” 

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Mr Muddle replied that we don’t normally talk about environment flows when there are floods. So I asked, “No environmental flow releases are being made, that might be topping up the current deluge?”

“You are putting words in my mouth,” he replied.

After more questions from me, all of which Mr Muddle was unable to provide straight answers to, he suggested I phone Tony Webber at the State Water Corporation. And I did. He was not in, but his assistant Jane Urquhart, said she might be able to help and so I repeated my questions.

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This post was first published at the author's blog Jennifer Marohasy. It is being published as part of our Best Blogs 2010 feature, which is compiled jointly with Club Troppo.



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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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