Graziers like water, and the cheaper it is, the better. Environmentalists thrive on crises - no environmental problems, no crusades. In the Macquarie Marshes both groups have formed a symbiotic relationship with graziers diverting water to their own uses, creating a perceived “crisis” in native bird populations, leading to them receiving even more water, but with zero effect on the “crisis”.
All this at the expense of the taxpayer, who should be getting paid for the water, with the blame being sheeted home to the innocent bystander, the irrigators, who are not only the most profitable industry in the area, but pay full freight for the minimal amount of water they get. Confused? Here’s how it works.
Last September, New South Wales Environment Minister Bob Debus announced that 30,000 megalitres of water, worth about $3 million dollars on the open market, would be released into the Macquarie Marshes as environmental flow. Because of subsequent rainfall this was increased to 120,000 megalitres worth about $12 million. A best kept secret is that most of this water was used to fatten cattle on private land.
The Macquarie Marshes cover an area of 220,000 hectares in central western NSW and are famous for their water birds. But few realise that 88 per cent of the marshes are privately owned and through the construction of levies, diversions and channels, marsh graziers have ensured environmental water goes to private land first. There is a northern and southern nature reserve, where grazing has been excluded: these areas make up the remaining 12 per cent and are managed by the NSW Government.
With the construction of the Burrendong Dam in 1967 and subsequent development of irrigation and a local cotton industry, there has been a widespread perception that the marshes have suffered and the fault is all the irrigators. In reality the marshes still receive 85 per cent of the water they received before the dam was built - this was 32 per cent of the total inflows into the Macquarie system and is now 27 per cent.
The only real monitoring of the biodiversity of the marshes has been the breeding of water birds. Bird-breeding sites were first mapped in the late 1970s. At this time the major breeding colonies were along the Macquarie River and most within the nature reserve. But over the past 30 years there has been a migration east to the Terrigal-Gum Cowal wetland, which is all on private land.
The last big waterbird breeding event in the marshes was in 2000, and ten of the 12 main breeding colonies were located on private land with only two in the nature reserve.
When the numbers of water birds breeding during major flood events over this period are compared, it is evident that, contrary to popular perception, there has not been an overall decline in the total number of birds, but there has been a decline in the number of birds breeding within the nature reserve. The movement of birds out of the nature reserve reflects the channelling of water out of the nature reserve to private land.
In 2002, 18 per cent (12,000 megalitres) of an environmental flow allocation for the marshes was directed to the Terrigal system that supplies private landholders rather than the core marsh area. In 2003, 27 per cent (15,000 megalitres) of an environmental flow allocation for the marshes was directed to the Terrigal system.
Last year, the 30,000 megalitres of water, so proudly announced by the minister as being for the marshes was blocked from reaching the southern marsh nature reserve for a period of days. It is unclear how much of the total 120,000 megalitres of water, worth $12 million, eventually got through and then how much water would have made it further down stream to the northern marsh nature reserve.
Does it matter that environmental flow is being directed away from the nature reserve to privately owned land if 88 per cent of the Macquarie Marshes are privately owned and if healthy colonies of birds can coexist with cattle? The local graziers have a saying, “fat ducks equal fat cows”.
The nature reserves were grazed under lease rights until 1990. In 1943 restrictions were placed on grazing and burning in these areas because the reed beds were considered under threat. It became illegal to burn reed beds except with the written consent of the district surveyor. According to the regulations, stock were to be excluded from all reed re-growth until it was 3ft high, and rookeries for bird nesting and breeding were to be completely fenced.
Incredibly in this age of increased environmental concern, there are currently no restrictions on stocking rates, or stock access to watercourses, and bird breeding sites are not protected on most privately owned land.
The Burrendong Dam was built in 1967. There is some evidence that there has been an increase in the overall number of water birds breeding during large flood events since 1986. Have the graziers, by running water down additional river systems, increased the number of potential breeding sites?
What about other indicators of environmental health? What is the state of the reed beds in the southern nature reserve: have they also migrated to private land? Upstream irrigators and Australian Geographic have documented the extent of overgrazing in parts of the marshes. Their photographs suggest the cattle would be having a significant impact on ground flora and fauna and water quality. But the data necessary to understand this impact is not being collected.
It seems incredible that the flood-plain graziers of New South Wales should scream so loudly for water and be supported by committed environmentalists and both attract considerable media attention while issues of overgrazing are ignored and while they get their water for free.
Across Australia there is an expectation that we will all have to pay more for our water, and use water more efficiently. If the Macquarie Marsh graziers paid the same as irrigators for their average annual water usage, I calculate they would be up for $3.19 million this year and $7.55 million next financial year. Under current arrangements, however, they pay nothing and the water is delivered through levies, diversions and channels that crisscross the Ramsar-listed wetland.
The NSW Government has been provided with aerial photographs that show the levy banks blocking environmental water from reaching the nature reserve. Government officers have confirmed that at least one of these levies is legal and been in place for 15 years.
Government has a responsibility to determine whether or not it is in the best interests of the marshes to bulldoze the levies, or leave them in place. If most bird breeding is now on private land, because this is where the environmental flow is being channelled, then there should perhaps be some protection for the rookeries. Public monies should not be squandered on fattening cattle.
There will likely be more environmental flow allocations next spring. And the graziers and environmentalists may again scream that there are fewer birds breeding in the nature reserve. They may scream loudly for more water for the marshes and point the finger at the irrigators. The perception may be that the marshes are starved of water, while in reality it is just the small area of nature reserve that is dry, because yet another channel or levy may have been built pushing that little bit more water away from the reserve and onto private land that holds fatter cattle.