TravelGuides – ‘One size fits all’: how water-sharing rule changes threaten Hunter Valley farms | Food

TravelGuides – ‘One size fits all’: how water-sharing rule changes threaten Hunter Valley farms | Food

Standing on an embankment knee deep in kikuyu grass, Stephen Osborn points over his alluvial plains to his potato crop. He’s expecting to get 12 tonnes of potatoes per acre this year.

Stephen and his twin brother, Roger, are vegetable growers from Pitnacree, a highly fertile agricultural area surrounded by the rapidly expanding New South Wales Hunter Valley city of Maitland.

The Osborn family have grown produce on their 120-hectare (300-acre) farm for the last 80 years, but now fear that potential changes to water-sharing rules could close their business.

These fears have been sparked because the 10-year water-sharing plan that governs irrigators like the Osborns is coming to an end, with a new draft being prepared.

In preparation for its release, the water division of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and the Environment (DPIE) has notified irrigators of a proposed cease to pump rule which may replace the water-sharing plan.

The current plan covers an extensive area, stretching from the Liverpool Ranges to the Newcastle coastline.

Water managed under the current plan provides flows to the Ramsar-listed Hunter Estuary wetlands. Concerns around environmental water reaching these wetlands have prompted the DPIE to introduce a new ruling to protect environmental flows.

For the Hunter Estuary, the environmental flow starts at the top of the catchment, comes through tidal pool areas and eventually enters the wetlands and then goes out to the ocean. In the replacement plan, the DPIE is seeking to put in place environmental flow rules to ensure enough water passes through the tidal pool to the estuaries during dry times.

Environmental flow rules are normally in the form of cease to pump rulings. In tidal pool water sources, where water levels are based on tides, cease to pump rules are determined by salinity levels. These levels are measured by the electrical conductivity (EC) of water.

In September this year, the DPIE proposed a cease to pump rule when the EC at Green Rocks, at Duckenfield near Maitland, reaches 4,000 EC, for all irrigators from the Hunter tidal pool.

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A review of this proposal showed that if this cease to pump ruling was enacted in 2019, no pumping in the whole of the Hunter tidal pool would have been allowed for 260 days of the year.

Under the current plan there are three tidal pool water sources in the Hunter Estuary – the Wallis Creek, Paterson River and the Hunter River tidal pools. Presently, there are 204 water licences on all three tidal water pools.

Tidal pools are the freshwater areas at the top of an estuary, which are impacted by both freshwater and saltwater. They are unique because the amount of water remains the same but the salinity of the water fluctuates dramatically.

Irrigator Julia Wokes says that although her property is tidal, it is not saline.

“I am further upstream, so having a cease to pump rule based on just one number denies the historical use of the river and the businesses that are based on it.”

Wokes has irrigated from the Paterson tidal pool for the past 16 years, which has sustained her cattle-breeding enterprise and boutique fern nursery.

Wokes laments the potential loss of productivity and fears the highly productive Hunter land will become “sterilised” without water.

“You will not only lose profitability, but also farming expertise, which is inextricably linked to land,” Wokes says.

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Farmer and cafe owner Jesse Clarke runs Phoenix Park Farm, located to the east of Maitland on the fertile flood plains of the Hunter River. Offering a paddock to plate model, Clarke fears that the cease to pump ruling could dramatically impact his current farming operation.

Adopting a form of agri-tourism, Clarke invites his customers to the farm, where they can pick up weekly chemical-free vegetable boxes, and access the on-farm Hutch Cafe.

“With the veggie boxes and running the cafe, having a variety of produce is paramount, but without water security it will be almost impossible and we will have to scale back,” Clarke says.

Scaling back for Clarke would mean producing less vegetables and resorting to just growing lucerne for hay, an outcome that would limit the availability of locally grown produce within the Maitland community.

Describing the cease to pump ruling as a “one size fits all”, Dr Cameron Archer, the former principal of Tocal Agricultural College in Paterson, questioned the logic behind the proposal.

He says that in the past producers have “self-regulated because no one is going to put saline water on their crop or pastures, they will simply cease to pump based on the salinity levels at their pump”.

Tocal college provides practical agriculture, conservation and land management learning facilities on its 2,150-hectare (5,350-acre) campus and irrigates 80 to 120 hectares (200 to 300 acres) from the Paterson tidal pool.

“[Without] the confidence to invest in irrigation, Tocal will see a decline in income for the farm and a decline in the effectiveness of the farm as a place for student education,” Archer says.

He says “improvements should be made in the measurement and management of water, because an arbitrary cease to pump won’t achieve better outcomes for all users”.

Dave Miller, a NSW-based water-sharing consultant, also states that “metering as well as extraction limits should be fundamental to all water-sharing plans”.

In 2009, when the current water-sharing plan was established, it included an extraction limit, which was supposed to be the sustainable limit for extracting water from unregulated river systems.

Miller says that such limits are “meaningless, as pumping from unregulated rivers is not often metered so no one really has a clue how much water is being extracted”.

He goes on to explain that the problem has been apparent for over 20 years.

“Until metering becomes mandatory for all unregulated river water users, extraction limits cannot be properly implemented,” Miller says.

New metering rules are to come into effect for coastal regions on 1 December 2023.

Twin brothers Stephen and Roger Osborn, pictured in front of a travelling irrigator
Twin brothers Stephen and Roger Osborn, pictured in front of a travelling irrigator. Photograph: Sophie Nichols/The Guardian

The Osborn family have been outliers in this field, supporting the use of metering for the last 10 years. The family installed meters on all their pumps, back when the current water-sharing plan was enacted.

“We read the meters every year, and pass the data on to the water department, so we all know exactly how much water we use,” Stephen Osborn says.

During the height of the 2019-20 drought, they used 330 of their 800 megalitre water licence.

Over many years, the Osborns have been increasing the carbon level in their soils, to improve water retention. They sow green manure crops of peas, oats and forage sorghum to increase organic matter, and thus soil carbon.

The Osborns say the rich alluvial plains are vital to provide food for the Hunter’s growing population. They also explain that self-regulation in any tidal pool is central, particularly when it comes to vegetable production, as they are sensitive to salinity.

Developing a better understanding of how the Hunter Estuary will function in the future is vitally important from an environmental perspective, as well as for all other water users.

Dr William Glamore, an associate professor at the Water Research Laboratory at the UNSW, has spent the last 15 years with his team working on a computer simulation model which uses data to see how water moves in the Hunter Estuary.

The modelling has observed that parts of the estuary are exceedingly degraded, and any more stress on the river system will likely exacerbate the situation.

“We need to stop the nutrients coming off the system, stop the erosion, and try to use nature-based solutions,” Glamore says.

Guardian Australia contacted the office of the NSW water minister, Melinda Pavey, to ask why one location within the Hunter tidal pool was selected as the trigger for the cease to pump rule, and if other tidal pools in coastal catchments were also likely to see similar rules in their replacement plans. No reply was given.

The draft replacement plan is due in December, with the date for the new water-sharing plan proposed for July 2022. Once gazetted under the Water Management Act 2000, the plans have legal effect for 10 years.

TravelGuides – ‘One size fits all’: how water-sharing rule changes threaten Hunter Valley farms | Food

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