River revival: fund Basin fish passageways, screens now


The Federal Government must prioritise funding for the NSW Fish Passage Strategy and fish screens over buybacks, if it is genuine about reviving river ecosystems in NSW Murray-Darling Basin valleys.

NSW Irrigators Council CEO Claire Miller said this is the perfect opportunity for the Federal Government to show it is serious about delivering tangible outcomes for the environment instead of further hardship for Basin communities.

“The NSW Fish Passage Strategy will do more to save endangered native fish than just adding more water into a system where native fish cannot migrate for breeding and feeding, or escape poor water quality.

“We also know that nearly one million native fish a year are being saved thanks to limited programs as part of the Northern Basin Toolkit to install modern fish screens on pump intakes. Millions more will survive if this program is rolled out across all NSW river valleys with enough funding to meet demand.

“Yet these strategies are languishing for lack of adequate Federal funding and a sense of urgency.

“These and other ‘complementary measures’ clearly show the Basin Plan’s intended environmental outcomes can be delivered without the need for buybacks, and at a fraction of the cost,” Ms Miller said.

The NSW Fish Passage Strategy is a coordinated plan to proactively improve fish migration at 160 high priority barriers in the Basin, which will allow native fish to freely move across 9,000 km of mainstem rivers and key off-channel habitats below all major storage dams.

“It is very much in the public interest to fund and implement these as a priority,” Ms Miller said.

“Buybacks must be avoided at all costs. They will achieve nothing except to cripple the agriculture sector, undermine food security and drive up grocery prices for all Australians. Is that what we really need while the nation battles a cost of living crisis?”

The NSW Chief Scientist in his recent report on the Menindee fish deaths in March highlighted that water quality, not water quantity, was the root cause of the decline in the river ecosystem and consequent fish deaths. He called for urgent action in the next 12 months on carp management, and:

“Construction of fishways identified in the NSW Fish Passage Strategy. Priority and resourcing should be given to the construction of effective fishways to maximise fish mobility above the Menindee weir pool.”

Scientists say blockages to fish passageways are a major contributing factor to the 90 per cent decline in freshwater fish populations in NSW since European settlement.[1]

“Scientists, environmentalists and farmers agree complementary measures such as fish passageways, screens and carp eradication are needed urgently. So why aren’t these measures an option on the table now, rather than being kicked into the never-never after 2027, after the Basin Plan budget is drained?” Ms Miller said.

“If the Federal Government does not use all the tools available to implement the Basin Plan and build on the environmental improvements already gained, then it is obvious buybacks are only about keeping a political promise to South Australia.”

Direct water recovery is largely complete, with 98% of the surface water buybacks already complete, and Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs) now in place. This means the Murray-Darling Basin now has just 28% of inflows diverted for agriculture, towns and industry, with 72% remaining in rivers – a diversion ratio envied around the world.

[1] Baumgartner et al. 2014

/Public Release. View in full here.