Alarm over auction of artesian basin water

Marian Wilkinson, Environmental Editor, SMH July 4, 2009

FARMERS and one of the state’s leading environmental experts have raised concerns over the NSW Government’s decision to auction water licences for the Great Artesian Basin this month, which is likely to open the way for greater water trading in one of the largest underground reservoirs in the world.

The auction will take place in Walgett in north-western NSW on July 21 and has been defended by the Water Minister, Phil Costa, as “sustainable”. Mr Costa argues that the auction is returning to communities a small portion of the water saved by farmers under a program that stops the waste of the underground water through the capping and controlling of water bores on rural properties.

But Anne and Neil Kennedy, who rely on Great Artesian Basin bore water for their Coonamble beef property, say the Government’s plan is “insanity” and will further stress the unique basin that underlies about 22 per cent of the Australian continent.

“The Great Artesian Basin is the most complex, fragile and precious resource in Australia,” Mr Kennedy said. “Can you imagine western towns and properties if we didn’t have the GAB water?”

This month’s auction is for a relatively small amount of water, 1.2 billion litres; but Richard Kingsford, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of NSW, described it as “the first toe in the water for trading in the Great Artesian Basin”.

While the Government insists the auction and several that will follow are supported by expert advice, Professor Kingsford said the science was still unclear.

“We don’t know what is sustainable,” he told the Herald. “A lot of bores have been drying up because the Great Artesian Basin levels have been falling. Before we start giving water out we need to establish that the inflows are matching the outflows.”

The main interest in the auction is expected to come from industry and local councils because of low water quality. Mining and processing companies are said to have made inquiries.

Mrs Kennedy said she feared the auction would cause farmers to rethink their support for the Government’s “cap and pipe the bores” water conservation program, which began in 1999. Under the program, farmers must meet 50 per cent of the cost of capping the bores on their properties.

The program is due to run until 2014 and an estimated 67 billion litres of water is expected to have been saved by then. NSW won agreement from the Federal Government to sell off about 30 per cent of this saved water. The revenue from the sales is supposed to help fund the program.

A spokesman for Mr Costa said this meant 70 per cent of the water was being “returned to the environment”. Mr Kennedy disputed this. “No water has yet been saved,” he said. “We are just wasting a little less than we were. Even if the Government figures were correct, this is not surplus water they’re selling as they claim, they are selling off reduced wastage.”

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