I have heard rumours for a while that despite the flooding in the Western river systems of New South Wales, the Snowy Hydro people were still required to top up the floods with ‘environmental’ releases which was exacerbating the problems of the residents down stream. I have to admit to being a bit sceptical at the time as there comes a point occasionally where you get the feeling that even a government authority just couldn’t be that bloody stupid.
I have given myself a few smart slaps round the ear for underestimating the ability of Labor governments to place ideology above common sense.
Jennifer Marohasy is one of our best and brightest, and has followed up on this issue like a bloodhound as is related by her in a Quadrant article in which she explains that she thought it was inconceivable till a few things just didn’t add up.
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.
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.
After a number of unsuccessful inquiries a Mr. James Muddle contacted her suggesting 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?”
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 inquiries and an attempt to find answers in the operating license of Snowy Hydro, which seems to be a jumble of bureaucratese and impossible to make sense out of she did some more inquiries online:
A most reliable source and someone who recently attended a meeting with David Harris, the boss of Snowy Hydro, explained that somewhere in the range of 4,000 to 5,000 megalitres of water per day will continue to flow from the Snowy Hydro System, regardless of downstream impacts, because of environmental flow obligations in the Snowy Hydro operating licence. ...In short, senior bureaucrats have signed off on an agreement, which they are now honouring, which requires environmental flow releases into the already swollen Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. Of course these men in suits don’t live in the Murray Darling Basin and they will continue to receive a salary, paid into their Sydney bank accounts, regardless of how many extra wheat fields flood and extra homes are destroyed.
Jennifer Marohasy is a biologist and adjunct research fellow in the Centre for Plant and Water Science at Central Queensland University.