Doomed Planet

Bureaucratic flood damage?

[See update below]

Inconceivable but true:
Snowy Hydro tops up floods with environmental flow

While residents of Wagga Wagga scrambled to save their belongings from rising flood waters there was a rumour circulating that the crisis was exacerbated by bureaucratic incompetence, in particular that Snowy Hydro was releasing environmental flow water into the already flooded Murrumbidgee River.  

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.

Earlier in the day I had asked to speak with Mr Johnson’s boss, David Harris, but was told he was unavailable. It was at about 1pm that I phoned around all the Snowy Hydro offices asking the same questions and leaving the same questions with the pleasant women who answer the phones. I hoped that someone knowledgeable would phone me back and explain why water levels were falling in Lake Eucumbene if no water was being released.

Eventually someone did ring me back, a Mr James Muddle from NSW Office of Water.  I said it was very kind of him to phone me, but that I really wanted to speak with someone from Snowy Hydro. He insisted that perhaps 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 questions from me, all of which Mr Muddle was unable to provide straight answers to, he suggested I phone Tony Webber at the State Water Corporation. And I did. He was not in, but his assistant Jane Urquhart, said she might be able to help and so I repeated my questions.

But alas, Ms Urquhart was unable to answer my questions. She did, however, promise to try and find out and emailed me back with a message from her “water delivery manager” that the information I was after could be found in the operating licence between Snowy Hydro and the NSW Office of Water on the NSW Office of Water website.

Well I went there to have a look, but where to start? The licence has a package of agreements, licences and other regulations and the current licence as at May 1, 2010, is only 102 pages long.  I started to read, but it was not easy going and the more I read, the more I doubted that I would recognise the answer even if I stumbled across it, because the document makes so many references to part three of schedule three then part four of schedule four, and in case of shortfall, in case of excess, in case of base passing flow, in this water year versus next dependent on how much water might be in which of the sixteen major dams at any one time.

So I sent some more queries back into internet world and all was finally revealed. 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.

Yep! Blowering Dam may be out of control, the water belting out of Burrunjuck, the Central Murray likely to go under again as early as Wednesday, but because of a formal agreement between NSW Office of Water and Snowy Hydro, involving an obligation to South Australia, approximately 500,000 megalitres, equivalent to one Sydney Harbour of water, must be released as soon as possible as environmental flow.

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.

Inconceivable, but true.

Jennifer Marohasy is a biologist and adjunct research fellow in the Centre for Plant and Water Science at Central Queensland University.

UPDATE: Jennifer Marohasy, 14 December, 2010:

TERRY Charlton, CEO and Managing Director of Snowy Hydro, confirmed with me this morning by telephone that Snowy Hydro has been making water releases that may have exacerbated current flood conditions in the Murray Darling Basin because of licence conditions imposed by the NSW Office of Water. 

Mr Charlton told me that he wrote to the NSW government on April 21, 2010, and raised the potential issue in the licence, the requirement for Snowy Hydro to repay water immediately inflows climbed above a specified long range value.

As recently as last night, December 13, 2010, Mr Charlton was still in talks with the NSW Office of Water asking that this provision in their licence be changed.

“The NSW government appears unable to make any decisions,” said Mr Charlton.

“The situation is ridiculous.  We are frustrated.   Late last week we pulled back on the water releases but this potentially puts us in contravention of our water licence,” said Mr Charlton.



See also: Jennifer Marohasy’s “The whole truth


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