The Daily Examiner's headline (on June 10 this year) “Regulator begins new water works”, with the responsible regional director, admitting his team has a big job ahead, certainly attracted attention.
Compliance monitoring of the local intensive horticulture industry has been virtually non-existent to date, so closer scrutiny, particularly of its water usage, is welcomed. However, why wasn't action taken sooner, and why were earlier reported problems ignored?
The Clarence Environment Centre (CEC) first raised concerns about the industry's activities in 2011, in response to reports of illegal land clearing near Halfway Creek. That offender was reportedly fined $150,000, a penalty we later learned is often regarded by the industry as “a cost of doing business” (Inter-agency Blueberry Working Group minutes, February 15, 2017).
In ensuing years, the CEC fought several irrigation proposals, including one to pump water from State Significant wetlands.
In 2015, an industry push to be allowed to dam larger streams and harvest more water, saw the government undertake a review into water regulation and invite public input. The CEC put in a submission to this review.
In March 2016, Clarence Valley Council announced the development of Australia's largest blueberry farm alongside the Orara River (a tributary of the Clarence River). A subsequent application to pump 60 megalitres (ML) a year, from the Orara was opposed by CEC, who argued that it, and their 90 ML harvestable rights, was only sufficient water for 70 ha of blueberries. Given the Lower Orara has only 800 ML available for irrigation under licence', the question was, where would the remaining 2,000 ML come from.
That matter went before a Tribunal hearing in early 2017 where, incredibly, Water NSW used a tax-payer funded lawyer, to successfully argue that the CEC's evidence not be heard.
The licence approval was subsequently granted and approximately 400 ha prepared for planting, complete with buried drip irrigation pipe and plastic covering. Then, in late 2018, all work stopped and the entire operation was advertised for sale.
With rumours that the operation cannot proceed because there's insufficient water, it will be interesting to see what the promised compliance blitz uncovers.
- John Edwards
This article was originally published in the VOICES FOR THE EARTH column in The Daily Examiner on June 24, 2019