Irrigation Development Updates

Midlands Water Scheme

In February 2010 the Australian and Tasmanian governments signed an agreement to undertake a strategic impact assessment pursuant to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) of the state government processes and regulations under which the Midlands Water Scheme (MWS) will be developed.

The MWS is essentially two major irrigation water pipelines, one taking water from Arthurs Lake into the Southern Midlands and one taking water from the South Esk River into the Northern Midlands, plus the consequential on-farm developments by potentially hundreds of farmers who may purchase water.

The TCT supported this approach as a sensible and efficient way of establishing a framework for assessing the potential impacts on Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES) from hundreds of Midlands farmers who may seek to access and use irrigation water from the MWS as well as the construction of the pipelines.

Because the Strategic Impact Report would be prepared by the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, we expected a more thorough and independent assessment of potential impacts on EPBC values, in particular the lowland native grasslands which are predominantly found in the Midlands.

Submissions on the MWS Strategic Impact Report closed on 4 November 2010. Our overall assessment of the report is that it is of generally high standard and, with some significant amendments, it would provide an excellent basis for ensuring that actions taken as part of the MWS are compliant with the EPBC Act.

These are the TCT’s main comments and recommendations regarding the report:

  • The Farm Water Access Plans (FWAPs) are the key state government measures for determining and addressing property-scale impacts on MNES; however, the TCT has many serious concerns about this system. The FWAPs are developed and self-certified by pre-qualified consultants who have been selected by a panel representing only government and vested interests. The selection process for consultants and the approval process for FWAPs should involve independent scientific and community (non-farming) input.
  • The TCT is not convinced by the argument that Hydro Tasmania has prior authorisation for establishing and altering water levels in Arthurs Lake and therefore has an exemption from the EPBC Act. We argue that the Hydro will need to refer to the Australian Government for assessment of any actions in relation to the lake level which may impact on the EPBC Act-listed galaxiid species, whether these actions relate to the MWS or are taken for other reasons. Until Hydro refers such actions, there will be legal uncertainty over any contract to sell water to the Tasmanian Irrigation Development Board (TIDB) for the MWS.
  • The commitment to avoidance of all clearance and conversion of Lowland Native Tasmanian Grasslands is highly commended and entirely justified, given its critically endangered status under the EPBC Act. However, we have some reservations about the capacity for the pre-qualified consultants to reliably identify the EPBC-listed grasslands in the field and for the landowner to know, over the long term, the precise location of the grassland and its boundaries. 
  • The TCT is greatly concerned that DPIPWE may not have the capacity and resources to enable it to maintain, over the long term, the exhaustive monitoring, auditing, review, adaptive management and compliance processes to which it has committed in the Strategic Impact Report.

Infrastructure and irrigation planning directive dead

The state government has accepted the Tasmanian Planning Commission’s recommendation that the ‘Draft Planning Directive No.2: Underground and Minor Aboveground Infrastructure’ (PD2) should not be adopted. This is great news as the TCT opposed the directive as drafted. The PD2 was initiated by the former Minister for Planning, David Llewellyn (he was also Minister responsible for Water and the Tasmanian Irrigation Development Board) to provide a consistent planning and assessment process for major irrigation developments which extended across two or more municipalities. This was an appropriate use of the planning directive process and the TCT supported the development of PD2, given appropriate safeguards.

PD2 came undone due to the failure to ensure appropriate environmental safeguards. It expanded the scope attempting to cover all major infrastructure (unwisely adding extra and largely unjustified red tape for the electricity and communications industries) and failing to explain its purpose clearly. The PD2 was very poorly worded and structured and, if approved, would have been very hard to implement and prone to legal challenges.

Proposed north-east dams

The Tasmanian Irrigation Development Board (TIDB) has been investigating up to seven in-stream dams in the catchments of the Little Forest, Great Forester-Brid and Ringarooma rivers. In another positive change in the approach being taken by the TIDB, the TCT was recently informed by the Board’s staff that they were committed to investigating off-stream alternatives and if these were feasible they would replace the proposed in-stream dams.

Sassafras-Wesley Vale Pipeline

The TCT has always attempted to give plaudits to developments that set high standards of responsibility and sustainability. Sadly, such win-win news stories seldom get wide coverage.

To mark National Threatened Species Day on 7 September this year, the TCT issued a novel media release titled ‘Shock finding: threatened species and development can co-exist’. This was commenting on the Sassafras–Wesley Vale Pipeline proposal (in central north Tasmania) which was open for public comment in August and we expect will soon be given final approval by the Tasmanian and Australian Governments. Needless to say, such a positive message about threatened species and a major development received only minimal media coverage.

In part the TCT’s media release said:

Shock finding: threatened species and development can co-exist

Rather than scold governments for their lack of action to protect threatened species – which would be justified – the Tasmanian Conservation Trust asks governments and businesses to use Threatened Species Day to reflect on the Sassafras-Wesley Vale Irrigation Scheme (SWIS) as an example of threatened species and development co-existing.

The SWIS is now in the final stages of assessment by the Tasmanian and Australian Governments and the TCT anticipates that approvals will be granted for the scheme to be constructed.

“When the SWIS was first proposed earlier this year, the TCT had grave concerns that the installation of miles of underground irrigation pipelines would destroy key habitat of the nationally threatened species, the central north burrowing crayfish and the green and gold bell frog”, said TCT Director, Peter McGlone.

“The project was being rushed, the needs of the threatened species had not been properly considered and the Australian Government correctly stepped in to require a more thorough assessment.

“Work done by the Tasmanian Irrigation Development Board (TIDB) since February has greatly improved the proposal. With additional refinement, not only will the pipeline avoid all threatened species habitat but it will provide additional water for streams and wetlands which will benefit the threatened species.

“The lesson for governments and other developers from this project is that the TIDB were able to incorporate the needs of threatened species by obtaining good scientific information, consulting closely with the community and conservation groups, and used this information to carefully plan their project.

“The other key factor which should see this project win approval is that the TIDB took a cautious approach to identification of threatened species habitat. The TIDB could not determine whether crayfish burrows were occupied by the threatened Central North Burrowing Crayfish or common crayfish species found in the area, so they planned for the pipeline to avoid all crayfish burrows. This is a case of the precautionary principle in action and the TCT applauds the TIDB for this.

“The SWIS can incorporate the needs of threatened species mainly because it is an existing irrigation area and the project is only increasing the amount of water available to farmers and not seeking to expand the area under irrigation.

“Major new in-stream dams and projects which expand irrigation into new areas are more likely to have critical flaws and cannot proceed without destroying threatened species.

 “So the state government can greatly reduce the conflict between threatened species conservation and irrigation development by having a policy which seeks to direct funding into assisting existing irrigation areas ahead of opening up new areas or building major new dams.”