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BRS Seminar Program. Science & Conflicts over Water in the Lower Balonne Peter Cullen Visiting Fellow, BRS. N. Condamine-Balonne Basin. MARANOA RIVER. CONDAMINE RIVER. ST.GEORGE. BALONNE R. LOWER BALONNE FLOODPLAIN. CULGOA R. BALONNE MINOR R. BRIARIE CK. DIRRANBANDI. BALLANDOOL R.

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Brs seminar program

BRS Seminar Program

Science & Conflicts over Water in the Lower Balonne

Peter Cullen

Visiting Fellow, BRS

Condamine balonne basin


Condamine-Balonne Basin

















0 20KM

Flow thresholds
Flow thresholds

Flow ML/D Av Return Ecol Sig

25,000 ~ 1.6 years Water moves out of main channel

45,000~ 3 years3 vegetation types 50 % wet

60,000~ 3.6 yearsMain flow paths full

70,000~ 4 yearsAt least 40 % of floodplain wet.

120,000~ 8 years70 % of floodplain wet

Harvesting of floodflow water
Harvesting of Floodflow Water

  • Bunds to divert floodflow

  • Pump from river & distributary channels

  • Large, shallow on farm storages

  • Irrigated cotton

  • Major economic benefits


  • Huge wealth from cotton

  • Seen as most over developed part of MDB

  • Degradation of river health

  • Salinity risks

  • Inadequate payments for water

  • Pressures on Qld re cap on MDB

  • Threat to NCC payments

  • History of court action

The issues
The issues

  • View that water in LB is over-committed

  • LB river system degraded

  • Anger that irrigators don’t pay much for water

  • What should be done?

  • All science contestable - Smartrivers

The cubbie option
The Cubbie Option

  • Proposed 53% of MAF to environment rather than 47% as present

  • Premier Beattie proposed acquisition of largest cotton property

  • Local outrage - no action needed, & if needed any pain should be spread!

  • Beattie proposed independent scientific review

Terms of reference
Terms of reference

  • Review DNRM IQQM for LB.

  • Review ecological condition of the LB, including floodplains & wetlands.

  • Propose an ecological definition of healthy working river.

  • Review likely future ecological conditions in LB

  • Review reversibility of likely impacts

  • Advise on monitoring

Review process
Review process

  • Cullen, Mein & Marchant

  • Advertised & invited call for submissions

  • Community Reference Group established (Boully as chair)

  • Held series of hearings where submissions put & questions asked

The water conflicts
The water conflicts

  • interests - large financial benefits to growers & community

  • values - wetland & river health issues

  • data - is the river degraded & what should be done

  • structural - DNRM, MDBC, NCC & irrigators in conflict

  • labelling - greenies, rapers etc

The data conflicts irrigators
The data conflicts- Irrigators

  • flow measurement underestimates flood flows

  • probably already at 53%

  • IQQM modelling unreliable

  • river not degraded at all

  • Irrigators wanted to be clear as to the environmental assets & what they needed

The flow findings
The Flow Findings

  • IQQM modelling & flow measurement adequate for purposes

  • Workshops with irrigators reduced concerns about IQQM

  • Emphasis on MAF a diversion - focussed on stream gauging errors

  • Don’t expect better than +/- 30% in floods

Mean annual flow
Mean Annual Flow ?

  • We know the lowest flow is zero

  • We don’t know max flow - only 80 yrs records ( need 250 yrs to be 90% sure)

  • MAF a nonsense - not a useful management concept in such systems

The ecological assets
The Ecological Assets

  • Rivers & distributary channels

  • Coolabah floodplain National Parks

  • Narran lakes

  • Darling river

The challenge of ecological assessment
The challenge of ecological assessment

  • LB not yet seen the impacts of current infrastructure - built in last couple of years

  • Lag times for ecological impacts to be obvious - 70 yrs for some wetlands and they are still changing

Rivers distributary channels
Rivers & distributary channels

  • good woody debris

  • riparian improved with move from grazing

  • weirs block fish in low flow but not floods

  • pulses of flow

  • all storage’s are off-river

Rivers distributary channels1
Rivers & distributary channels

Invertebrate data

  • Initial TAP reported degradation

  • Subsequent work did not support

  • no real downstream trends

  • similar to adjacent undeveloped catchments

Rivers distributary channels2
Rivers & distributary channels

Fish data

  • no significant downstream trends

  • if a subtle trend, problem of causality - flow or distributary system

  • similar fish to adjacent undeveloped catchments

Rivers distributary channels3
Rivers & distributary channels

  • currently in reasonably healthy state with regard to invertebrates and fish

  • delighted irrigators and did not please Govt

  • based on reasonable sampling

  • are these good indicators in ephemeral systems?

Coolabah floodplain national parks
Coolabah floodplain National Parks

  • limited information submitted

  • responsible agencies seem to manage in data free way

  • Irrigators hardly influence the big flood - every 10 yrs

  • Expect Coolabah to cope, but red gums may go

  • Reduction in downstream pastoral production

Darling river
Darling river

  • Upper Darling degraded - several studies

  • LB may contribute about 20% of flow

  • No submissions from NSW or MDBC on this

  • LB contributes about 1% of flow at Murray mouth

Narran lakes
Narran lakes

  • Ramsar wetland and important bird breeding area

  • Used to flood every 2 yrs on average

  • Irrigation development will let it flood every 7 yrs

  • Currently in good condition but strong view they would not survive likely wetting regime

Narran lakes1
Narran lakes

  • major study by CRC for Freshwater Ecology just starting

  • Interim wetting to be every 3.5 yrs

  • Irrigators to work with Dept modellers and find least impact way of delivering this

  • A share of medium floods

  • No impact on small floods

Community reference group
Community Reference Group

  • Irrigators, business, grazing and green groups

  • listened to major presentations

  • allowed to ask questions

  • most hearings allowed wider public to attend

  • had to report to Govt on our process

Community reference group1
Community Reference Group

  • helped focus on important issues

  • a great learning experience as they observed our cross-examination of science submissions

  • saw themselves as vehicles for a variety of viewpoints rather than presenting a unified community view

Agency science
Agency science

  • Boxes of reports

  • Consultant after consultant

  • Series of trivial, short studies rather than a serious effort

  • Little integration of knowledge

  • Little discrimination as to what we needed to do our job

Agency science1
Agency science

  • Must not protect from normal quality assurance procedures of publishing

  • If time tight, need independent peer review

  • Management domination of science?

  • Timeliness of science - setting strategic work priorities

Science findings
Science findings

  • science is always contestable

  • Irrigators hired their own scientists and with regard to river health successfully contested agency findings

  • agency should never have got into this position