You are here

Tas Irrigation – Water Quality and River Health

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Tags: Irrigation, Water Quality, River Health

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, the Tas Irrigation annual report states TI operates 119 water quality monitoring sites across the state. Are you able to provide the committee with a breakdown of how many of these are at Tas Irrigation storage sites, how many are at storage outlets, how many are on naturally occurring waterways and what data exactly is being recorded at these monitoring sites?

Mr BARNETT - Thank you very much for the question. It is very much an operational matter, so I will refer to the chief executive officer, other than to say the importance of water as a precious resource, it needs to be taken seriously and it is. I am very pleased to advise the efforts TI put into ensuring environmental monitoring and performance is of a very high regard and a high standing. With regards to any breaches and infringements, there have been none I am advised in the last 12 months, but I will ask the CEO to respond.

Mr KNEEBONE - Sorry, can you just repeat - it is a quite detailed question. I do not know I have the breakdown.

Ms O'CONNOR - Is this only counted as one question?

CHAIR - Yes, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. So, the annual report states at 119 sites water quality monitoring is undertaken. We are looking for a breakdown of how many of these monitoring sites are at Tas Irrigation storage sites, storage outlets or how many are on naturally occurring waterways, and what data is being captured or recorded?

Mr KNEEBONE - I will have to take the notice of the breakdown, if that is okay.

Ms O'CONNOR - Sure.

Mr KNEEBONE - But in general the environmental monitoring is done on waterways adjacent to and within the districts, so we can determine if there is any environmental impact on the waterways from our operations. We do have, however, the Farm Water Access Plan process that mitigates all of that. We also monitor ground water in the south east. I will have to take the question of breakdown and specifically between naturally occurring waterways and storage sites on notice.

Ms O'CONNOR - Okay. So, the annual report also states and the minister referred to it in his opening statement, that:

Monitoring and survey results indicate there were no discernable impacts on water quality or aquatic health attributed to the operation of Tas Irrigation schemes during 2021.

I note that there's a South Esk Irrigation Scheme and the South Esk River ran dry recently. How does Tas Irrigation assess the potential environmental impact of its schemes?

Mr BARNETT - Again, that's more an operational question. Andrew, if you could address that. Other than to say it's obviously a very important matter treated seriously by Tas Irrigation.

Mr KNEEBONE - There is a matter of context here. Tas Irrigation is a statewide entity but we're by no means a totality of irrigation in the state.

Ms O'CONNOR - I know. That's part of the problem, Mr Kneebone.

Mr KNEEBONE - You mentioned the South Esk. In context, our Lower South Esk Irrigation Scheme is harvest in winter, deliver in summer. Even at its lowest flow, the South Esk had a yield of something like 95 000 megalitres. Our scheme is 5000 megalitres of capacity. When we undertake our analysis, we're looking at chemical, salinity, water temperature, nitrogen, phosphorus - those sorts of elements that are present in the receiving environments and in the water quality results that we analyse. Then it's a matter of the team that undertakes that analysis determining whether or not, from the perspective of the volumes that we're contributing in that overall scheme, as to whether or not there's an impact.

Something like 10 per cent of the total allocation of water in the state is put through a TI scheme. We also have probably the benchmark of environmental controls and arrangements in place in terms of the application of that irrigation water.

The Farm Water Access Plans, which are plans done on an individual basis for individual irrigators, there are over 900 of them now currently, or close to that. I think there might be 857.

Ms O'CONNOR - There are 739.

Mr KNEEBONE - My apologies, there are 739 across the state. They're developed individually to ensure that the farmers know where they're going to put their water, at what maximum rate they can apply their water to ensure that the matters of run-off, of nutrient flow but also of biodiversity protection are managed so that if there's any threatened or endangered communities of species within the district or even adjacent to their properties that the impact on those is managed through the use of the Farm Water Access Plan.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Mr Kneebone. Is the assessment of potential environmental impacts done on a single year basis, or do you have the scope, or is it part of the practice, to have an assessment across time and examine that data across time for potential impacts?

Mr KNEEBONE - Generally, our assessments are done on an annual basis. We haven't been doing trend data across time. We have that available to us and we're certainly looking at that as being an option.

Ms O'CONNOR - You might do that. That could be useful data.


Ms O'CONNOR - Are you looking at it?

Mr KNEEBONE - Yes, that is what I said.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, we've established through our communications and correspondence with you that DPIPWE doesn't undertake water quality nutrient monitoring but Tas Irrigation does. It provides reports to the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment detailing the results of its monitoring program in any given year. That data has at times recorded elevated nutrient levels. I note the annual report makes reference to Craigbourne Dam and how it had to be closed. How many sites have seen elevated nutrient levels recorded in the past three years on TI monitoring?

Mr BARNETT - That's something I would need to check with the CEO.

Mr KNEEBONE - I'm sorry, I'd have to take that on notice.

Ms O'CONNOR - You'll take this on notice? That's fine.

Mr KNEEBONE - There are 18 of these schemes and there are multiple sites within each of those schemes, so to know exactly what's happening at any one of those sites, I don't know off the top of my head. I apologise.

Ms O'CONNOR - Don't apologise. Where monitoring identifies elevated nutrient levels, is further work undertaken to determine what is the cause of that increase in nutrients or diminishing of water quality?

Mr KNEEBONE - Wherever there is an aberration or an exceedance outside the 20th and 80th percentile of a range that we're provided as part of our regulatory regime, then that is investigated. If remedial action or point source is required to be identified, then that's done. I don't believe we've had any of those that have been material enough to warrant that detailed investigation at this point. I'll take that on notice as well, to determine that.

Ms O'CONNOR - Okay. Minister, an important part of Tasmanian Irrigation's operational model is - and you've talked about this before - storing water collected in the winter months in dams and delivering that water in the summer months. We understand part of that delivery process includes the use of natural waterways to convey the stored water downstream. Has Tasmanian Irrigation identified any differences between the water that's being released from those storages and the water that is naturally occurring in the waterway at the time of those releases? What we're trying to understand is whether there's an impact on river health by releasing quantities of stored water into those river systems.

Mr BARNETT - In the winter time and then -

Ms O'CONNOR - And then when it goes down in the summer.

Mr BARNETT - Thank you for the question.

Ms O'CONNOR - Or is it not something that's tested?

Mr KNEEBONE - The resultant impact on the water in the river would be understood because we often have - I have to again check the detail of this - gating stations above and below our release points. I don't believe we've monitor the quality, because we don’t warrant quality of delivered water. It's not an issue that we take on because we deliver a raw product. It's delivered in whatever form it's delivered in.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Mr Kneebone. We talked earlier about whether or not there's an assessment over time of the data to look at any trends. Has there been any assessment of this data to see if there's any medium- to long term trends? We think that would be an important piece of research for Tasmanian Irrigation, particularly for their irrigators and our rivers.

Mr KNEEBONE - We undertake the analysis on an annual basis. As I said earlier, I don't believe we've done any long term trending on that. We're not set up for that sort of analysis.


Mr KNEEBONE - But we're not DPIPWE.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, I know but the data goes to DPIPWE -

Mr KNEEBONE - The data goes to the regulator, to DPIPWE -

Ms O'CONNOR - And DPIPWE has the water ecologists who wrote the temporal and spatial analysis of river systems in Tasmania.

Mr BARNETT - Perhaps I can assist the honourable member and the members of the committee. We do have a Rural Water Use Strategy. It's taken nearly two years to prepare. It was released in March earlier this year to -

Ms O'CONNOR - It's not a science document though.

Mr BARNETT - It's a very important document.

Ms O'CONNOR - It's a policy document.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, please.

Mr BARNETT - It's a very important matter and it highlights the fact that we take this matter very seriously. In addition to that, earlier this year, I think it was 19 or 20 August, I established the rural water round table of which TI is an important member. It received information, concerns, challenges, and opportunities.

Members of that roundtable include Tas Irrigation; TasWater; my department - a representative chairs that - the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA) and other relevant stakeholders. They receive information, consider it and any concerns that are raised, and then provide advice to the relevant stakeholders and to the department and the minister.

Ms O'CONNOR - Do you think that the Rural Water Roundtable and the people with expertise on it would benefit from you as minister directing that an assessment of the data over time be done so we can establish whether there are any medium to long-term trends happening?

Mr BARNETT - There are a lot of opportunities for that roundtable. For example, Ms Coughanowr who has written a report, she was invited to that roundtable at my suggestion.

Ms O'CONNOR - Just once.

Mr BARNETT - She presented to the roundtable.

Ms O'CONNOR - Once.

Mr BARNETT - Those concerns have been taken on board and I understand are being considered. There will be another roundtable meeting between now and Christmas and then further meetings next year, I understand. That's another four that are scheduled.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, that was a question put to you in good faith about your capacity to ensure that a longer look at the data is undertaken and you should -

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, you referred earlier to the Rural Water Use Strategy when I was having a discussion with Mr Kneebone about monitoring of data over time. I point out to you that on page 9 of the Rural Water Use Strategy, it's very clear that water quality is outside the scope of the Rural Water Use Strategy, so it's not relevant to the question I asked earlier.

There's a lot of different things that can impact on water quality and the health of waterways: flow levels, water temperature, riparian vegetation, increased sediment levels, salinity, nutrient pollution, the list goes on. Robust science that's been conducted by DPIPWE water ecologists and researchers over many years highlights that the aggregation of these diffuse impacts is contributing to the declining health of many Tasmania rivers. Do you consider the Tasmanian irrigation schemes are one of those contributing factors?

Mr BARNETT - With the first part of your question, just to make it very clear, the Rural Water Use Strategy looks at the whole of the schemes across Tasmania. It's not just irrigation schemes but the river and the river health more broadly.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, it doesn't.

Mr BARNETT - Well, I'm just making it very clear -

Ms O'CONNOR - It doesn't.

Mr BARNETT - It is a broad strategy, and water and the wise use of water is at its core.

Ms O'CONNOR - Well -

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - Well, the minister - I don't know if he has read his own report.

CHAIR - The minister will be afforded the opportunity to answer the question without interruption.

Mr BARNETT - With respect to the second part of your question, would you like to be more specific?

Ms O'CONNOR - How can I be more specific?

Mr BARNETT - Well, just try again, please.

Ms O'CONNOR - Chair, can we just have this - I'm restating the question.

CHAIR - Of course.

Ms O'CONNOR - I know. Because the minister wasn't listening.

CHAIR - I told you I'm keeping a very close eye on it.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. Robust science that's been conducted by DPIPWE water ecologists and researchers over many years points to an aggregate impact, a whole range of users and a whole range of pressures.

We've got an irrigation system now that is growing and growing and growing in order to meet your Government's objective of being worth $10 billion by 2050. At the same time, we've got the scientists sounding the alarm about river health and water quality. Do you accept that Tas Irrigation's contribution is part of that story and part of that problem?

Mr BARNETT - So, it's a two part, well, many part question. Let's make it very clear that we treat this matter very seriously. River health is a very serious matter for the Government. That is one of the reasons we established the Rural Water Use Strategy. That is another reason why we established the Rural Water Roundtable.

The points that you raise are challenges for this state, as it is for every state and territory in Australia. The views of the experts and the key stakeholders are absolutely appreciated and taken on board by this Government.

The department also takes it very seriously. They have some of the best brains in the state and, indeed, the country. I meet with them regularly when it comes to water health and river health, and it is absolutely a top priority.

We will do whatever it takes to ensure a sustainable approach is undertaken. Tas Irrigation, of course, is part of the story and the good work that it does, the environmental success stories that have been shared this morning in terms of Tas Irrigation and its work, is acknowledged. There is, no doubt, more work to be done. That's why I have received support of $1.5 million in our State Budget for further work to progress this. That's why we've appointed two further project officers to look at river health in my department. That work is very important and we take it very seriously.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you minister. One of your water ecologists, Chris Bobby, resigned in dismay over your Government's handling of science related to river health. I was very pleased to hear you talking about the terrific people inside the agency in this area. These are the people who put work into the Temporal and Spatial Patterns in River Health across Tasmania and the Influence of Environmental Factors report, which your Government made a decision not to release and which we secured through right to information in the caretaker period.

So, we assume, as an entity that is responsible for very large volumes of water use, Tas Irrigation will have closely looked at the temporal and spatial analysis. While we understand that Tas Irrigation was not given a copy of the report, until after it was released to us by under right to information, are there any learnings from this report, which found that river health is in decline across the state, and particularly in key catchments, and many of those catchments are ones on which irrigation systems are part of the pressure on the catchment.

Mr BARNETT - Thank you very much for the question, and, of course, that report is noted and acknowledged. The department receives many reports, as do I, and I have no doubt Tas Irrigation reviews them and assesses them. With respect to that particular report, my advice is that it is taken on board very seriously. Indeed, the report and recommendations have now been taken on board and been responded to by the department. My advice is that has also informed the rural water use strategy and the development of it.

Ms O'CONNOR - It is not referred to as a strategy, for obvious reasons.

Mr BARNETT - That is the advice I've received. Yes, we have some very good people in the department and I am very proud of them and their work.

Ms O'CONNOR - You have lost some good people too.

Mr BARNETT - I would not want them and their work to be demeaned in any way, shape or form.

Ms O'CONNOR - That is not the question.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor.

Mr BARNETT - I am sure you are not attempting to do that, but I would not want that to come through to people reading the Hansard today, and to indicate how important this is -

Ms O'CONNOR - No, I am not. I am praising them from the rooftops.

Mr BARNETT - Just in the last seven days I have met with some of the water experts and scientists in my department to work through some water issues, and I really appreciate their input. No doubt, there are challenges ahead of us in terms of water and water quality in Tasmania, and we are up for the challenge, and we treat it very seriously, and will continue to do so.

I think the CEO wanted to add to an answer that I gave if that is okay, to assist you, which I hope, will assist the committee.

Ms O'CONNOR - That would be good, but also respond to this question perhaps.

Mr KNEEBONE - Thank you minister. I believe I can, Ms O'Connor. I don't believe TI is actually; remembering that we represent between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the total consumptive use in the state, whether that is for agricultural or extraction out of waterways. We are 10 per cent, we are not the 90 per cent.

Ms O'CONNOR - I get that.

Mr KNEEBONE - We also have implemented the gold standard in environmental management and the absolute use of our irrigation water through the farm water access plan arrangements. They are the standard which I do not believe is replicated anywhere else in Australia. But they only apply to TI schemes, and TI schemes have been built in the last 15, no, 10 years. We are now going through a process to extend the application of those. We have negotiated them to be, for instance, applied across all of the Winnaleah scheme, and we are looking at applying them now across all of the Meander scheme once we do the upgrade at Meander.

In terms of the impact on river health of TI supplied water, the farm water access plan is absolutely the model that means that it is done sustainably, and responsibly and has a positive impact, and takes account of it being able to be done for a long term, rather than being unrestrained. I do not believe that TI schemes would have an impact on the river systems.

Ms O'CONNOR - At all?

Mr KNEEBONE - Well not at all. We take some water out of it. You can't take water out of rivers, even if it's in flood times, without having an impact. We're not saying that. We're saying it's sustainable, bearing in mind that seven of our schemes would be used to deliver water. The balance of pipelines or rivers are integrated into those schemes.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can I ask -

CHAIR - Last one, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thanks. Can I ask if Tasmanian Irrigation has received a copy of the Temporal and Spatial Patterns in River Health Across Tasmania and the Influence of Environmental Factors report? If it has been received are the findings and recommendations which were redacted in the report we received being considered by Tas Irrigation? I take on board what you said before, Mr Kneebone and I understand that Tas Irrigation is one of the smaller users, but there's whole range of users. The problem with water management in Tasmania is there's a whole range of users and there's no integration or coordination. That's why we end up with a report coming out of the department that says river health is in substantive decline in most catchments in Tasmania since 2014. I'm curious to know whether Tas Irrigation has received this report and is accepting the science?

The minister is going to try to take this question and fob it off but this is the most critical piece of science that's come out of government in a long time on river health. It's something that all water using entities or water managing entities should have access to, read and adjust policies if necessary on the basis of.

Mr BARNETT - I can assure as you as I've assured you previously there is no secret report. But I have seen -

Ms O'CONNOR - Well it was kept secret.

Mr BARNETT - I have seen the -

Ms O'CONNOR - You wouldn't release it and we only got it through RTI.

Mr BARNETT - I have seen the internal deliberative report and I've been briefed on it -

Ms O'CONNOR - It was meant to be made public.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - There was a communication strategy prepared for it. So, don't try to gaslight us at this table.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor.

Mr BARNETT - I have been informed that it provided a range of data that was then used to inform the Rural Water Use Strategy -

Ms O'CONNOR - And is not referenced in the strategy.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, this is your final warning for interrupting the minister while he's answering the question.

Mr BARNETT - I am also advised that the four major recommendations from the report were covered in the Rural Water Use Strategy and are being proactively addressed, including establishing a multi agency working group of water users and managers - that's the rural water round table as I've referred to earlier.

The other recommendations: investigating the landscape scale mechanisms that are causing changes in river health, evaluating and establishing strategies to mitigate landscape impacts on river health and noting the benefits of the department's 2018 review and exploring the benefits of integrating into existing river monitoring programs are all underway.

I've referred to the Rural Water Use Strategy earlier today. It's a very important document and takes all these matters much further. It provides a direction for a much more extensive sustainable water management framework. The CEO's referred to sustainability. That underpins everything we do at Tas Irrigation and in this state. It's really important. These projects are built for up to 100 years. Sustainability is critical. It's not going to work if they are not sustainable. The Government's been working for a long period being very proactive in this space. It will continue to do so.