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Water Miscellaneous Amendments (Delegation and Industrial Water Supply) Bill 2023

Vica Bayley MP

Vica Bayley MP  -  Tuesday, 31 October 2023

Tags: Legislation, Water, Irrigation, Primary Industries, Hydrogen

Mr BAYLEY (Clark) - Mr Speaker, I rise today to give my contribution on the Water Miscellaneous Amendments (Delegation and Industrial Water Supply) Bill 2023.

I start by thanking officials for the briefing yesterday. I note this bill was tabled in the House on 18 October 2023. We had our briefing yesterday and I put on the record, upfront, that it is utterly unacceptable for the consultation elements of this bill to be posted online and accessible to us as members of this House literally as the minister took to his feet today. That does not give us the opportunity to properly do our job. We have had a week or so to consult with stakeholders but we cannot go into those conversations knowing upfront what those stakeholders have said in their submissions, the Government's response to those stakeholders and therefore their ongoing concerns or otherwise.

In relation to this, I have had only 20 minutes to have a look at the Consultation Summary Report in relation to this bill, but I already pick out in the first box of issues raised that the Winnaleah Irrigation Scheme Ltd have identified an issue. They have said that the bill appears to provide for the centralisation of management of all irrigation schemes with one water entity. I have heard that directly from representatives. What is the response from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment? 'This is not the intention of the policy' - they are not talking about the policy, minister, they are talking about the bill, and this paper fails to address it. Indeed, it articulates here that there has been no change to the bill in relation to this issue. I put on the record our concerns about this process and the respect and the ability it gives to us as members to properly do our job when this kind of information is put up so late in the piece.

I want to take a couple of steps back before addressing the specifics of the bill and the concerns and so forth, because the management of fresh water here in Tasmania is a significant concern. It has been a key concern of the Greens for many years and it is an area we are focused on in increasing transparency and clarity, and bringing to light some of the work of experts in this field who have been consistently raising their concerns over many years. What we have seen is a widespread decline of health in our waterways.

Let me read from a couple of stories that came out a couple of years ago. One on the ABC's 7.30 in September 2021, where Rick Lohrey was interviewed, articulating his view on the South Esk River. A fisherman who has been fishing there for over 40 years, Mr Lohrey said that you could catch a fish pretty much anywhere, any time, on any stretch of the river. It was a magnificent river but the South Esk is not what it used to be. Long stretches of the stream appear to be barren, he told 7.30.

Then when it came to a whistleblower, an expert working within the department, Chris Bobbi - he used to be a water ecologist within the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment, the old DNRE - he says that in the period of 25 years or so that he was working there, there was a noticeable decline in the condition of rivers. He was involved in writing a report called 'The Temporal and Spatial Patterns in River Health Across Tasmania'. This took in over 20 years of monitoring data and told a really sorry story. In his words, it says:

In a nutshell, I felt that the department was not fulfilling its duty of care to maintain river systems and the health of river systems in the face of water developments.'

The only reason we know about this report is that it was released after the Greens RTI'd it. Why is that, Mr Speaker? Why is it that it takes an RTI from the Greens to get this kind of information on the table? A subsequent story actually articulates it really clearly. The minutes associated with the release of this report showed that one manager noted:

The deputy secretary and the secretary are aware the results need to be communicated carefully - need a conversation, not a bombshell.

It was a bombshell the evidence that came and the highlight that this report demonstrated in terms of the health of our rivers. In the couple of years since that was published, nothing has really changed. Indeed, things have got worse. We have climate change intensifying and affecting the natural flow of rivers and the flow of water. We have an intensification of land use and it is a really serious concern.

It is not only happening in Tasmania. We can look to other parts of Australia and indeed New Zealand, a place that is heralded similarly to Tasmania for its clean, green beauty and its pristine nature and yet we have seen report after report of the river health in their rivers declining really significantly. Rather than learning from the lesson from New Zealand and taking the issue seriously, we have a government that has prioritised its policy to massively expand water use with no or little regard for the environment.

I was at the Landcare conference at Triabunna just a couple of weeks ago, where I saw and heard from an incredible array of fantastic volunteer-based groups doing really important work in the river health space. They are revegetating riverine environments, studying water bugs and trying to get a handle on what exactly are the impacts and the effects of human use, land use, urban use and other use on our rivers. It is all credit to those volunteers that they are doing that work and it is incumbent upon government and us here in this parliament to assist them to do all we can to protect our river health.

We have also seen a rural water use strategy developed that excluded many key concerns raised by experts, denied the inherent links between urban and rural water and deliberately refused to grapple with the big issues in water management that we will be facing in the years ahead. Thanks to pressure from the Greens and river health experts, we have seen the Government do some tinkering around the edges of the policy but substantively there has been no action being taken to address the factors causing declining river health. Unless the Government recognises that the role that land use change plays in river health and moves to introduce an integrated approach to catchment management, we will see more damage done to our precious waterways.

With that in mind, it is more than a little disappointing that we have a bill on the table that would in part amend the Water Management Act but we have seen no proposals for reform in this act in a more significant manner to ensure that better environmental outcomes occur. On environmental outcomes, I also want to make the point that river health and freshwater ecosystems are one of the keys things that could be and would be reported on in a state of the environment report.

This is a report that this Government has consistently failed to deliver over two consecutive reporting periods. Two five-year review periods have gone without this report being tabled and only now, again after significant stakeholder pressure and significant public and political pressure in this place, has the Government committed to resourcing the Planning Commission to make sure that report will be concluded by June next year. That would be interesting reading, because it will look at the state of our freshwater resources and with climate, intensive land use and other significant impacts, I fear it is going to be a very sorry read.

Mr Speaker, in terms of changes in water management structure, I observe a general sense of the changes that are occurring in the role played by key water entities in Tasmania and the flow-on implications for the structure of water management in the state. Traditionally, Hydro Tasmania has been a non-consumptive water manager and that means they have stored water and in doing so, modify to some degree the flows of river systems, but they have never been responsible for actually taking water out of these systems; they are non-consumptive. In recent years, however, we have seen a rapidly growing relationship between Hydro and Tasmanian Irrigation where we are now seeing Hydro providing water to TI to be extracted and used, so they have gone from being a non-consumptive manager of water to now overseeing a significant degree of consumption. This bill adds another layer of change in the role being played by key water entities.

Tasmanian Irrigation has to date only provided water to irrigators for use, but if this bill passes, we will see them now providing water for industrial use on top of agricultural use as well. These are major changes and we are concerned that they are happening in a rather ad hoc way without thoroughly being thought through. Such an approach creates a real risk of unintended consequences, especially as such changes are not underpinned by any examination of potential ramifications. This is a concern that has been raised with us by stakeholders and it is a significant concern that we share.

Again, I hope that when I go downstairs and have a look online at the consultation page that there are the actual submissions from some of the major entities. I do not know, minister, whether you can confirm that the actual submissions from stakeholders are going to be published, but I look forward to reading them. I hope that that is the case, and we expect that to be the case.

When it comes to hydrogen, this bill seeks to set out a general pathway to provide the use of Tasmanian Irrigation water supplies for industrial purposes. It has been clearly stated by government that the rationale for it is very specific. It is the Government's intention to use apparent excess capacity from the proposed Tamar irrigation scheme to supply potential hydrogen proponents at Bell Bay.

The Government wanted to build a $290 million irrigation scheme for the Tamar to provide 24 500 megalitres of water but the uptake of water sales has been very low and the scheme was, by the minister's own admission, completely unviable under such scale. I make the point that I have heard from numerous farmers and people who have engaged in the process about expressions of interest for water, people who have chaired local irrigation scheme committees, that this approach really needs to be looked at. It is abundantly clear to farmers that if you get invited to put up your hand if you want a bit more water, or if you want water to irrigate your land, just about everyone is going to put up their hand. People are going to express their interest, but it is abundantly clear at that point, whether it be the landholding, the size of the landholding, the location of the landholding or a whole range of other factors, that that person is not going to have the capacity; they are not going to have the means to actually buy into this scheme the way they have been invited to.

As a result, we are seeing these schemes designed and put on the table way bigger than the reality that they could ever achieve. I think that is an approach Tasmanian Irrigation and indeed the Government should have a look at because it is clearly skewing and delaying outcomes when it comes to provision.

We have also heard from the Government that other options for providing water to hydrogen proponents are unviable on their own merits, so what this bill is effectively doing is trying to combine those two interests together, trying to fold together two unviable propositions in order to try to make them both economical. The irrigation in the Tamar scheme on its own is not viable and hydrogen and provision of water alone is not viable.

In one way we can certainly see the logic of this. What we have heard in briefings on the bill is that it is the intention that hydrogen proponents would pay a commercial rate for accessing the scheme that would not just cover the additional costs associated with the extra infrastructure needed but also somewhat subsidise the costs for irrigators. Those intentions are good enough, but what we have also heard -

Mr BAYLEY (Clark) - Mr Speaker, those intentions are good enough but what we have heard has failed to acknowledge that Tasmanian taxpayers are taking on the capital risks associated with this infrastructure. It seems that one way or another it will be public money spent on building infrastructure to allow for the provision of water for hydrogen proponents and that money will only be recouped if enough proponents get their operations off the ground and operate for long enough.

In the briefing yesterday we heard there is an intention from Government to have capital investments direct from the proponents of these hydrogen projects, but when these schemes are going out and being implemented in advance of any genuine proposal being on the table with hydrogen, it is difficult to see how that can be. This might seems like a specific matter that we argue that is intrinsic feature of this bill. This bill effectively commits or provides for a dollar spend on the infrastructure required to supply industrial users, without any agreements with those users actually being locked in. It is this bill itself that provides for that infrastructure to be invested in.

We're not opposed to the infrastructure per se, we're not opposed to the final use, but when it is this bill that provides for that investment to be made, not the actual uptake of the water by those industrial users, those hydrogen users, that is a significant concern. For Tasmanian Irrigation to provide water to hydrogen proponents or in the future for other industrial users, they must have the infrastructure to do so, and in order to ensure the daily reliability of a consistent flow to hydrogen proponents, this infrastructure is additional to the requirements of the irrigators themselves. This is an issue that goes not only to the infrastructure but to the water resource itself and I go back to where I started, which is the water resource and the health of our rivers are seriously stressed at the moment.

What the passage of this bill does is create the need for Tasmanian Irrigation to invest in very large capital works with no guarantee that this money will ever be earned back. We are also interested in what undertaking has been given by Hydro Tasmania to provide support for this arrangement. Perhaps Hydro has a view on this bill or made a submission, I am sure they probably did. It would be interesting to know and I will have a look closely -

Ms Finlay - Have they loaded them yet?

Mr BAYLEY - I do not know if they have loaded them. I have not had a chance to look.

The other substantive change associated with this bill is to provide communities with the ability to directly manage irrigation in their area. We are strong supporters of community determination and voice, but we also understand the need for independent oversight and monitoring of water use.

We know that the member for Bass, Ms Finlay, is going to bring forward some amendments. We will have a look at them very closely and consider them. We are very supportive of the community being empowered to manage and look after the infrastructure that they are reliant upon, but we do need that independent oversight, particularly in relation to the overall use of water. Various geographic areas have got different needs and considerations so it makes sense to improve and increase the community role in the operational side of the irrigation, to make sure it fits the purpose, but this shouldn't mean everything is handed over to the local level.

Currently, Tasmania Irrigation undertakes important duties such as monitoring of water quality, irrigator compliance and farm water access plans. It would be good to understand what this bill means for these types of activities and whether there's any possibility they are going to be devolved to those community interests as well. Minister, we are specifically interested in the oversight, the regulation and the policing of water provision, making sure it is in line with agreed and contracted requirements. It is crucial that these types of activities are undertaken independent from water users, both to ensure outcomes and to maintain trust between the various water users within a particular scheme. We would like to hear further explanation about the specific functions that will maintain the sole responsibility of Tasmanian irrigation and what could be up for grabs.

I conclude with numerous concerns I have heard from stakeholders about Tasmanian Irrigation, clearly providing a really important service to the Tasmanian community and to farmers, but as originally envisaged when set up, it was about providing the planning, vision, and infrastructure to provide water to farmers, with ultimately the farmers themselves and communities themselves taking over the management of that resource. I am increasingly hearing concerns not about Tasmanian Irrigation becoming too big to fail, but a behemoth and an entity that starts to have additional requirements built into the framework in which they operate that continues to see them sustained as a monopoly player and as a business as opposed to a service provider. We are really keen to watch that closely.

Over all, while we raise our concerns about the state and the health of our rivers, while we point to the amazing work being done by scientists, volunteers and other groups to monitor and repair some of the damage that has been done, while we have some concerns about the structure and in some ways the intent of Tasmanian Irrigation, we do see the benefits of combining the two demand users into the one scheme - the agricultural uses and the industrial uses provided it is fuelled by the correct renewable means, we do support a hydrogen industry here in the state. We will listen closely to the debate in the committee stage over these amendments and we will consider them very closely. We are broadly supportive of this bill.