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Low-Flow Bypass Systems

The Hon. J.A. DARLEY (15:13): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking the Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation a question about low-flow bypass systems.

Leave granted.

The Hon. J.A. DARLEY (15:13): As outlined in the 2017-18 budget, $13.5 million has been allocated over three years to install up to 500 low-flow bypass systems in strategically located dams and watercourse diversions in the Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges, in the Angas and Bremer River catchments. I previously asked a question about low-flow bypass systems in December 2016 as to how many of these systems had been installed. In his answer, the minister advised that 11 trial sites had been installed, utilising $340,000 in funding from the Murray-Darling and Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges natural resources management boards. My questions to the minister are:

  1. Is installation of these systems voluntary or compulsory?

  2. How are sites for low-flow bypass systems and the associated funding identified?

  3. How is the level of funding determined?

  4. Can the minister advise how many low-flow bypass systems have now been installed and the amount of funding allocated?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) (15:15): I thank the honourable member for his most important question, and I think it is inherent in his question that we understand—or he certainly does—the importance to the environment when we are talking about water. It is not just for irrigation purposes: it is also to maintain healthy ecosystems from which water is then extracted further downstream for other irrigation purposes. You can't see a stream, a river or a creek, for example, in isolated pockets where you just talk about taking the water out of one area—the top, the bottom or the middle. It is one contiguous system and it needs to be dealt with in that way.

If you think about it, we have been in this discussion previously, led again, I think, by the Hon. Mr Brokenshire in the past. Everybody downstream from an irrigator upstream has a very real interest in having these low-flow bypasses in place because, unless you do that, there is no water coming downstream unless it is a very large flow. You have to wait until all the dams up the top of the stream line are full before any trickles down to the next person, and the same applies to the people further downstream, so there is a question of equity involved as well.

Healthy catchments are crucial for the sustainability of irrigated agriculture all the way through our watercourses. They are very crucial to the productivity of the Mount Lofty Ranges communities in particular, and we need to make sure that the health of those river systems, those watercourses, is not adversely affected by failures to meet the environmental needs of those ecosystems that transport the water down those watercourses for irrigators to use who are further downstream from those upstream.

For that purpose, a number of water allocation plans have been constructed on the basis that environmental flows will be provided to maintain the health of those watercourses. In the Mount Lofty Ranges, water allocations to existing water users are underpinned by the requirement for environmental flows to be passed by some licensed catchment dams and watercourse diversions. Without this provision of environmental flows, the volume and the timing of flows to the environment remain significantly altered, and catchment health cannot be maintained in the way I outlined in my opening remarks.

The provision of environmental flows allows for a greater allocation of water for consumptive users such as irrigation and for it to be better managed and a more equitable approach taken. This is particularly important during periods of low flow. Environmental flows result in significant environmental benefits, if you have these bypass systems in place, for the cost of only a very small reduction in the volume captured by dams. Current research is supporting the concept of providing environmental flows from strategic locations within particular catchments rather than around each and every existing dam. Low flows are only a small proportion of total flows. Medium and high-flow events can still be expected to fill a dam, as is normal business.

As the honourable member said in his question, 11 trial sites have been established to test a range of different methods to pass environmental flows from farm dams. Several of these sites are used for production, and business has continued as per usual, I am advised, after the installation of these low-flow devices. Some of these sites provided a demonstration opportunity, and I think the Hon. Mr Brokenshire has taken advantage of that and gone out to visit a couple of these sites, along with the member for Mayo, Ms Rebekha Sharkie. Some of these sites provide a great demonstration for the community to see how they are meant to work.

I am advised that during the process to select the sites, the project engaged in one-on-one conversations with over 50 individual landholders as well as with key industry partners and NRM groups. In August 2016, to assist landholders in the Western Mount Lofty Ranges, the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board has supported a two-year pilot project to secure low flows at required dams and watercourse diversions in the Carrickalinga catchment. Community engagement with stakeholders in the Carrickalinga catchment has been undertaken and on-ground works commenced in October 2017.

To assist landholders in the Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges during late 2015 and throughout 2016, a business case was developed by the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources seeking funding through the Murray Futures program for state priority project funds from the commonwealth. These funds sought were to support the implementation of low-flow projects in the Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges, the project named Flows for the Future.

The Flows for the Future business case process was successful in gaining Australian government funding support for a project in a section of the Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges. On 16 December 2016, the Australian government approved funding of a bit over $12 million for the Flows for the Future program. This represents 90 per cent of the total project cost, with the remaining 10 per cent to be contributed by South Australia, bringing the total investment to almost $13.5 million.

Flows for the Future will provide funding for devices designed to pass low flows and their installation at up to 500 strategically located dams and surface water diversion points across the Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges, beginning, I am advised, with the Angas catchment. The program is taking a strategic approach to get the best outcome for resources invested. Some dams and watercourse diversions have more influence on the pattern of flow than others, I am advised, so are the more effective places to secure the low flows. That goes to the Hon. Mr Darley's point about how they are selected and why.

By securing low flows at these strategic locations, the environmental flow requirements described in the water allocation plans for the project region will be provided at critical times, improving catchment health and maximising the amount of water that can be allocated to support primary production and the wider community.

I am further advised that a tender for businesses to join a panel of suppliers for the design and/or construction of low-flow devices for the Flows for the Future program has opened and will close on 20 November (just past). Discussions with local industry and other representative groups in the Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges are continuing, I am advised, as part of the Flows for the Future program. Discussions with participating landholders began in July, as I said earlier, and the installation process has also begun. The Flows for the Future program will continue through to July 2019.

The Hon. J.A. DARLEY (15:21): Supplementary: my first question was, is the installation of these systems compulsory or voluntary?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) (15:21): I believe I made that answer fairly clear, but clearly not clear enough. The way this process has been run out is that we are talking to landholders and working with willing partners, so it is voluntary participation.