Water sources at risk in the Hunter

EMMA CARMODY*

Changes have been made to the rules governing the water use of mining companies in the Hunter region of NSW. These changes mean that from 2015 all large open-cut and underground coal mines in the Hunter will be exempt from rules that were supposed to protect both groundwater sources (known as ‘alluvial aquifers’) and rivers, particularly during periods of drought. This highlights the importance of assessing cumulative impacts properly, as well as the need for the community to be consulted on decisions that impact how water is managed across NSW.

Changes to the Hunter Water Sharing Plan
The NSW Minister for Primary Industries recently made over 100 changes to the Water Sharing Plan for the Hunter Unregulated and Alluvial Water Sources (Hunter Water Sharing Plan). Water sharing plans establish rules for how water is allocated between different users in a particular area. This includes a requirement to set aside some water for the environment.

The Hunter Water Sharing Plan includes rules intended to protect aquifers and the rivers to which they are connected from ‘over-extraction.’ For example, it contains a set of rules which prohibit pumping water from specified aquifers during drought. These  rules are also designed to protect ecosystems that depend on the health of these aquifers and rivers. These ‘groundwater dependent ecosystems’ include dramatic limestone caves containing subterranean lakes which support a variety of fauna such as numerous bat and invertebrate species.

However, two of the recent amendments to the Hunter Water Sharing Plan mean that all licenced major projects approved under NSW planning laws are exempt from these rules. Most mining developments in NSW are categorised as major projects.

What does this mean for the environment?
While there is still much to learn about groundwater systems across NSW, we do know that alluvial aquifers in the Hunter are shallow and therefore easily contaminated. We also know that they are under strain from extractive use, and are highly connected to other water sources. The recent amendments to the Hunter Water Sharing Plan risk exacerbating these problems, as well as undermining the health of ‘groundwater dependent ecosystems’.

The changes also seem to be designed to counteract new laws which require mining companies to hold licences for all water that they extract, including ‘incidental take’.  Incidental take, which is ‘take’ that occurs when a mine is excavated through the water table, is often uncontrolled and continuous. It would therefore have been difficult for mining companies to comply with rules which prohibited pumping water from specified alluvial aquifers during periods of drought.

In a region characterised by an unusually high concentration of open-cut coal mines, the changes are problematic, not least of all because they undermine the objects and principles of the Water Management Act.

Lack of community consultation
There was no legal requirement for the Minister to consult with the community before making the changes discussed above.  Changes of this nature have significant implications for the environment and other users. As such, EDO NSW believes that it is necessary to amend the Water Management Act to ensure that the public can participate in important policy decisions which determine how water is managed across the State.

Click here to read Emma’s article in the Australian Environment Review.

*Emma Carmody is a Policy and Law Reform Solicitor at EDO NSW.

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