EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Good evening, and welcome to Lateline.
Farmers on the Macintyre River in Queensland say the $13 billion national plan to save the Murray-Darling river system is a failure.
They argue the plan, which pays irrigators millions of taxpayer dollars to save water, allows those same irrigators to catch replacement water off the flood plains – water the farmers say would otherwise flow back into the river system and on to New South Wales.
It’s being described as a failure at all levels of government, resulting in large volumes of water being held back from states downstream.
Lateline’s Kerry Brewster reports with this exclusive story.
KERRY BREWSTER, REPORTER: There’s only bitter disappointment for this Queensland family as it salvages the latest damaged cotton crop.
CHRIS LAMEY, QLD FARMER: We’re picking this cotton right now and it’s a, it’s a disaster.
One minute you’re picking cotton fine, the next you’re swallowing some huge stick that’s come in on the floodwater.
So, it’s just a miserable time. So we’re just in complete despair.
KERRY BREWSTER: Twelve months ago it was a very different story. The Lamey’s had a bumper crop.
CHRIS LAMEY: We haven’t been farming that long. We’re start from scratch men.
We thought this was our year. My dad could have retired and mum and dad could have retired so that we had huge prices, huge crops.
We were really rubbing our hands together, and then overnight it was gone.
KERRY BREWSTER: Here, the Macintyre River is the border between Queensland and New South Wales.
Regular flooding is critical in the complex balance of this huge ecosystem.
Water flows across the floodplains on either side, then drains back into the river at the headwaters of the great Murray-Darling river system that runs all the way to the South Australian coast.
BILL JOHNSON, RIVER ECOLOGIST: As the river rises and falls it breaks out into all these myriad of channels. They’re called braided systems because the channels break out, and they split and they re-join.
CHRIS LAMEY: It might be five ks, 10 ks, 20 ks but it will make its way back to that river unless its interfered with and it is being interfered with big time and these guys are turning a blind eye to it.
The flood water comes up here and it’s a torrent. It’s normally dry.
KERRY BREWSTER: A flood in August last year began as any other, when water started pushing up this creek.
Fifty kilometres upstream at Goondiwindi the river peaked at 7.9 metres, a good flood but still nearly 3 metres below the record peak in 2011.
CHRIS LAMEY: We were expecting the low lying areas to get covered with water. We got some country down on the creek here that would have been covered.
It was batten down the hatches. We knew what we were in for but when the flood came in, it was at record levels.
PETER LAMEY, QLD FARMER: 2011 didn’t even compare to it.
CHRIS LAMEY: It just didn’t make sense. 2011 was 10.8 metres. So it was just a huge amount of water missing out of the river but we still got smashed.
It was insane. Just all water – 4,100 acres of water.
KERRY BREWSTER: The flood inundated the Lamey farm.
But for downstream neighbour Clay Maher, separated from the Lamey’s by a single farming operation, it remained dry.
CLAY MAHER, QLD FARMER: We had nothing, absolutely nothing, a little bit of a run in this front creek just behind us and apart from that, nothing.
KERRY BREWSTER: Did that make sense to you?
CLAY MAHER: Absolutely not.
CHRIS LAMEY: Anything downstream there was no flood.
KERRY BREWSTER: What was happening downstream?
CHRIS LAMEY: Well, people were crying out for water but here was no overland flow. The river was still in its banks.
KERRY BREWSTER: While the Lamey’s property was under water, only three kilometres downstream a local environment group was holding a family field day on the dry banks of the river.
CHRIS LAMEY: Well, they drove the cars down the levy. There was massive flooding upstream of the levy and they went down the river and looked at the species living on the river bank.
It was dry, there was council people fishing down there, local council people. They didn’t realise there was a flood on.
When we found there was no flood downstream. We got a chopper straightaway and we went to the air and we tracked down what was going wrong.
KERRY BREWSTER: The Lamey’s flew over the neighbouring property.
CHRIS LAMEY: What we found were just massive amounts of earth works, just chronically all across the floodplain. Banks north/south across the flow of the water, some look like roads, some are banks to hold floodwater out.
KERRY BREWSTER: So we’ll show you some of our recent …
What they were looking at, according to river ecologist Bill Johnson, was, in effect, a big dam.
BILL JOHNSON: This is a levy, it’s a raised earthwork across the floodplain. It runs from the Macintyre River over here in the distance, north for many kilometres, and it is built at right angles to the floodplain. The water flows from this side to this side and it’s held up on that side on the Lamey family property.
In effect, it’s a dam.
KERRY BREWSTER: And a big dam?
BILL JOHNSON: It’s not very high, but it’s very, very long, yeah, it’s a big dam.
KERRY BREWSTER: The Lamey’s say their property was under water for seven weeks.
CHRIS LAMEY: It just didn’t go away. It just hung around and hung around.
Where we are standing it was knee deep, 50-odd centimetres here. It was terminal for the crops.
PETER LAMEY: Looking at all our hard work just sitting in metres of water. It was just devastating.
KERRY BREWSTER: The field day held on the dry downstream riverbank during that flood was attended by John Norman, who operates the property the Lamey’s flew over.
John Norman is a new breed of farmer. Harvard Business School educated, he and his family own or operate eight or more properties that make up Norman Farming, a large-scale cotton business stretching 30 kilometres north across the floodplain.
He’s well known in the district and related by marriage to his local Federal MP, the LNP’s David Littleproud.
Yeah, hi John. Yes, it’s Kerry Brewster from ABC-TV. I’d like to ask you some questions about how you’re operating your farms, particularly in relation to how you are gathering water.
I wanted to ask John Norman if he knew where all the water went last year, but he declined my interview request.
In a statement to Lateline, John Norman says this is a road constructed long before he moved onto the property and that it has drains to allow floodwaters through.
As part of the national $13 billion plan to return water to the river system, Norman Farming has received at least $7 million, all of which was required to be spent on water efficiency projects.
The estimated water savings from this investment have been transferred into water licenses, held by the Commonwealth’s Environmental Water Holder.
But according to the Lamey’s the Commonwealth’s effort to save water becomes redundant because it allows caught floodwaters to replace the savings.
CLAY MAHER: I’d imagine they’re harvesting more water now than what they were before with their water licences.
BRUCE LAMEY: It is unmetered water which has been caught off these plains.
BILL JOHNSON: You can’t grow irrigated cotton without water, you have to get water from somewhere.
KERRY BREWSTER: Chris Lamey blames the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Queensland Government for ignoring the lost floodwaters.
CHRIS LAMEY: I’m blown away they don’t count all this water, it’s not even on their radar – all this water that comes across our farm.
KERRY BREWSTER: Commonwealth taxpayer’s money has allowed Norman Farming to acquire rights to an easement, on which the contentious earthworks are built, and rights to a water channel running to a dam on a landlocked farm 11 kilometres from the river.
Millions of dollars are also understood to have been paid to raise the height of this massive water storage, and similar expansion under way at another dam, known as the Titanic.
CHRIS LAMEY: If they’re selling their water back why do they need these huge dams?
I’ve got less water, why would I need a massive storage. Someone is not asking the right questions.
They are obsessed with making this project a success and I believe that they think a success means that the money is out of the account and the water is in the Commonwealth’s account.
They are not concerned one little bit about what happens thereafter.
BRUCE LAMEY: We’re going to the corner of our property. This is Fraser’s Waterway.
KERRY BREWSTER: Bruce Lamey is walking through what in flood time is major waterway.
BRUCE LAMEY: I’m going to show you a big bank across Fraser’s Lagoon.
KERRY BREWSTER: From here there’s a clear view into the next door property, operated by John Norman.
A wide bank, at least a metre high, runs as far as the eye can see.
BRUCE LAMEY: If you look across the top of the fence, the fence on the other side is sort of level with the top of this post and so is the bank.
Last year’s floods, the water came down here and was built up against these banks.
KERRY BREWSTER: Norman Farming describes this bank as a private access roadway, constructed long ago.
Back towards the river, a second waterway.
CHRIS LAMEY: This is where all the action happens. This is where the Macintyre has really got to pump through here.
KERRY BREWSTER: During a big flood Chris Lamey says more water runs through here than down the river itself.
But last year he says much of it was blocked by Norman Farming’s “private access roadway” in the distance which, according to Chris Lamey, has been consolidated over the past five years.
CHRIS LAMEY: No approval, no permit. We’ve got 4,000 acres under water here and that is high and dry. This is where two-thirds of the river’s water goes, and if it’s going to make it down to the Barwon, down to the Darling it’s got to get through here and this wall is part of what’s stopping it.
KERRY BREWSTER: The Lamey’s asked Bill Johnson, former director of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Environmental Water Planning to assess the effect of their neighbours earthworks.
BILL JOHNSON: It looks as though the area upstream of the main works, of the main levy, where the Lamey property is, functions as a surge area that holds water, even temporarily, to allow it to be then moved to other storages.
BRUCE LAMEY: Water is held on our property. To hold the water up so they have time to pump it. The pumps run here non-stop for seven weeks. Every night, we live in quite a high house up here on the plain, and the night the motors turned off it was a relief.
KERRY BREWSTER: The Lamey’s downstream neighbour Clay Maher took us to see what’s left of a levy he says was constructed by Norman Farming.
He says it blocked a flooding creek last year.
CHRIS MAHER: This side of the creek there was nothing, it was dry.
The other side of the bank there was just a full, basically, a full flood.
KERRY BREWSTER: He says Bunguna, a small village nearby, was dry too.
CHRIS MAHER: Now they get their town water from there, bath water, house water, garden water, they had nothing.
KERRY BREWSTER: Goondiwindi Shire Council responded to the farmers’ complaints.
Last October Clay Maher and the Lamey’s received letters saying that illegal earthworks had been identified and that the owners had been requested to remove them.
But the council has changed its tune.
You haven’t, as a council, directed any removal of structures?
GRAEME SCHEU, GOONDIWINDI MAYOR: Not at this stage of the game. It was acknowledged that there was non-approved structures there and the correct process to do that is to give the applicant the chance to go through and get them approved and that’s what’s happening.
KERRY BREWSTER: Okay, so you can build structures that aren’t approved?
GRAEME SCHEU: No, you shouldn’t, no, but it’s very, very ambiguous on what’s a levy bank and what’s a road and all the heights and all that type of thing.
KERRY BREWSTER: The council says it’s waiting for expert modelling of the impact of earthworks on flood flows, commissioned and paid for by Norman Farming.
If the modelling justifies any unapproved roads, levies or banks, the council says the works will be approved retrospectively.
Is there anything wrong in the way that process works?
GRAEME SCHEU: Well, you have got to have a process and that’s the state process. So it’s not up to me to say whether it’s right or wrong.
KERRY BREWSTER: But the big question is whether the Commonwealth’s $13 billion plan is putting more water back into the river system or not.
CHRIS LAMEY: This is hard core Commonwealth money and no one is checking that it is being spent in the right, in the right way.
BILL JOHNSON: In my view it’s extremely serious. It couldn’t be more serious, the Government has invested, has put $13 billion aside for this, and it seems as though it isn’t getting good value for money.
KERRY BREWSTER: I mean, is it getting any value for money when you look at this kind of operation?
BILL JOHNSON: In some parts I think no, in some parts I think the outcomes are perverse.
The outcomes are possibly the opposite of what was intended.
KERRY BREWSTER: Lateline asked the responsible federal and state government departments how much water had been recovered from its multimillion dollar investment in Norman Farming?
But due to privacy considerations no details on individual projects are publicly available.
The Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines, which decides where the money goes and whether it’s been spent properly, confirmed that all it required at a project’s completion was the signature of “an engineer or irrigation professional” to confirm the integrity of the works.
CHRIS LAMEY: I’ve contacted the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, we’ve emailed for months. I’ve told them my problems and what I think is happening on a whole for the basin and they are absolutely not interested in what I’ve got to say.
CLAY MAHER: These poor buggers. It would be heartbreaking to go through what they’ve gone through. Nobody should have to do that. Nobody.
CHRIS LAMEY: This has taken us to place where no one should have to go. We’re just trying to be businessmen, we’re trying to be farmers.
This is a dream of mine to be a farmer and it’s just been crushed.
BILL JOHNSON: Everybody downstream should be concerned about it. Even though that’s a big operation it is still only one of many and there are many on the Macintyre River, there are many on the other rivers in the northern basin.
All of those rivers in an arc, from the Paroo, the Condamine, Barwon, all the way around in a big circle down to the Macquarie near Dubbo, flow into the Barwon-Darling and these, this sort of work is happening on all of those flood plains right across the northern basin so it’s profoundly significant.
CLAY MAHER: Well, the water is backed up in Queensland and it is not even, it’s not getting into New South Wales.
It should end up at the end of the Murray-Darling, that’s where it should end up.
It should run out the mouth of the Murray eventually.
Somebody’s got to do something about it and yeah, shut this down.