Parched NSW seeks help as National Water Commission axed
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The Baird government has appealed to its Queensland counterpart for help with the "emergency water issue" facing Broken Hill, Menindee and parts of the Darling River.
The request comes as the Abbott government succeeded on Wednesday in its efforts to abolish the National Water Commission, an independent science body overseeing water management, when it secured enough Senate votes.
Broken Hill's reserves were down to about 4 per cent and the NSW government received forecasts that the town would be "without water by the end of the year", Water Minister Niall Blair said.
"It is quite a dire situation."
Mr Blair said he had written to Queensland Natural Resources Minister Anthony Lynham, asking him "to take into consideration the critical consumption needs and flow requirements" of downstream towns including Broken Hill.
The request was sent after NSW imposed an embargo on its irrigators taking water from the Gwydir, Barwon and Namoi rivers after heavy rainfall about Easter.
"Queensland didn't do the same with their irrigators and were allowing them to take some of the water," Mr Blair said, adding that NSW was awaiting a response.
News of the request came a day after the Bureau of Meteorology declared an El Nino event was under way. Such weather patterns tend to exacerbate or extend droughts across eastern Australia amid hotter daytime temperatures and below average rainfall.
The bureau also released its latest seasonal stream flow forecast on Wednesday, noting that low flows were likely in the May to July period for 34 of 84 locations where prediction skill "is acceptable".
Soil moisture is below average, so less rain will make it into waterways when it falls.
National Water Commission axed
Meanwhile, the Abbott government secured enough crossbench support in the Senate to abolish the National Water Commission, prompting criticism.
"This is the very time we should be building on water reform," John Williams, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, said.
Scrapping the body, which audited and publicised water management, would save $20 million for an industry that had already cost $11 billion to $13 billion to repair past over-allocation of resources, he said.
Competition over water, such as between miners and farmers, was intensifying, Dr Williams said, adding "that's before you take into account the climate change that's ahead of us".
The abolition of the commission was "just reckless in the extreme," Greens deputy leader Larissa Waters said.
Areas are "in deep, deep drought and El Nino will make it even worse".
However, Bob Baldwin, parliamentary secretary to the federal Environment Minister, said that with the "substantial progress already made in water reform, the Coalition Government has determined that there is no longer a need for a stand-alone entity to undertake monitoring of Australia's progress on water reform".
The commission's responsibilities would be taken up by other Commonwealth bodies, Mr Baldwin said in a statement: "Key statutory functions will be carried out by other agencies and work is already under way by these agencies to ensure their delivery is not affected".
Fairfax Media also sought comment from Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
The Senate vote was 32-29 and most crossbenchers voted with the Coalition.
Senator Nick Xenophon, an outspoken critic of the abolition plans, missed the vote because a "short division" left him outside the chamber, his office said.
Queensland's readiness to help NSW may be limited.
The Queensland government on Wednesday extended its drought-declared regions to a record more than 80 per cent of the state.
"While several coastal areas received good rainfall and are having their drought status revoked, I am declaring a further large part of the state drought-stricken, particularly in North Queensland," Agriculture Minister Bill Byrne said.
However, Mr Blair will get a chance to press his case with Queensland at two meetings over the next two weeks, including a gathering of water ministers in Melbourne on May 29.
Broken Hill has faced episodes of severe water shortage over the decades. Water was shipped in by rail in the 1890s.
The last big crisis hit Broken Hill at Christmas in 2004.
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