Rob and Kate McBride of Tolarno Station, located between Pooncarie and Menindee.

By JOHN DOOLEY

THE first water from the heavy rains received in Queensland and northern NSW earlier this year has reached the Menindee Lakes system, delivering more than 200 gigalitres to Lake Wetherill – the top of the system. 

The fact is, more water should have reached the system earlier, but massive diversions in the northern basin, meant virtually nothing came down after the first rains.

While welcome, this water comes as a reminder of the inflows that filled the entire system in 2016, but within two years that water had all been released to flow down to South Australia and out to sea – supposedly to stop it evaporating – it would have provided five to six years supply to the region.

Tolarno Station is located between Pooncarie and Menindee. The drought in that region has been persisting for almost 20 years, making the water in the Menindee Lakes and the Darling River, vital. 

The lifeblood of the station’s operations.

Tolarno is owned by the McBride family. Family members have been running the station since 1949, when Albert James McBride purchased approximately 250 thousand acres. 

Today, Tolarno is owned by Robert (Rob) McBride and family, who purchased it in 1997. They also acquired Peppora and Wyoming Stations, which together, cover more than 500,000 acres.

Rob McBride and his daughter Kate have been highly vocal critics of the poor water management that has seen the Menindee Lakes and the Darling River run dry. 

They are scathing of the corruption and allegations of water theft in the northern basin, and have called for a Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which they say is hopelessly off-track.

Rob and Kate have worked with other river community members to formulate a strategy to get the Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) on track. 

First and foremost is the establishment of a Federal Royal Commission.

Tolarno, Peppora and Wyoming Stations are situated on the traditional land of the Barkindji people, which is the lower Darling, known as Barka in Barkindji, and the area is understood to extend from Wentworth to beyond Wilcannia, with connections into Queensland via the river system. 

To this end, the McBrides also want to secure water for First Nations to address urgent threats to cultural values by securing strategic Indigenous reserves and funding for cultural flows.

They have also called for a full independent audit of environmental water recovery to date, including water availability for provision of environmental flows and the reinstatement of buy backs to stop over extraction and to ensure the rivers are resilient in the severest of droughts.

“People shouldn’t be excited because there is water in the river, the fact is, what has happened in NSW and Queensland is an absolute disgrace,” Rob said.

“We have a situation where maybe 70 percent of water from a flood got taken away and was put in private corporate dams, predominately cotton in the northern basin, and at the end of the day, for the first time in our country’s history, a flood got cordoned-off and taken by an industry at the expense of nature, the environment, the fish and all other Australians.

“This is a disaster. It’s great that there is water in the river, but the Darling-Barka had water in it for 30 million years and should always have water in it.”

Rob says that it is a smoke screen to talk about drought being the sole cause of the absence of water in the Menindee Lakes.

“Drought didn’t cause the Menindee Lakes to dry up twice in four years. It was basically the NSW Government trying to destroy the integrity of the Menindee Lakes, which is four times as big as Sydney Harbour. And they are still trying to destroy it.”

Rob said that people need to understand that with the Menindee Lakes gone, the Darling River, under the NSW Government guidelines, will probably be dry eight out of every 10 years.

“Now this is an environmental disaster, but equally all those sustainable irrigators and sustainable farmers on the Murrumbidgee and the Murray, are going to be murdered,” he said.

“The price of water is going to go through the roof, and sustainable, honest irrigators, are going to be crucified. 

“The NSW Water Minister, Melinda Pavey is saying that it’s wonderful there’s water getting into the river. Well, I would say that there was a flood that should have come down the river – should have flooded out across the flood plain – and should have filled the Menindee Lakes.

“Instead of that happening, cotton got huge amounts of water, not only in NSW, but in Queensland as well. We desperately need a Royal Commission into water in Australia before the whole Murray Darling Basin collapses.”

Kate is equally as vocal as her father, and has built a profile as a strong advocate on behalf of the rural community she lives in. 

Already highly accomplished in her own right, Kate is currently completing a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Adelaide, as well as being a Healthy River Ambassador. 

In 2017 she was elected by fellow landholders onto the Western Local Land Services Board, making her the youngest board member since the organisation began. 

Kate has also become chair of the Western Regional Weeds Committee. 

“There is real excitement around Menindee, and over the past two weeks, I’ve been seeing all my friends along the river posting pictures of the water from around the Pooncarie area,” Kate said.

“It’s a sight to see water coming down the river, and we are already seeing how great it is for Menindee with the birds coming back in, but then at the same time, we recognise that we only have 12 months worth of water.

“So you celebrate the fact that we’ve got the water back there, but we know that we haven’t got this water back because of better water management, or better policy being implemented. We have water because we’ve had massive inflows further upstream.”

Kate said that while the projections of the lakes receiving more than 200 gigalitres is welcome, the entire lakes system can hold 1700 gigalitres.

“Therefore our lakes aren’t going to be completely replenished and those other lakes that the locals would love to see water in, like Lake Menindee, Lake Cawndilla and Tandou, won’t get any water in those lakes.,” Kate said.

“So really we are only going to be replenishing a small amount. 

“When embargoes on the taking of water were in place that was a good thing, but now it’s pretty much a free-for-all, where people are allowed to take water even from flood plain harvesting, and that’s what I think about a lot.

“The river isn’t just the river,. It’s the flood plains and the wetlands and that water should have flowed down. That water should have been in Menindee and replenishing the Lakes and ultimately that water should have flowed down and flooded out over the flood plains of the Darling and the lower Darling but we aren’t going to see that.”

Kate said the flood plains at Tolarno haven’t seen water over the banks since 2012. 

“NSW Water is saying that this current flow is going to provide water to the lower Darling for 12 months and they are making that sound like a good thing – the lower Darling isn’t meant to go dry – that’s the issue!” Kate said.

“What happens in another 12 months if we enter another dry period and we don’t get life-saving rains in a year’s time? We’re going to be in the exact same position – it’s really bloody scary for people living along the river.”

Kate said that one of the biggest issues is the over extraction from the system that has occurred under the MDBP.

“We knew when the Murray Darling Basin Plan was put in place that water extraction was going to be the biggest issue,” she said.

“We are still seeing a great deal of irrigation occurring in the northern basin. I flew over the region more than 12 months ago, and even without these life-saving rains I was seeing massive crops up there. 

“People say that they are entitled to that water, and so people’s needs are effectively put before environment and the actual river flowing, which is a frightening proposition.”

Kate said that they have always advocated that having trigger points at the lower end of the river is the way to do it.

“So that when we have massive inflows like this, until that water reaches its destination down to Wentworth and all people along the river have water, there shouldn’t be any extraction for irrigation purposes up north,” she said.

“Extractions by places like Cubby Station should only occur when there are massive excesses of water and this year there isn’t.

“If there were massive excesses, Menindee would be full – it’s a natural lake system. 

“Those millions of fish that we saw dying last year? Those fish stocks are not going to have a chance to recover because you need those lakes to have water in them to get the fish breeding going.”

Kate said that the fish are going to need more than 12 months to recover. 

“When you lose millions of fish, it’s not an overnight fix,” she said. “The idea that we only take what we need so that it can be shared around sadly doesn’t extend into the northern basin. I think it’s a bit of a free-for-all – take whatever you can and stuff the people downstream.

“When it comes to restoring faith back into the Murray Darling Basin Plan I think the only thing that will do that is a Royal Commission.

“And given the amount of money that has been spent on the Murray Darling Basin Plan, the public of Australia deserve an explanation, and we aren’t going to get it any other way.

“We have seen inquiry after inquiry, and it’s effectively the people who make the decisions who launch theses inquiries, and they have their own people investigating their own decisions, and so we haven’t seen anything come out of these things other than a couple of farmers being charged.”