Water audit of the South Esk Basin and an assessment of proposed pulp mill requirements

Is there enough for a pulp mill?

A water audit of inputs and outputs from the South Esk basin over the summer period of 2006-07 unveils a story of declining supplies and increasing demands.

The audit highlights a covert competition for water security involving Meander valley irrigators; Midlands farmers; domestic consumers in Campbell Town, Ross and Tunbridge; domestic consumers supplied by Esk Water; environmental flows to sustain river health; consumption by expanding plantations in the headwaters; and direct use by the proposed pulp mill.

It makes sense to consider current and future needs of water users and the capacity of the basin to meet those needs over not just one summer but several decades.

A decision to proceed with the proposed pulp mill also entails further changes in land use to plantations to feed it and will lock in patterns of water consumption for decades at a time of climate change.


Main conclusions

1. Although the government has a stated aim of achieving equitable, efficient and sustainable allocation and use of water resources, there appears to be no water audit of the South Esk basin nor a means for making decisions for the long term in a holistic equitable manner;

2. There is a strong case that even before a pulp mill is built, the needs of existing users will not be met from the South Esk River during the driest months in future years;

3. Downstream users of water in the South Esk River are effectively subsidising the plantation owners for the water they use from the headwaters;

4. The proposed pulp mill will depend on water transfers (environmental flows) from the Meander dam during the driest months of the year;

5. The asking price for water entitlements and terms of payment that are currently being offered to farmers in the Meander valley means that irrigators of the Meander valley will be effectively subsidising Gunns’ pulp mill for the water to be used from Lake Trevallyn.

Issues raised

  • Is the government taking a long term whole-of-catchment approach to the South Esk water allocation question?
  • Who gets priority access to water particularly during the summer?
  • Is there a level playing field in the water market? Water consumption by plantations is unmetered and uncosted; Gunns are to pay $24-28/Megalitre (ML) for direct use by the pulp mill (Hydro FOI letter 17/5/07); Midlands farmers to pay $200/ML (Examiner 31/5/07); Meander irrigators $115-123/ML or $1000 capital contribution and annual supply charge $35/ML used or not. 
  • Should the cost of the Meander dam be shared by all the ultimate users of water released from the dam (pulp mill and farmers) instead of only farmers?
  • Will Gunns be given preferred access to water over farmers as is happening by default? If so, farm irrigators who have had their allocations for many years could find that they will have restrictions placed on their take during dry periods whilst plantations continue to take water from the system.

Download the full pdf file Water audit South Esk Basin briefing paper v1-1, below.

Water audit South Esk Basin briefing paper v1-1.pdf80.14 KB