What is happening with the Darling River?

AUSTRALIA'S water wars show no signs of abating.

As federal parliamentarians clash over the future of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, locals in Sunraysia and Broken Hill are preparing to take up arms over a controversial project to supply the Silver City with piped water from the Murray River.

Amid all the talk of gigalitres and sustainable diversion limits, it's easy to get confused.

Sunraysia Daily reporter CHRISTOPHER TESTA takes a look at where things stand.

The Darling River downstream of Pooncarie in March 2016.

The Darling River downstream of Pooncarie in March 2016.

Why is the Broken Hill pipeline so controversial?

It's costing NSW taxpayers $467 million to build and another $107 million over 20 years to maintain but very few people in the far west actually say they want it.

The NSW Government has released a summary about why it's needed but has steadfastly refused to publish a full business case.

Residents in Broken Hill still do not know how much they will be charged for the pipeline to operate.

Lower Darling farmers say a pipeline to Broken Hill would reduce the pressure on the government to make sure there is water in their river.

Cotton Australia, however, claimed the pipeline as a win for its industry and northern irrigation communities when it published its annual report last year.

Why isn't the pipeline following the Darling River?

The NSW Government decided it would be cheaper and quicker to build the pipeline straight up the Silver City Highway.

Its business case summary suggested it would cost about $50 million more (and only $23 million more than initially budgeted) to go up the Darling River.

No off-takes for the lower Darling have been planned either, so farmers and the Pooncarie district will not benefit.

The government says it must build the pipeline by the end of 2018 because Broken Hill only has enough water to last until mid-next year if it doesn't rain much before then.

The chosen route means the lower Darling will remain reliant on flows in the state's north reaching the Menindee Lakes and, under current water policy, that is far from certain.

Block banks are used to store an emergency supply of water in the lower Darling as it dries up.

Block banks are used to store an emergency supply of water in the lower Darling as it dries up.

The lower Darling was dry 18 months ago. Why is it happening again?

There hasn't been much rain up north, it's true, but NSW water policy hasn't helped either.

Farmers want the government to address water sharing rules that stop small flows of water reaching the Menindee Lakes in dry years.

Water sharing plans determine how much water NSW irrigators can access and when they can pump.

The Barwon-Darling water sharing plan covers the river system from upstream of Wilcannia to the Queensland border and it is here lower Darling farmers say the problem lies.

In 2012, the government advertised a draft plan for the Barwon-Darling but documents show the plan it actually adopted was different; changes having been made following lobbying from big irrigators after the submission deadline had passed.

The new Barwon-Darling water sharing plan allowed irrigators to pump more water and to pump in drier times when they were previously not able to.

The plan also makes no mention of "connectivity", meaning there is no requirement for water in the river to pass to the next stretch -- which is the lower Darling, from Wilcannia to Wentworth.

How does the Murray-Darling Basin Plan come into it?

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is historic legislation, introduced in 2012 with support from both sides of Parliament.

It aims to address environmental degradation by reducing the amount of water that can be removed from the country's biggest catchment for irrigated agriculture.

NSW, Victoria and South Australia have been told to come up with a package of projects that deliver environmental benefits without having to buy water rights from farmers.

NSW has chosen to reconfigure the Menindee Lakes -- which have long stored water for Broken Hill and the lower Darling, as well as for downstream needs in South Australia and Victoria -- to meet its obligations.

While lower Darling farmers want the government to keep enough water in two particular lakes at Menindee to last them for two years, rule changes are instead likely to allow the government to store less water at Menindee and release water that does reach the lakes more quickly.

Exact details of the Menindee plan remain unclear.

The government considers this project completely separate from the Broken Hill pipeline but farmers say the pipeline is essential for the Menindee project to go ahead, because it shores up Broken Hill's supply.

Lower Darling horticulturist Alan Whyte stands near stagnant water near a block bank in March 2016.

Lower Darling horticulturist Alan Whyte stands near stagnant water near a block bank in March 2016.

So, what happens now?

A protest has been organised against the Broken Hill pipeline at Fotherby Park, Wentworth, on Thursday, although the government has no plans to stop building it.

Lower Darling farmers will continue lobbying for a drought reserve to be factored in to the Menindee Lakes' operating rules.

They are also contributing to NSW reviews of water sharing plans, with a view to enshrining the need for river connectivity and the winding back of the controversial changes that were made to the Barwon-Darling rules in 2012.

Separate investigations are underway into allegations of water mismanagement and theft in NSW, including a probe into claims the government made decisions favouring major cotton growers in the Barwon-Darling.

In Canberra, the Greens are pushing to block both the package of Murray-Darling Basin Plan works and a tweak that would lead to 70GL less water taken from northern irrigators.

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