Darling River crisis: Niall Blair guarded by police as he avoids angry protesters

NSW Fisheries Minister Niall Blair in Menindee. Picture: Christopher Testa
NSW Fisheries Minister Niall Blair in Menindee. Picture: Christopher Testa

THERE are fears more native fish will die in the Darling River next week, with another heatwave forecast to hit western NSW. 

More than a million fish – mostly Murray cod, golden perch and bony herring – died last weekend after a sudden drop in temperature disrupted algal blooms and caused a reduction in oxygen levels.

NSW Fisheries Minister Niall Blair visited Menindee on Wednesday to assess the situation but he failed to stop at the town’s boat ramp, where a large group had gathered for a planned press conference.

“Unfortunately there are some people that for whatever reason think they want to make some threats,” Mr Blair said, when asked why he chose to avoid the crowd by landing at another boat ramp further upstream.

The minister, who was guarded by several police officers, said he was not given any specific details about the nature of the threats.

Mr Blair asked the Department of Primary Industries and WaterNSW to prepare an urgent report on the deaths and the cleanup and said preparations would be made to restock the river once conditions improve.

There could be more fish deaths to come, however, with temperatures at Menindee forecast to exceed 40C for at least five days in a row from tomorrow.

A red alert for blue-green algae remains in place along the Darling from Louth, downstream of Bourke, all the way to Tolarno, downstream of Menindee.

DPI Fisheries officer Iain Ellis said he was surprised there had already been two major fish kills in a single month.

“That’s pretty devastating for a bloke who spends his working life trying to protect these things,” Mr Ellis said.

“Fortunately, there’s none reported yet downstream of Menindee and that’s our concern – if we start to see these sorts of things further downstream in what we know is a very important Murray cod and golden perch habitat.”

Authorities have maintained drought is to blame for the Darling River’s state.

“I’d love to be in the situation to be able to put embargoes on (upstream extraction) but the fact is we just don’t have anything coming through the system,” Mr Blair said.

“We haven’t seen any significant rainfall that would warrant an embargo but we do look at every single event individually so if we do get a large rain system then we would look at that at that time.”

However, those who gathered at the boat ramp yesterday said NSW and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had managed resources poorly.

Menindee Regional Tourism Association president Rob Gregory, whose video of dead fish went viral online this week, said: “They’re saying a lot of things that aren’t true about what’s going on.”

Mr Blair’s decision to avoid the group of about 100 people at the boat ramp attracted the ire of a few locals who eventually made their way across the river to speak to him.

One man described it as “piss poor”, telling Mr Blair: “There were a lot of people who were expecting you to be there and they wanted to listen to what you said.”

The tourism association’s previous president, Karen Page, became emotional as she expressed her frustration with NSW water policy directly with the minister.

“You cannot let irrigators with an annual crop, not even permanent plantings (but) an annual crop, have access to water when it’s so dire downstream,” she told Mr Blair.

WaterNSW executive manager of asset operations Adrian Langdon said small flows in Queensland were “not enough to reach NSW because it’s just so dry”.

He said more than 300mm of rain would be needed for the river system to flow again.

Scrap water savings project, says Labor

Opposition water spokesman Chris Minns says the NSW Government “must take responsibility for the low flows that have contributed to this disaster”.

The Opposition called on the government to scrap the Menindee Lakes water savings project, proposed to contribute 106 gigalitres towards the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s total recovery target by allowing water in the lakes to be released downstream more quickly.

Labor has already pledged to abandon the project if it wins the NSW election in March.

Meanwhile, Member for Mildura Ali Cupper said Victoria needed to take a stronger stance on the state of the Darling River, having raised the issue yesterday with Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville’s office.

“Our governments are in a strong position to influence what happens next,” Ms Cupper said.

“The minister’s office has provided information on the measures being undertaken to help save the river, but whatever they are doing, it is simply not enough.

“While the science and politics of water can be complicated to understand, the salient point is this: no river, no community.

“We have an emergency on our hands. I will be approaching the newly appointed cross-border commissioner to discuss what our community, and specifically my office, can do to help address this crisis on our doorstep.”

This story appears in Thursday's Sunraysia Daily 10-1-2019. To subscribe to our Digital Edition Click here