Despite an inter-governmental agreement and the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, the Snowy River is closer to systemic failure now than it was a decade ago, when governments first undertook to take action.

It is now nearly ten years since Steve Bracks won government on a promise to Gippsland independent Craig Ingram to save the Snowy. In 2002, the Snowy Hydro Authority was corporatised, with NSW, Victoria and the Commonwealth as shareholders. NSW and Victoria both committed $150m for the Snowy and the Commonwealth contributed a further $75m, on the condition that environmental flows were also provided for the Murray. After the last Federal election, the Commonwealth provided a further $50m in funding.

$425m to increase flows down the Snowy, to be provided from water savings elsewhere.

Flow targets for the river were set in legislation, building on a “base passing flow” and increasing over time. The targets were:

  • By 2009 the return of 15% annual natural flow
  • By 2012 the return of 21%
  • After 2012, the return of 28%

Seven years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, Snowy Hydro hasn’t come close. 2005/06 was the best year, when 50GL were returned. In 2009-10, when there is scheduled to be 142GL, there is a planned release of 46.7GL — or just over 4% of annual natural flow.

A Snowy Scientific Committee report conducted last year and released earlier this year was highly critical:

Flows down the Snowy River from [Jindabyne] dam have not been adequate for habitat and channel maintenance, have not provided normal stream conditions for stream fauna, and have not delivered any discernible lateral connectivity… the current monitoring program is not adequate… institutional arrangements for delivering water appear fixed and inadequate… releases to flush deep pools are urgently needed.

The Snowy has languished from 1967, when Jindabyne Dam locked away 99% of its water. Despite nearly a decade of notionally increased flows, the Scientific Committee warned that critical deep pools in the upper reaches of the Snowy “are under threat of permanent or near permanent change.

Water politics and river science are complicated at the best of times. But the saga of the Snowy seems to have been overlaid with bureaucratic intransigence and corporate secrecy from the NSW Government and Snowy Hydro, neither of which were willing parties to the Victorian-initiated effort to save the Snowy. Working through the politics and science is hard yakka, but one thing is clear: the Snowy is little closer to being saved now than a decade ago.

Even the Snowy’s advocates acknowledge that the prolonged drought has played a significant role in curbing the amount of water available for the river. However, the unwillingness of Snowy Hydro Ltd and its largest shareholder, the NSW Government, to do anything other than interpret its obligations under the inter-governmental agreement as strictly as possible has damaged the river and seen the waste of tens of millions of dollars.

For a start, Snowy Hydro continues to divert most of the water from the Mowamba River to Jindabyne Dam. The Mowamba provides a natural flow into the Snowy downstream from Jindabyne but a Snowy Scheme aqueduct diverts most of the water north to Jindabyne Dam, removing a source of naturally and seasonally variable flow for the Snowy (as the Scientific Committee points out, even with small environmental flows for the river, its effectiveness can be maximised through variability). From 2002 to 2006, Snowy Hydro decommissioned the aqueduct and let the Mowamba flow naturally into the Snowy, but in 2006 recommissioned the aqueduct, and in a good year will siphon about 40GL of water back to Jindabyne.

Snowy Hydro claims this is needed to provide irrigation for water users to the west, to run a small hydro-electric generator at Jindabyne Dam, and to enable better control of flushing events for the river. In the context of Jindabyne Dam, the Mowamba water is trivial — it raises the overall level of the dam by a couple of centimetres — but for the Snowy it is crucial. No one can find out — certainly not from the secretive Snowy Hydro Ltd — how much “green electricity” the Jindabyne generator produces, if any, and the Scientific Committee report was damning of the lack of seasonal and natural variability in the minimal amounts of water provided by Snowy Hydro from Jindabyne.

Worse, Snowy Hydro and the NSW Department of Water and Energy insist that not merely must it continue to divert water from the Mowamba, but that it is actually owed water from the Snowy because the original decommissioning was done in lieu of water savings. They insist the Snowy OWES the authority another 56GL of water, which must be repaid now, rather than when the drought breaks.

Snowy advocates also believe that Snowy Hydro increased the capacity of the aqueduct while realigning it when it was decommissioned, meaning they are now taking more of the Mowamba than assumed under the original inter-governmental agreement, although they will not permit anyone to check the flow figures.

NSW also claims in its defence that it has been buying water entitlements to return to the Snowy as environmental flows, but the drought has prevented the entitlements from yielding actual water. In 2008/09 NSW had acquired about 101GL of total entitlements, so therefore even if the Snowy had received a full allocation based on those entitlements, it would have received only 6.5% annual natural flow. Worse, most entitlements purchased have been low security general entitlements, which do not yield water unless there’s a deluge of biblical proportions, meaning taxpayers’ money is in essence being wasted.

NSW has also resisted any scrutiny of its actions. The 2002 NSW Snowy Hydro Corporatisation Act specifically requires that a Snowy Scientific Committee be established to advise the NSW Water Administration Ministerial Corporation on environmental flows for the Snowy. But the NSW Government point blank refused to establish the committee the until the start of 2008 which, given the damning indictment issued by the committee once it looked at what happened in the intervening six years, made sense.

Even if Snowy Hydro can’t be convinced to decommission the Mowaba Aqueduct again, there’s a strong case for suspending this “repayment” of water until the drought fully breaks, meaning the Snowy gets the benefit of that small amount of water, where it will have a substantial impact, rather than going up to Jindabyne, where it has virtually none. There’s also a need to overhaul water purchasing arrangements so that taxpayers’ money is not wasted by next-to-useless general entitlements, or competing with other government water buyback programs.

But a officious and secretive company and a recalcitrant and highly bureaucratic state department appear bent on doing no more than what they absolutely have to do — if that. Meantime the substantial investment in recovering the Snowy is going to waste.