Farmers win water battle

WATER VICTORY: Malcolm Gardiner (courtesy Colac Herald)

By Luke Voogt

Otway farmers have won their “30-year war” to stop groundwater pumping that killed fish and caused toxic flushes to flow down Barwon River.

Barwon Water yesterday announced it would withdraw its licence application to controversially extract water from a borefield following hundreds of submissions against the project.

“We’ve been in the battle for 30 years and this is the culmination of one enormous campaign,” Kawarren farmer Malcolm Gardiner said.

Licencing authority Southern Rural Water (SRW) confirmed it received more than 900 submissions, mostly against the application, by 5 March.

Mr Gardiner said he knew of at least 200 more objections but SRW was unable to confirm the figure as it had yet to complete a final count.

“You’re looking at, conservatively, 1100 submissions towards banning a licence,’ he said.

The majority came from “people that benefit from the water“ in Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula, Mr Gardiner explained.

“It’s an enormous comment from the community saying, ‘don’t grant the licence’,” he said.

“Barwon Water should be complimented on the fact they’ve listened to the local community.”

The withdrawal comes after Barwon Water in 2016 acknowledged its groundwater extraction at Barwon Downs over 30 years had reduced base flow in nearby water systems.

The reduced flow led to acidity levels that killed fish and caused toxic flushes, included one which flowed down Barwon River last year.

According to Mr Gardiner, the damage had also wiped out a local platypus colony,Barwon Water stopped extracting groundwater from the borefield in 2016 but applied to renew its licence to bore before it expired in 2019.

In August 2018 Water Minister Lisa Neville intervened through SRW to request a legally-enforceable remediation plan.

In withdrawing its licence Barwon Water agreed not to reapply before repairing the damaged environment.

Mr Gardiner, also a member of the Barwon Downs Community Reference Group, said environmental recovery could take 25 to 75 years.

But Barwon Water chair Jo Plummer said remediation could take “several years”.

Barwon Water would work with the reference group to define the remediation area, she said.

“This (licence) has been withdrawn to take away that confusion because what we’ve committed to do is the remediation (and) be wholly focussed on that.”

She refused to rule out Barwon Water reapplying for the licence once remediation had concluded.

“Once that has occurred, we will then put the process back in place.”

Barwon Water did not need the borefield for its short term water security due to a diversity of other sources and had made it a “last resort”, Ms Plummer said.

“This was evidenced, last week, with the announcement that we are turning on the Melbourne to Geelong Pipeline, due to the dry summer.”

The use of the pipeline comes with Geelong water storage levels at 40.2 per cent. Barwon Water did not enforce any extra restrictions over summer.

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