An independent panel has found that insufficient planning and preparation was undertaken for the first flush of the Northern Basin earlier this year, as part of an assessment of the management of the event.
The independent assessment was commissioned by NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey, following significant public backlash over the management of the first flush event, particularly the introduction of an exemption regulation for floodplain harvesting, and the lifting of temporary embargoes on the controversial water harvesting method.
The draft report of the 2020 Northern Basin first flush event has just been released, with the independent panel finding that there were "positive" and "much-needed outcomes" for 11 drought-affected communities.
As a result of the flush event, thousands of kilometres of rivers flowed for the first time in many months, and two years of water supply was secured for Goondiwindi, Boggabilla, Mungindi, Collarenebri, Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, Wilcannia, Menindee, Sunset Strip and Pooncarie.
However, the panel believes there was insufficient planning and preparation for the restrictions, particularly regarding communication with water users and the community.
"Not releasing information prior to the event was a significant shortfall in transparency," the panel said in the report.
"Inadequate systems to communicate information during the event made it very difficult for people to have confidence in the integrity of the Government's decisions, and even those with good knowledge of water issues and rules had difficulty following the decisions made during the event.
"The lack of clarity denied water users the ability to plan their operations, compounding already high levels of stress and anxiety following the prolonged drought, and it denied Indigenous communities the opportunity to celebrate the positive cultural outcomes that were being generated by flows through the river system as the event unfolded."
The report also highlighted gaps in the data available on flows out of Queensland and how much water was taken for flood plain harvesting.
Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association, which at the time called for clearer rules and communication with farmers, said the report "fairly captures" the frustrations of many communities at the way the event was managed.
"The report is a constructive step forward on how to ensure all stakeholders have clarity on how NSW manage flows during a drought and provides some good facts, although a little late, about the timeline of events, the flows and allowable extractions," GVIA executive officer Zara Lowein said.
"It does miss elements of the operational impacts of the highly conservative 'blanket approach' that was applied through the events.
"We see it as a step forward to start a conversation but more in-depth technical analysis on data gaps and deficiency in information is needed.
"We need to learn from it which the report helps to summarise a number of learnings but we must recognise we are working with ephemeral systems and there are limitations to what can be controlled and achieved in real time with the current resources."
Independent NSW MP Justin Field, who moved to disallow the exemption regulation, claims the report raises more questions than it answers about floodplain harvesting in the Northern Basin.
"The report undermines the claims of landholders and NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey that the flooding had caused major infrastructure damage which prompted the temporary lifting of the embargoes on floodplain harvesting allowing billions of litres to be captured in large dams across the Northern Basin," he said in a statement.
"A Flight Observation Report from the Natural Resources Access Regulator during the event reported that 'no significant infrastructure damage was identified'.
"It's clear that despite over seven years of policy development and with licensing due to be completed by the middle of next year that measurement and management of floodplain harvesting is still inadequate. The community doesn't trust the figures and this report makes clear they shouldn't."
The draft report has made a number of recommendations on how the Department, WaterNSW and the Natural Resources and Access Regulator can improve the management and communication of future events.
Feedback on the draft Independent Panel Assessment of the Management of the 2020 Northern Basin First Flush Event can be submitted online until August 9.
A final report is expected to be received at the end of August 2020.