Happy returns: Acacia Rose of the activist group the Snowy Rover Alliance at the Jindabyne dam at the time of a scheduled release to the Snowy River. Photo: Andrew Meares
The independent body tasked with overseeing environmental flows to rivers affected by the Snowy Hydro scheme faces the axe this week, to be replaced by a panel handpicked by NSW Minister for Primary Industries Katrina Hodgkinson.
The bill to scrap the Snowy Scientific Committee is expected to be passed in the state’s upper house as soon as Tuesday, with Ms Hodgkinson confident the O’Farrell government has enough votes to override Labor and the Greens opposition.
The committee, which ended its first three-year term in 2011 and had been waiting for its re-appointment ever since, “was never properly resourced” and its members lacked the broader community reach that a new 13-member advisory group will bring, Ms Hodgkinson said.
“One of its key weaknesses was that it was firmly independent of government, which didn’t fit in with other water advisory committees,” Ms Hodgkinson said.
Scientists, including former members of the six-member scientific committee, said the separation from powerful interests such as the giant Snowy Hydro Ltd gave the panel a critical watchdog role that is likely to be lost. Irrigators, Snowy Hydro and government officials from NSW and Victoria are likely to hold sway, they say.
Independence is “the way scientists give you the best advice”, said Sam Lake, an aquatic expert from Monash University, who served on the committee. “To get the answer you want, go to a consultant but don’t go to an independent panel.”
Completed in 1967, the Snowy Hydro scheme diverted 99 per cent of the headwaters of the Snowy River and also captured flows of other rivers such as the upper Murrumbidgee.
The federal, NSW and Victorian governments agreed in 2002 to return as much as 21 per cent of the average annual natural flows to the Snowy below the Jindabyne dam – with a longer term goal of 28 per cent - to restore its health. The pact set up the Snowy Scientific Committee to oversee the flows.
Acacia Rose, a member of activist group, the Snowy River Alliance, said the hydro scheme ‘‘had cut the Snowy River off at the knees’’. Without independent scientists, the catchment’s needs would be neglected, she said.
Committee members say the panel was starved of funds from the start and even its own website was funded by an anonymous donor.
“We were never advised of what our budget was, never given any financial statements,” said Jane Roberts, an ecologist and former chair of the committee.
It was only getting started at looking at the flows needed to restore other rivers, such as the Murrumbidgee “when we were sacked”, Professor Lake said.
Teresa Rose, head of a Snowy River monitoring project shut down by the O’Farrell government, said the environmental flows including 190 gigalitres in the 2013-14 year were making a difference: “With the releases I’ve seen the beginning of the recovery of the river – but only the beginning.”
John Kaye, a Greens member of the upper house, said the proposed advisory panel would not hold the governments to account on the adequacy of future environmental flows.
“The previous (Labor) government gambled with the future of a unique environment,” Mr Kaye said. “This government is making it a dead certain loss.”
The Victorian government supports the move of its Coalition counterpart in NSW.
"While valuable work has been done by the Snowy Scientific Committee, it is now timely to move to a broader base of scientific, community and government advice," said a spokeswoman for Water Minister Peter Walsh.