The New South Wales government is close to deciding who will run one of most ambitious environmental projects that have come out of the Murray-Darling basin plan.
If successful, the rehabilitation of the Nimmie-Caira property could result in the restoration of the largest wetlands on the Murrumbidgee river. It will create a sanctuary for water birds, extend vital wetland habitats and preserve a unique area rich in Aboriginal cultural heritage – all under private sector ownership.
But with the project already having cost $180m in federal funds and now years behind schedule, there is plenty of scepticism about the outcome of this highly unusual project.
Some locals believe that much of the 84,000-hectare Nimmie-Caira property is set to be turned into a major irrigated cotton farm, and that this will be inconsistent with the environmental values that the NSW government has been seeking to preserve on the site.
In 2013 the federal government paid $120m for 19 farms on the Murrumbidgee river including their water rights. It was the largest ever water buyback under the Murray-Darling basin plan and delivered 137GL of water (based on the long-term average) for the environment. This was a substantial contribution towards NSW’s water recovery target.
But questions remain about the reliability of the Lower Murrumbidgee (Lowbidgee) water rights, given the water is usually only available in floods. There are also questions around the process by which the state government converted general access to the water into tradable water rights, which the federal government then purchased, turning the farmers that sold into instant millionaires.
Meanwhile, the NSW government has ended up with one of the biggest farms in the region – albeit with no rights to water except for environmental purposes.
The huge property has been destocked and is now home to water birds, eagles, kangaroos and emus. Former homesteads lie empty and irrigation levies are crumbling.
The government has ruled out turning Nimmie-Caira into a national park, even though it sits next to Yanga national park, as taking the land out of production entirely would further hurt rural communities, because it would cut agricultural activity and the flow-on economic effects.
Instead it has taken the unusual step of experimenting with private management of an environmental asset.
A confidential draft management plan has been prepared and tenderers have been asked to submit offers that meet the objectives of restoring the environment, recognising its cultural significance and generating an income to fund the activities.
But it is unclear how the NSW government will weight different objectives – or balance environmental outcomes against the price offered by tenderers.
The publicly available information on Nimmie-Caira makes much of the environmental aims of the project, which include managing some of the biggest wetlands on the Murrumbidgee. There have also been several studies of the rich Aboriginal cultural presence and groups are understood to be working with the local Nari Nari Tribal Council to look at possible cultural tourism and Indigenous access to the land.
But the documents also acknowledge that whoever takes on the project should be free to generate an income.
An information sheet in the public domain notes that the property has irrigation infrastructure already constructed and crops such as wheat and sunflowers have been grown in the past.
“The controlled grazing of animals could potentially assist in the maintenance and management of the conservation areas,” the document says.
“Potential for non-traditional income sources such as bio-banking and biodiversity offsets, private native forests, inclusive social solutions and tourism may be available and explored by the market through innovative business models aimed at achieving a sustainable return for the operator, the environment and local communities on this property.”
But the documents do not rule out returning part of the land – perhaps close to two-thirds – to intensive agriculture.
Three tenderers have been shortlisted.
One is the Nature Conservancy, a privately funded environmental trust that originated in the US. It uses donations and bequests to buy ecologically significant sites and manage them. The conservancy is believed to have had extensive talks with the Nari Nari community over opportunities for immersive cultural experiences at the site, as well as Indigenous land stewardship.
A second tenderer is CO2 Australia, which describes itself as having its “roots firmly planted in development and delivery of carbon projects and helping clients participate in, and benefit from, the ever-changing carbon market”. The company also says it has undertaken some of the largest revegetation projects in Australia.
CO2 Australia is believed to have teamed up with a major agribusiness partner.
The third shortlisted tenderer is the Lower Bidgee Land and Water Management company, whose directors are Frank Old, now a farmer at North Bourke, and Hamish Cullenward, the long-time manager of Nap Nap station adjacent to Nimmie-Caira and owned by the Armstrong family.
The Armstrongs and the Olds were among the sellers in 2013 when the government bought up Nimmie-Caira land and water rights.
But they appear to be keen to have a second bite at the cherry and are promoting their bid as a big boost for the local Hay/Balranald economy.
They have been talking to other unsuccessful bidders including grazing consultants Tapper Livestock and the Nari Nari Tribal Council. They are likely to use part of the site for grazing and possibly other agricultural ventures.
The issue now before the NSW government is how to balance the environment with its aim of restoring economic activity to this part of the state. A decision is expected by mid-year.
via Guardian Environment http://bit.ly/2rMakBX
April 11, 2018 at 01:30PM