14 When our rivers ran dry 131 (Brandis et al. 2011). This was not natural, but all too explainable. Three flows at St George would have reached the lake, but were diverted for irrigation. In a natural system, the floods of 2004 and 2008 would have inundated substantial areas of the floodplain. There was widespread death of large areas of flood-dependent vegetation, including coolibah (Eucalyptus coolabah) and lignum (Duma florulenta). Development also profoundly affected irrigation communities, after the set-up phase. The build-up phase was over, no longer demanding significant employment input. Exacerbating this, improved crop varieties reduced the need for as many chemical sprays and the need to employ people to weed the cotton (cotton chippers) or bale cotton when round- bale cotton harvesters arrived. Production of cotton per hectare doubled over 15 years, while employment numbers significantly decreased. The employment bonanza of the previous decade disappeared. Some irrigation businesses went into receivership, with Cubbie Station accumulating debts of about $300 million in 2013 (Locke 2013). The legislative battle In the 1990s, serious high-level national discussions reverberated about the levels of unsustainable development across the Murray–Darling Basin, particularly in the Lower Balonne system. The policy-makers and legislators had failed to constrain the level and speed of development. There was little consideration of the evidence backed by rigorous science for likely environmental impacts in the Lower Balonne. The implementation of policy and licensing left much to be desired (see Chapter 21), with little consideration about downstream impacts on communities or floodplain environments (Kingsford 2000a). From the early 1960s, water harvesting licences were given out, mainly to landholders, mostly graziers, wishing to grow fodder for livestock. These licences triggered the boom in water resource development, largely unconstrained by policy. Limits to take water from the rivers were largely only constrained by the size of the pumps, available storage capacity and the water in the river. The Queensland water legislation did not define floodplains as part of the rivers (Gibbs 2009) a catastrophic loophole for the river and its dependent communities. The rivers flowed reasonably frequently, providing further unrealistic expectations of reliability to the irrigation industry. Finally, recognising the rapidity of development in the early 1990s, the Queensland Government introduced a Water Allocation Management Plan (WAMP), following similar processes across the Murray–Darling Basin. There was also a cap on diversions across the Murray–Darling Basin, agreed by all the states in 1995, but Queensland managed to delay implementation for another five years, allowing further development in the Condamine–Balonne, affecting the Lower Balonne system and our livelihoods. The volume of water that private water storages (Fig. 14.2) could capture grew by 500%. The WAMP process was discarded in favour of a new planning framework, the Water Resource Plan, implemented through a Resource Operations Plan. Large irrigators lobbied for more development, arguing this was possible using overland flow. This new policy position for overland flow was invented even though unknown for any other part of the Murray–Darling Basin. The concept was simple. The irrigation industry argued that
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