Snowy Hydro tops up floods with environmental flow

WHILE residents of Wagga Wagga scrambled to save their belongings from rising flood waters there was a rumour circulating that the crisis was exacerbated by bureaucratic incompetence, in particular that Snowy Hydro was releasing environmental flow water into the already flooded Murrumbidgee River. 

I was angry at even the concept. It was inconceivable. I phoned Snowy Hydro early on December 10 to set the record straight.

I was put through to their media spokesperson, Paul Johnson, who assured me that Snowy Hydro would do nothing to exacerbate the flood crisis and in particular that no water was being released from Lake Eucumbene. The lake has a capacity nine times Sydney harbour, he said. It was only about 25 percent full because most of the rain had been falling below the Lake.

When I fed that reply back into the email stream from which the rumour originated, Ron Pike, a retired rice farmer and tireless advocate for agriculture, asked, “Why then have water levels in Lake Eucumbene been falling despite significant inflows?”

Perhaps water was being sent to the Snowy River, I thought, but surely not to the Murrumbidgee?

I phoned Mr Johnson back, to put that question to him, but he won’t speak to me anymore.  I phoned him back several times during the remainder of last Friday. His assistants initially assured me that he would return my call, but by 4pm, could only confirm that he was in his office and had received my many phone messages.

Earlier in the day I had asked to speak with Mr Johnson’s boss, David Harris, but was told he was unavailable. It was at about 1pm that I phoned around all the Snowy Hydro offices asking the same questions and leaving the same questions with the pleasant women who answer the phones. I hoped that someone knowledgeable would phone me back and explain why water levels were falling in Lake Eucumbene if no water was being released.

Eventually someone did ring me back, a Mr James Muddle from NSW Office of Water.  I said it was very kind of him to phone me, but that I really wanted to speak with someone from Snowy Hydro. He insisted that perhaps he could help. So I asked him, “Is Snowy Hydro releasing water from Lake Eucumbene?” He replied he couldn’t answer that question, that it would be an operational issue for Snowy Hydro whether any water was being released or not.  So I asked Mr Muddle what he did – wondering if I could ask him a question that he might be able to answer.  Mr Muddle replied that the NSW Office of Water was concerned with water policy issues.

“Ahh,” I thought and asked, “Is Snowy Hydro releasing water from Lake Eucumbene because of commitments to the NSW Office of Water to return water as part of its environmental flow obligations?” 

Mr Muddle replied that we don’t normally talk about environment flows when there are floods. So I asked, “No environmental flow releases are being made, that might be topping up the current deluge?”

“You are putting words in my mouth,” he replied.

After more questions from me, all of which Mr Muddle was unable to provide straight answers to, he suggested I phone Tony Webber at the State Water Corporation. And I did. He was not in, but his assistant Jane Urquhart, said she might be able to help and so I repeated my questions.

But alas, Ms Urquhart was unable to answer my questions. She did, however, promise to try and find out and emailed me back with a message from her “water delivery manager” that the information I was after could be found in the operating licence between Snowy Hydro and the NSW Office of Water on the NSW Office of Water website.

Well I went there to have a look, but where to start? The licence has a package of agreements, licences and other regulations and the current licence as at May 1, 2010, is only 102 pages long.  I started to read, but it was not easy going and the more I read, the more I doubted that I would recognise the answer even if I stumbled across it, because the document makes so many references to part three of schedule three then part four of schedule four, and in case of shortfall, in case of excess, in case of base passing flow, in this water year versus next dependent on how much water might be in which of the sixteen major dams at any one time.

So I sent some more queries back into internet world and all was finally revealed. A most reliable source and someone who recently attended a meeting with David Harris, the boss of Snowy Hydro, explained that somewhere in the range of 4,000 to 5,000 megalitres of water per day will continue to flow from the Snowy Hydro System, regardless of downstream impacts, because of environmental flow obligations in the Snowy Hydro operating licence.

Yep! Blowering Dam may be out of control, the water belting out of Burrunjuck, the Central Murray likely to go under again as early as Wednesday, but because of a formal agreement between NSW Office of Water and Snowy Hydro, involving an obligation to South Australia, approximately 500,000 megalitres, equivalent to one Sydney Harbour of water, must be released as soon as possible as environmental flow.

In short, senior bureaucrats have signed off on an agreement, which they are now honouring, which requires environmental flow releases into the already swollen Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. Of course these men in suits don’t live in the Murray Darling Basin and they will continue to receive a salary, paid into their Sydney bank accounts, regardless of how many extra wheat fields flood and extra homes are destroyed.

Inconceivable, but true.

Also published at Quadrant Online

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24 Responses to Snowy Hydro tops up floods with environmental flow

  1. spangled drongo December 11, 2010 at 3:55 pm #

    Can anyone who is currently drowning in these floodwaters get a straight answer from these bureaucrats?

    Or do we have to wait for the coroner’s inquest?

    Or the royal commission?

  2. el gordo December 11, 2010 at 5:36 pm #

    Good sleuthing, Jen. Such extraordinary bureaucratic bungling should be highlighted in the msm, where it will raise a few eyebrows and embarrass those responsible.

  3. Debbie December 11, 2010 at 8:30 pm #

    Mr James Muddle? Really?
    That is absolutely priceless! It sounds like something from a Dickens novel.
    What a magnificent article that explains what it is like to flounder around in our government bureaucracies. After all, the question was actually quite simple. It took Jennifer an enormous amount of time and angst to get it answered.
    And some people are arguing we should give more water to the government to control? Are you kidding? They have just proved in a spectacular manner that they can’t manage what they already have! Where is the common sense here? They’re putting an extra 4,000 to 5,000 megalitres EVERY DAY down rivers that are flooding, through dams that can’t store it and ultimately out the Murray Mouth which doesn’t need it. Even if the extra damage this water does is insignificant… still doesn’t make any sense. If there is 80% capacity left in Eucumbene, why on earth aren’t they storing it there? Wasn’t that what our forefathers built all those dams for? AND THERE IS STILL ANOTHER APPROXIMATELY 500,000 MEGALITRES TO GO????? Good grief!

  4. Jennifer Marohasy December 12, 2010 at 3:06 am #

    In hindsight, if I had been better prepared Friday morning, I might have asked Mr Johnson:
    1. Given the high flow in the Tumut and Tooma Rivers, is water in excess of that required for operating the power station along the Tumut River being diverted in a reserve direction through the tunnel to lake Eucumbene for storage?
    The Snowy-Tumut development provides for the diversion of the Eucumbene, the Upper Murrumbidgee and the Toomba Rivers to the Tumut River, and for the combined waters of these four rivers to generate electricity in four power stations (Tumut 1, Tumut 2, Tumut 3 and Blowering) in their fall of 800 metres before release to the Tumut River and hence to the Murrumbidgee.
    The transmountain tunnel system includes the Eucumbene-Tumut tunnel, connecting Lake Eucumbene with Tumut Pond reservoir. The normal function of the tunnel is to divert water through the Great Dividing Range from Lake Eucumbene to the Tumut River, but during periods of high flow in the Tumut and Tooma Rivers, water in excess of that required for operating the power stations along the Tumut River is diverted in a reverse direction through the tunnel to Lake Eucumbene for storage.

    I spoke with Mr Muddle twice on Friday, the second time, I had the following questions listed:
    Lake Eucumbene
    1.Is Snowy Hydro releasing water from Lake Eucumbene?
    2.Why have water levels in Lake Eucumbene fallen over the last 10 days despite significant inflows?
    3. Is Snowy Hydro releasing water from Lake Eucumbene because of commitments to the NSW Office of Water to return water as part of its environmental flow obligations?
    4. Is Snowy Hydro releasing water from Lake Eucumbene as part of its commitment to generate electricity?
    5. Is water released from Lake Eucumbene being sent down the Snowy River or Murrumbidgee or Murray Rivers?
    6. Could water released from Lake Eucumbene be contributing to the current flooding along the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers?
    More Generally
    7. Is water being released from any of the dams within the upper Murray and Murrumbidgee catchments that could be contributing to the current flooding?
    8. Could any of the water currently flowing from the Blowering or Burrunjuck dams be sent to Lake Eucumbene rather than released, for example via the Eucumbene –Snowy, Eucumbene – Tumut, or Eucumbene – Murrumbidgee tunnels?

  5. val majkus December 12, 2010 at 6:20 am #

    Great article Jennifer and what patience! I love this bit … ‘I started to read, but it was not easy going and the more I read, the more I doubted that I would recognise the answer even if I stumbled across it, because the document makes so many references to part three of schedule three then part four of schedule four, and in case of shortfall, in case of excess …’ yep, recognise that feeling

    and I suppose all that happened on a day on which you thought you might get a bit of Christmas shopping in!

  6. kuhnkat December 12, 2010 at 8:18 am #

    What bothers me about this story is how many people think their own personal job is more important than the property and lives of their fellows.

  7. Ian Mott December 12, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    This is not a mere stuff up. This kind of outrage is a direct, and entirely foreseeable consequence of absentee metrocentric governance.
    Does anyone seriously think the same situation would occur in a regional state of Southern NSW where all the responsible authorities live in the area concerned?
    Does anyone seriously think an agreement drawn up by a regional state water minister would not have included a “force majeure” provision to protect his own community?
    Does anyone seriously think the much shorter chain of command in a smaller regional state would not have allowed a message to get through to that minister in time to do something about it?
    Does anyone seriously think that the communities of the Basin, invested with the full suite of powers of their own states, and with as many Senators as South Australia has, could not have done a better job of representing their interests?

    There are some aspects of governance that are absolutely non-negotiable. And taking all reasonable and practical steps to prevent or minimise entirely foreseeable harm is one of them. The existing urban dominated government has not only failed to deliver on that expectation, they have actively exacerbated that harm.

    The bush does not need a state general election. It needs a plebiscite on their own seperate states, one for the North and one for the South. And they need to get cracking while there is still something left for the kids to inherit.

  8. Richard Treadgold December 12, 2010 at 10:12 am #

    A superb story arising from an admirable persistence, Jennifer. Bureaucratic problems, being caused or perpetuated by people we almost never see, and who therefore escape the natural restraints on their behaviour arising in those we do see from their personal experience of our criticism, need more than any other problem the oxygen of publicity and frank description like yours.

    ‘Fraid you won’t be paid — but thanks!

  9. Debbie December 12, 2010 at 10:36 am #

    Maybe we should all put pen to paper and ask those very questions Jennifer?
    Are you allowed to post the email addresses of these idiots on here? I want to talk to Mr Muddle…that name is still cracking me up completely!

    Ian…how come there are not more sensible people like you around? Of course we should have some say in how to protect ourselves. Would you like to stand for State Parliament?….I would vote for you hands down.

    The complete, total and utter lack of common sense in this whole debacle is absolutely frightening.

    As I commented before…. there are people arguing that we need to give more power over water and water management to government and government bureaucracies? You have got to be kidding!

  10. davidc December 12, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    Jennifer, well done.

  11. Ron Pike December 12, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    Hi Jennifer,
    Just a couple of points regarding your questions.
    While the details of the Snowy Scheme are quite complex the general principle is reasonable straight forward.
    All of the stream interventions in the mountains are designed to divert water into Eucumbene Dam, which is the heart of the system.
    All the other dams are quite small, except Jindabyne which is 690,000 megs.
    The only dam that can release water back down the Snowy River is Jyndabyne. (There is a scandal at play here too which I will write about when I get time.)
    Once water is released from Eucumbene either to the Murray or Murrumbidgee valleys it is lost to the scheme.
    The vertical drop is in excess of 800 metres.
    The only place where water is pumped back up is from Jounama Pondage below Tumut 3 power station.
    Water is released form Talbingo dam to generate electricity through Tumut 3 mostly for peak needs between 5PM and 9Pm. As power consumption then falls the turbines are shut down remotely ( the great advantage of hydro power is that it can be turned on and off remotely at the flick of a switch), but the base load coal stations have to be kept running. As excess power develops in the system during the night, giant electric motors swing into action and pump some of the recently released water form Jounama back up into Talbingo for reuse later; about 180 metres.
    It is a great system.
    Sadly the once great and effective Snowy Scheme and water distribution generally has been taken over by a lunatic enviromentally obsessed bureaucracies who seem answerable only to themselves.
    There is much, much more to the gradual destruction of the very purpose of the Snowy Scheme by an environmentalist lobby that has permeated all levels of Government and the bureaucracies dealing with water and agriculture.
    Nelson Lemmon the Politician who selflessly fought to have the Snowy Scheme implemented would be horrified at what is happening.
    He will only rest in peace when we have corrected this nonsense.


  12. jennifer December 12, 2010 at 12:12 pm #


    I would leave Jame Muddle alone now.

    These questions need to now be put to David Harris, by your local politician, and also the NSW Irrigation Council, and other representative groups. Where are the media releases from these groups demanding immediate answers and action?

    What is the National Farmers Federation doing?


    All good stuff. But we need to get to the heart of the issue and with perhaps just one or two questions answered.

    For example, can you tell me:

    “Given the high flow in the Tumut and Tooma Rivers, is water in excess of that required for operating the power station along the Tumut River being diverted in a reserve direction through the tunnel to lake Eucumbene to release pressure on lower reservoirs?”

    Just, Yes or No?

    Alternatively, and if this is not the critical question, can you please rephrase the question for me?

  13. Michael Cejnar December 12, 2010 at 12:19 pm #

    Nice one.

    1. The wall of silence by those public employees is almost as bad as their stupid actions. I would expect water management should be a matter of public record.

    2. Surely the MSM should love this jucy story – should sell lots of newspapers if put on the front page.

    3. It would be difficult to calculate the incremental harm from this extra water, but may some insurance companies or people inundated in borderline areas have a go at a class action against the Water Authority? There may be models that can estimate this damage.

  14. debbie December 12, 2010 at 12:32 pm #

    Also Jennifer, I think you’re being a bit too tough on yourself by saying “If I had been better pepared on Friday morning”.

    We would all assume that if we ring any one of our public servants with a genuine and concerned question…. that they would give us a genuine and honest answer.

    Thank goodness you were able to recognise that something was not right with the answer they gave!

  15. Ron Pike. December 12, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    Hi Jennifer,
    To answer your question:
    From the resevoir on the Tooma (capacity 28,125 megs.) water can only flow one way; that is downhill to Tumut Ponds reservoir (capacity 52,818 megs.) and then again downhill to Eucumbene Dam.
    Along the way water is added to this tunnel at the Outstation intake, Oglivies intake and Deep Creek intake. These are all Creeks that would otherwise run south-east.
    On the other side (Murrumbidgee), Tantangra Dam (capacity 254,000 megs.) on the upper Murrumbidgee also flows downhill to Eucumbene and if you look at the storage graphs at Snowy Hydro you will see that considerable quantities of water have been transfered to Eucumbene from Tantangra, only then to be flushed down the flooded Murrumbidgee via the Tunut, after making hydro power.
    This is not in esssence about what the water was used for.
    It is impossible to send water from Eucumbene to either valley without generating power.
    What this is about, is, given the conditions to the west of the Scheme, partly created by excessive power generation and “environmenta flows,” for the last several months, Snowy Hydro should not be releasing any water from Eucumbene.
    That was not the purpose of the Scheme.
    It is being abused by an incompetent bureaucracy and supported by two State Governments that are short of generator capacity to supply a growing population.
    Hope this helps.
    If not give me a call as I am now home for the afternoon.

  16. Ron Pike December 12, 2010 at 1:56 pm #

    Sorry for hogging the blog,
    but I just reread your post again and felt I had to add this.
    The Representative Groups you have mentioned and including several others who are being hansomly paid to both protect and enhance the rights of Irrigators and Farmers have been totally “missing in action.”
    They are playing a self-serving game of agri-political poker with growers money and farmers futures.
    They are in my opinion way out of their depth and not worthy of their renumeration.

  17. spangled drongo December 12, 2010 at 3:08 pm #

    An interesting re-run on today’s ABC Landline testing wheat growth under increased CO2 conditions. It must have taken place about a year ago and the CSIRO scientists are all spouting our warming and drying future with absolute certainty.

    Be interesting to hear them today but most of them would still be trying.

    One thing that none of them or the overpaid green bureaucrats will advocate is more dams that are obviously needed for improving the future of this area.

    What a difference a couple of months makes to the argument:

  18. Jennifer Marohasy December 12, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    To summarize:

    Eucumbene is the central reservoir in the Snowy system.

    All water out of Lake Eucumbene (with the exception of a relatively small quantity that can be used to balance water between reservoirs) flows downhill and generates power.

    The Snowy system was built to not only generate power but also as a storage system to alleviate flooding.

    Right now the managers of the Snowy system are using an environmental flow obligation as an excuse to keep generating power, when they could be storing the water in Lake Eucumbene to alleviate the current flood crisis.

  19. val majkus December 12, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    Pikey what are the National Farmers Fed doing about the complaints in your comment (if anything) and if not why not

  20. David Charles December 13, 2010 at 8:52 am #

    But… but…. but…
    As I understand it, this specially-released water will eventually reach the mouth of the Murray, from where it will flow around to Victoria’s desalination plant for processing. Am I mistaken?

  21. Debbie December 13, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    ROFL….good one David!
    You have just highlighted a classic irony.
    How ridiculously and absurdly hilarious!

  22. Mark Cutler January 13, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    I have a holiday house at Lake Eucumbene and attended a meeting arranged by Snowy Hydro earlier this week. Their representative said Snowy Hydro has been trying to get the NSW state government to agree to common sense so that water is not released during the current flood. This is a decision that doesn’t require a lot of thought or debate but apparently the wheels move very slowly in the NSW government (I imagine a committee has to be formed, then various working parties created, consultants hired, papers written and in about six months (after the floods have ended) they will make a decision)!

  23. michael August 2, 2011 at 10:03 am #

    snowys hands are tied by the idiots in sydney our scheduele for today is 100% release capacity from 2-3pm for a sytem flush when flows are quite high atm thus not beeing required


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