A plan that would have decimated Maitland's food bowl has suddenly been taken off the table after a NSW Government minister overrode a department's advice.
NSW Water Minister Kevin Anderson has disregarded the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment's advice that restricting farmers' ability to irrigate within the tidal pool of the Hunter River, Paterson River and Wallis Creek was necessary to maintain environmental flows and protect the Hunter Estuary and the flora and fauna that call it home.
He says his decision is about "common sense" and listening to the farmers on the ground.
He travelled to Pitnacree on Wednesday to share the news with the Osborns - a long-time farming family that spans four generations and has been growing vegetables and lucerne hay for close to a century.
Stephen and Roger Osborn couldn't believe their luck and were so grateful Minister Anderson was on their side.
The plan had left their farming future on the brink of extinction and many farmers around them were going to sell up if the plan was made law.
"I am surprised, the fight that we've had for 12 months didn't make sense to me or to the other 200 irrigators on the tidal pool," Roger said.
"We put forward a lot of facts about the historical use of water [to the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment]. We manage the water around the tide very well and we always have."
"We've got certainty now, we couldn't believe what they were proposing - we didn't know where they were coming from," Stephen added.
The Mercury launched a campaign in February to fight the plan and joined with Slow Food Earth Market Maitland, Slow Food Hunter Valley and the Lower Hunter Agricultural Water Users Incorporated in creating a petition to NSW Parliament that called for the restrictions to be removed.
There was strong community support for the petition and Slow Food Earth Market Maitland chairwoman Amorelle Dempster said collecting signatures helped to put added pressure on the government.
There is no need to table the petition in parliament now that the government has backflipped on the rule.
"I think the continued pressure we put on the government has done it's job - the pressure from the Mercury's articles, the pressure from the petition, the farmers speaking out about it, it all helped to overturn it," Ms Dempster said.
Roger had been reluctant to sign a corn contract for the summer months incase the government proceeded with the cease to pump rule.
He said he will be able to pursue that now, knowing that he'll have water whenever he needs it.
Paterson farmer Julia Wokes, who is also the Lower Hunter Agricultural Water Users Incorporated secretary, said her beef, nursery and tourism business was also now secure.
We can actually plan our farming operations for the next 10 years now. It is a lot more palatable knowing that it's raining and wet now but when it's dry again we will be able to irrigate,- Julia Wokes
"I'm thrilled the democratic process has worked. As a farming group and as a community with the support of The Maitland Mercury and other local media, and Upper Hunter MP Dave Layzell, that we have been heard."
The water sharing plan for the Hunter Unregulated and Alluvial Water Source 2022 will now proceed without a cease to pump rule.
Minister Anderson and NSW Environment Minister James Griffin are expected to sign off on the plan in May before it becomes law in July.
The Osborns and Ms Wokes praised Mr Layzell for taking on his own government over the plan and meeting with Minister Griffin to convey his concerns.
They said the pressure he put on the two Ministers helped abolish the rule.
Mr Layzell said he couldn't support the department's plan because its modelling - which governed the need for the restrictions - was not consistent with what was happening on the ground.
"We can't be confident in that massive data modelling that they have done. Without that confidence and knowledge that's why I couldn't support these large changes to the water sharing plan," he said.
I don't want to knock what the department has done, they're experts and far, far smarter people than I am. The problem is that when they collected that information - and I'm talking to the farmers on the ground - the modelling that they had collected didn't line up with the anecdotal evidence that was coming out of the farmers themselves, so you've got to say there's something wrong here.
"We need to have full confidence that when that decision is made that the data is solid and that we've collected all that local knowledge and put it into it."
Minister Anderson said he weighed up the evidence from the department and the input from farmers before making his decision. He noted Environment Minister James Griffin had been consulted and agreed with the move.
"We had this discussion with him in relation to this particular one, the Lower Hunter, and he agrees that this is what should occur," Minister Anderson said.
"I think the common-sense approach is to continue with the farmers' view that there is no cease to pump required because they are managing the water source correctly."
He said it was the department's job to "put up options to look at sustaining going forward" and he was looking for "a balanced approach".
"Worst case scenarios are certainly part of the department's planning and I don't think the worst case scenario is being realised here," Minister Anderson said.
"What we are seeing here is a sustainable, conservative plan in terms of managing the environment, managing the water source - [the Osborn family have] been doing it since 1930 and they want to hand it onto the next generation - and generations to come - so that has to be taken into consideration. I've listened to them and I believe they have the right plan going forward."
"I firmly believe that we need healthy rivers, healthy farms and healthy communities. Those healthy farms represent a very, very significant strong agriculture sector and we need that. It's part of who we are and it's part of our training for the next generation - like the Tocal Agricultural College."
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