THE Murray Darling Basin Plan is a leviathan, swallowing other important water policies like the Commonwealth’s long-standing push to improve compliance and monitoring.
As the Basin Plan pursues environmental goals, recent allegations of water theft by individual irrigators, and “gaming” of the laws by NSW government, are sparking calls for a new era of compliance monitoring.
There are noisy calls for a judicial inquiry from all corners of South Australian politics. Queensland has joined their push, while Victoria remains uncommitted.
Reeling from the news its Deputy Director General of Water Gavin Hanlon referred himself to the Independent Commission Against Corruption over allegations he colluded with irrigators to undermine the Basin Plan, NSW has launched its own state inquiry.
Wary of the independent judicial review, Malcolm Turnbull commissioned the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) to conduct a compliance review.
Now, calls mount for tougher compliance regulations to supplement the Basin Plan.
Currently, most irrigators meter their own pumps but experts argue that automatic telemetering is needed to properly regulate regional bulk water use.
Since 2012 the massive reform has engulfed the other ongoing water reform lead by the National Water Commission (NWC), a Commonwealth agency established in 2004.
Spurred by the Millennium Drought, the NWC focused compliance measures, sharing federal funds with states for water metering on irrigation pumps, and other bulk users.
Among a range of initiatives NSW and Victoria cooperated on the $425 million Water for Rivers program, which gathered market information to aid regulation and boost transparency. NSW also helped southern irrigators install 1300 meters under NWC’s watch.
But the NWC went down the drain in 2015 as the MDBA took the reigns of the Basin Plan, and with it went the focus on compliance.
Water policy expert Cameron Holley, Associate Professor at the University of NSW, said the compliance go slow would bite when next drought grips the Basin.
“The majority of farmers want to do the right thing. But if another drought threatens their economic viability, and if it is easy to steal surface and groundwater especially, they might ask themselves, ‘if Joe down the road can just take water illegally, why should I follow the rules or spend money on trades’”, Mr Holley said.
“NSW is a big state, and there are so many water users, it is almost an impossible job to find the ‘bad apples’, given the very few compliance staff on the ground.”
Real-time data from telemetering would have a game-changer, tackling compliance challenges and increasing market transparency.
“On-farm telemetry to provide real-time pumping data could have a transformative effect. It can improve compliance, and if privacy barriers can be overcome, potentially could be used in ways that allow farmers to share pumping information, which can enhance public confidence in the system.
“There is a risk we could squander the gains we’ve already made if the regimes in place aren’t able to ensure effective compliance. Efficient markets depend on the various licences, approvals and tradable rights being adhered to, and the equitable sharing of water resources require people to follow the rules, particularly in periods of drought.”
A spokesman for NSW’s compliance authority, Water NSW, said it had 69 staff engaged in compliance-related activity. There were 371 alleged breaches investigated between July 2016 and June 2017, he said. Of these, 341 were finalised and 118 allegations were determined to require no further action.
State of compliance
Basin states require irrigators and other bulk water users to self-report pumping, supplemented by compliance inspections.
Irrigation networks of private water providers and cooperatives are more closely monitored. These systems dominate the landscape in South Australia and across the Southern Basin in Victoria and NSW.
South Australian Murray Irrigators chairwoman Caren Martin said “every-drop-counts” in her state.
“I’d like to see other states get up to our speed, and then some. How can you know if people are taking other people’s water unless its all measured?” she said.
Murray Irrigation acting chairman Ben Barlow said he expected “the full suite of federal and State investigative resources” to pursue all accusations.
“If substantiated, the allegations constitute a serious betrayal of every sector seeking to create a better Murray,” Mr Barlow said.
Murray Irrigation’s network provides “a high level of integrity that would be envied by many who appear affected by the upstream allegations,” he said.