Irrigators in the firing line

Ken Matthews review of Four Corners' Murray Darling allegations calls for more red tape


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An independent investigation of allegations of water theft and failed regulation in NSW recommends significant reforms, including more onerous compliance measures for irrigators.

An independent investigation of allegations of water theft and failed regulation in NSW recommends significant reforms, including more onerous compliance measures for irrigators.

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Theft allegation backlash risks a red tape bonanza

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  • Analysis

IRRIGATORS’ are facing the prospect of onerous new compliance regulations over their water use, following a scathing report from experienced former water bureaucrat Ken Matthews.

The report was commissioned by NSW Regional Water Minister, Nationals MLC Niall Blair, in the wake of ABC’s Four Corners program. An interim report was filed this week and a final version is set to follow.

Mr Matthews said the “‘social licence to irrigate’ is at stake,” and a “systemic fix is required”.

The questions for irrigators everywhere are how will governments react?  How much more regulation is really needed? And can they afford it?

The faults identified are cut and dried, but like the waters of the Murray Darling itself the bigger picture is far more murky.

Damaging dirt

Four Corners alleged incidents of water theft and illegal irrigation works by cotton irrigators in the Barwon Daring system dating to 2015 and meter tampering.

The program also produced an alleged recording of NSW deputy director general of water, Gavin Hanlon, in a meeting with a small group of irrigators offering to provide confidential information to guide lobbying efforts through Murray Darling Basin Plan negotiations.

All the irrigator groups and service corporation WaterNSW believe regulatory compliance is nearly universal, with the overwhelming majority (95 per cent) of water use is metered in NSW.

But the public perception is at rock bottom and as Mr Matthews rightly points out, mismanagement of compliance regulation is to blame. The buck stops with the Nationals-controlled water portfolio, but their constituents will pay a price.

Not just NSW

Mr Matthews recommendations to government represent the thin end of the wedge for irrigators across the Basin. There are five governmental irrigation inquiries underway - including the Murray Darling Basin Authority, a Senate Committee, National Audit Office, NSW Mr Hanlon has been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

It is worth noting the Matthews report ranges far from his narrow terms of reference to investigate the Department and the Four Corners allegations and lays out a sweeping reform agenda.

Mr Matthews critiques government process, but findings on the alleged water theft or meter tampering are absent.

The faults identified are cut and dried, but like the waters of the Murray Darling itself the bigger picture is far more murky.

Legal breach

The heaviest criticism of DPI Water is the failure to follow through in investigations of compliance breaches, and confused lines of communication between compliance staff and senior managers.

Mr Matthews cited as evidence the alleged illegal irrigation works by cotton grower Peter Harris’ on Rumleigh, Brewarrina.

“There has been a long delay without progress. No serious case has been assembled… There are gaps in the case management record” and no evidence senior management “pressed for action”.

Industry Department Secretary Simon Smith has commenced misconduct procedures against Gavin Hanlon and WaterNSW has supplied prosecution briefs over the six most serious allegations in the Barwon Darling system to independent legal counsel.

Reform wrangle

To make matters even more complicated, DPI Water underwent a massive reform during the time of the alleged irrigation breaches.

It has now completed the restructure process which dragged for 18 months. The Department followed the Coalition government’s policy of streamlining process to cut costs and increase efficiency.

DPI Water retained responsibility for policy and state corporation WaterNSW was formed to carry out monitoring and water delivery.

Dozens of senior staff were lost, along with significant corporate knowledge with them at a time of significant stress on DPI Water, which was grappling with complex Basin Plan negotiations.

The Barwon Darling system itself demonstrate the confused compliance landscape. There, irrigators meters were supplied by the former National Water Commission (NWC) and the readings which can only be accessed by government. Many have installed their own so they can keep accurate records of water use. Various different arrangements exist across the state.

Mr Blair said “top priority” was to put meters on all large irrigators within 12 months, but peak body NSW Irrigators said it is unaware of any in the state that is unmetered.

Big ideas

Mr Matthews called for an “assertive” roll out of comprehensive compliance techniques such as remote sensing of crop growth and water holdings; back to base and remote meter reading and telemetry and; targeted covert operations.

The public should have “ready access” to previously private information, including individual water entitlements, licence conditions, meter readings, water account balances, trading activities, specific pumping and works. 

Details are thin, but this would affect a great many people, potentially even stock and domestic water users. Mr Blair has committed to establish an independent Natural Resources Compliance Unit.

Agenda drive?

Some irrigators have questioned if Mr Matthews carried an axe to grind. 

He headed the NWC from its inception in 2004 until 2010. It aimed to boost compliance across the Basin with measures such as co-funded meter installation, but its mission was cut short by the Basin Plan in 2015.

Critics argue Mr Matthews “flagship proposals” came in a whirlwind since he was commissioned on August 2, but findings on alleged breaches are left to other authorities. 

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