NATIONAL Irrigators Council CEO Steve Whan has ruled out a sixth and full-scale judicial inquiry into controversial allegations of water theft relating to the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
But he says claims being made against one water user of alleged non-compliance in one portion of the river-system in NSW should be fully investigated to conclusion, rather than allowed to linger unanswered.
Mr Whan spoke out following media reporting yesterday which claimed the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) knew about the water theft allegations - raised by ABC Four Corners in late July - but failed to take appropriate action.
It ignited fresh calls by Labor, the Greens and environmentalists for a full judicial inquiry into the water compliance claims relating to the NSW Barwon Darling region of the Murray Darling Basin, despite five other inquiries ignited by the issue, including one by the federal Senate and another into compliance by the MDBA.
The Authority responded to suggestions it did nothing, by saying it had notified NSW authorities in August last year of its concerns which surfaced while investigating use of a new Data Cube initiative to measure whether satellite technology could be used to track water flows accurately – but that new regime failed to deliver robust proof.
“The peer review found that the technology was promising but more was required to turn the information into evidence of any illegal actions,” the MDBA said.
Mr Whan said as part of the Basin Plan’s ongoing implementation it was important to use all tools that are available to measure outcomes, look at environmental results and ensure compliance with water flows.
“Satellite technology may be a part of this - but at this stage its use and calibration is likely to need continued work,” he said.
He said the MDBA’s review - which was instigated following the Four Corners report - may make further recommendations about the relationship between federal and state compliance roles.
“That will be a much quicker way of addressing issues than having a sixth and much longer (review) process established,” he said.
“All water users expect their compliance system to be enforced for the protection of all interests.
“Overwhelmingly, licensed agricultural water users extract only what they are entitled to and they do it with modern and very accurate meters.
“Individual allegations about use in one unregulated river do not justify broad claims saying the Basin Plan is in jeopardy.
“But they do confirm the need to get compliance right and give everyone confidence.”
Mr Whan said the Guardian article alleging new information on existing allegations against one water user on the Barwon Darling - which ignited the MDBA’s response yesterday - only confirmed the need to ensure state based compliance was effective and that reports or allegations of misuse “are fully investigated to conclusion”.
“NIC has zero tolerance for water theft,” he said.
“The Basin Plan was an historic agreement - it has been very difficult for irrigation communities - but it aims to secure a healthy environment, along with the future of basin communities and agricultural production.
“We want a compliance system that gives all water users and communities confidence that water is going where it is intended.
“It is not acceptable that allegations have stood untested for so long without resolution.
“That’s why Irrigators are willing to work through the final recommendations of the Matthews report and with the National review.”
Earlier this month, Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce said “We don't condone any form of theft and we certainly don't condone water theft”.
“In pursuit of this we will make sure that, if any of these allegations stack up, they will be pursued to the full extent of the law,” he said.
“What I can say also, and it is important, is that at this point they remain allegations. I am also aware of other issues that have been brought forward with regard to defamation cases, so we have to be very careful that we differentiate between allegations and proof.”
Nationals deputy-leader, Regional Development Minister and NSW Senator Fiona Nash also rejected calls for the Turnbull government to implement a national judicial inquiry to investigate the water theft allegations and restore confidence in the Basin Plan
She said a number of “very appropriate measures” had been put in place to deal with the issue, including the independent inquiry led by Ken Matthews, which handed down its interim report this month in NSW.
“We've seen the Commonwealth-initiated Murray Darling Basin Authority review of the basin-wide compliance regimes,” she said.
“We've seen the ANAO audit of the national partnership agreement on implementing the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“We have seen referrals to the NSW ICAC and, of course, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee inquiry into the integrity of the water market.”
During the Senate debate, SA Greens Senator Senator Hanson-Young said “And they're still stealing water”.
But Senator Nash said it would cost tens of millions of dollars to conduct the judicial inquiry “and we would be waiting 18 months”.
“We have a number of measures in place, from both NSW and the Commonwealth, to respond to this, and it is entirely appropriate to do so in that manner,” she said.
“The federal minister responsible for water continues to be very focused on the Murray Darling Basin and making sure we get the triple-bottom-line result that we need across the environmental, social and economic impacts for the Basin.
“He has made very sensible decisions, as indeed has the state minister, and the coalition government will continue to make sure we get good outcomes for all of those living right across the Murray Darling Basin.”
Senator Nash said the Matthews report has been received and that the state minister Niall Blair had announced that he’s immediately look to act on key components of the Water Management Compliance Improvement Package, which was recommended.
“I also note the speed with which the minister acted in this area,” she said.
“This is of course a matter for the state government and I do note the very quick response that we have seen from the water minister in NSW.”
Public meeting venues to gather evidence from witnesses and dates for the Senate’s inquiry are yet to be finalised and it has only published six submissions so far.