IRRIGATORS have warned two Northern Basin cotton growers accused of water theft, who are now facing court over those allegations, deserve the presumption of innocence.
National Irrigators Council CEO Steve Whan said action by NSWWater to take the water theft allegations to court would help to test the actual legal basis of the claims, in the appropriate forum, after initially being raised via the media causing a flood of controversy and adverse political reaction.
Mr Whan said irrigators had “zero tolerance” for water theft which “rips off” other irrigators and the environment and “destroys community confidence”.
“If these accusations are proven then we would expect a punishment that acts as a deterrent for illegal activity,” he said.
“Of course, we do need to remember the presumption of innocence.
“Both accused have denied wrongdoing and we welcome the fact that they will have the opportunity to test their position in court.”
WaterNSW issued a statement last week saying the prosecutions resulted from comprehensive investigations into allegations of water management rule breaches in the Barwon-Darling unregulated water source in north-western NSW.
“The prosecutions include some cases concerning a property that has been the subject of media coverage, as well as another property that WaterNSW has investigated as part of our compliance activity,” the statement said.
“In the Land and Environment Court action against Peter Harris and Jane Harris, WaterNSW alleges that the defendants took water when the flow conditions did not permit it, and breached licence and approval conditions.
“The maximum penalty for each of these offences is $247,500.
“In the Land and Environment Court action against Anthony Barlow, Frederick Barlow and Margaret Barlow, WaterNSW alleges that the defendants were pumping during an embargo and pumping while metering equipment was not working.
“The maximum penalty for each of these offences is $247,500.”
The statement said last year and this year WaterNSW carried out detailed investigations concerning activities in the Barwon-Darling region and an assessment of the factors relevant to whether it was appropriate to commence prosecution proceedings.
“In determining whether to commence a prosecution for alleged illegal water activities, WaterNSW must have regard to the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt and it must act impartially, in the public interest and without influence from external pressures,” the statement said.
“Completing the necessary investigations and determining the appropriate regulatory response within these parameters takes time.
“As these matters are now before the Court, further details will not be released.
“WaterNSW is also completing investigations of other alleged illegal water activities in the Barwon-Darling and other water sources and expects to provide further updates regarding enforcement action shortly.
“WaterNSW receives hundreds of allegations of breaches of water management rules annually from across the State.
“WaterNSW undertakes all appropriate investigatory steps thoroughly and efficiently and pursues enforcement action where appropriate to secure compliance.”
Mr Whan said the NIC was disappointed at the length of time it had taken to have the allegations tested in the court, with some of the matters raised in an ABC television report, in July last year.
He said the NIC was also “very disappointed” that a flawed enforcement system had meant opponents of the Murray Darling Basin Plan had been able to tarnish the 99.9 per cent of about 9500 irrigators who had no accusations against them.
Mr Whan said it “very important” to resolve the allegations and the announcement by WaterNSW was a welcome step toward that.
“It is also very important to note the huge amount of work that has been done overall to improve compliance over the past seven months,” he said.
“NSW Minister Blair deserves credit for the prompt and extensive action he has taken to rectify long term problems with the government’s compliance regime.”
Mr Harris has denied the allegations and the family is also understood to have considered legal action over potentially defamatory media reports about the matters relating to their large cotton producing business.
Sources say the Harris family is frustrated that they haven’t been able to defend themselves properly against the claims raised in the media and are looking forward to that opportunity, when the court action proceeds.
NSW Water Minister Niall Blair welcomed WaterNSW having now finalised lengthy investigations into compliance matters and starting several prosecution proceedings in the NSW Land and Environment Court.
He said the prosecutions included some cases concerning a property that was raised in the ABC Four Corners episode, ‘Pumped’ and another property that WaterNSW had investigated as part of its compliance activity.
“While welcoming the finalisation of these investigations, given that a complex legal process has now commenced it would be inappropriate for me or any other elected official to make any further comments,” Mr Blair said.
“The NSW Government has taken a number of steps since the ABC Four Corners report in July last year, including the NSW Water Reform Action Plan which addressed recommendation from the Ken Matthews Report amongst other inquiries.
“In November last year, the government legislated to establish a new independent Natural Resources Access Regulator dedicated to building first-class compliance and enforcement regimes for water in NSW.
“The new Regulator recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Murray Darling Basin Authority to assist with all matters relating to compliance and transparency.
“As part of the Water Reform Action Plan, public consultations will commence in the coming weeks on a number of proposed changes to the water management regime in this state focussing on information transparency, environmental flows, compliance and enforcement.
“We are committed to doing all we can to protect one of our most valuable resources and making sure it is looked after responsibly and fairly by all.”
Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud told ABC radio the prosecutions showed the NSW government was “serious” about tackling compliance.
“We have to give integrity to the plan and if someone's done the wrong thing, they should get nailed but they should be given the presumption of innocence until such time,” he said.
“(Water) is a complex area and no one should be charged without appropriate proof.
“The officials have got to a point where they've got that comfort and they've been able to lay charges.”
Meanwhile last week, Treasurer Scott Morrison and Mr Littleproud announced a Productivity Commission inquiry into the effectiveness and implementation of the Basin Plan and water resource plans.
This inquiry will fulfil the statutory requirement for the first of the Commission’s five-yearly assessments of the effectiveness of the Basin Plan and water resources plans as required by the Water Act 2007.
The Commission is due to report to Government by 31 December 2018.
Public consultation will be undertaken as part of the inquiry and both cabinet members said the government encouraged all interested parties to participate.
Mr Harris has denied the allegations and the family is also understood to have considered legal action over potentially defamatory media reports about the .
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