Murray Darling scandal sparks independent review

Murray Darling Basin Four Corners fallout sparks independent review


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Niall Blair appoints former Commonwealth Department head to lead investigation.

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NSW regional water minister Niall Blair has announced an independent review into issues raised by Monday’s Four Corners program Pumped.

Mr Blair said the review would cover all allegations raised that involve the responsibilities of DPI Water and any of its employees.

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Significantly, Mr Blair addressed the anger that flowed from other Basin states following allegations that NSW’s regulations had enabled irrigators to withdraw water during low flows and subsequently undermine environmental objectives.  

“I reiterate NSW’s commitment to the implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan,” Mr Blair said in a statement this afternoon. 

“I acknowledge the issues raised by the broadcast potentially impact on other basin states. 

“I will be writing to my Commonwealth and State counterparts with the Terms of Reference and providing them with an opportunity to comment.”

Mr Blair appointed Ken Matthews AO to head the independent investigation. 

“All staff in the NSW Department of Industry will be instructed to provide Mr Matthews with unrestricted access to all records and to participate in any interviews at his request,” Mr Blair said.

Mr Matthews will provide an interim report by August 31, which will include a date for his final report based on his interim assessment. The final report will be provided by November 30.

I reiterate NSW’s commitment to the implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan - NSW Regional Water Minister NIall Blair

“The interim and final reports will be made public, however, any material that may be prejudicial to subsequent legal processes may need to be withheld until such time that they can be released.”

The revelations prompted calls for an inquiry into NSW water management.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill and Water Minister Ian Hunter called for a judicial inquiry, and urgent meeting of the Council of Austrlaian Governments (COAG). South Australian Senator Nick Xernophon echoed their demands.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said her party would refer the Murray Darling Basin Plan to a senate inquiry when parliament resumes

Lower Darling pastoralists Rob and Katharine McBride, Tolarno Station, have called for a Royal Commission into NSW government’s handling of water.

NSW Farmers’ president Derek Schoen argued an overwhelming majority of farmers and irrigators do the right thing.​

“Of 32,500 gigalitres, we're talking about 10..”

When appearing before the Canberra press galley today, Federal Ag and Water Resources minister Barnaby Joyce said there was 32,500 gigalitres in the Murray-Darling Basin catchment, compared to 10GLs in the Barwon-Darling area, linked to the issues raised by Four Corners.

He said 32,000GLs was the equivalent of about 13 million swimming pools and about 11,000GLs was extracted throughout the Basin, or 4.4m swimming pools, while 7000GLs of water flows over the barrages in South Australia that equated to about 2.8m swimming pools.

The Darling-Barwon catchment area that Four Corners referred had total extraction of 160GLs, he said.

“The licence that they refer to, which they believe there may have been a portion of water stolen from, is 10GLs,” he said.

“So of the 32,500 gigalitres, we're talking about 10.

“Of the 7000 that flows over the barrages, we're talking about 10Gls, about 1000kms away.

“So when you say that is going to have a massive effect on the Coorong, a portion of 10GLs, and it’s going to upset the lower lakes and it’s a massive issue for South Australia that just belies the reality of the hydrology and the arithmetic.”

Mr Joyce said it was “certainly an issue and we're not dismissing that” but it was an issue for the people who lived around the area, where that water may have been taken.

Investigation welcomed, but some comments wide of the mark 

NSW Irrigators' Council chairman Richard Stott said the allegations raised by the ABC in Pumped were serious and should be thoroughly investigated.

But he also pointed out the charges were yet to be proven and said the council would would rely on due process, and would not be indulging in media speculation.  

"(We) strongly support the current compliance system and accurate measurement of water extraction was also supported as absolutely essential by irrigators across the State," he said.

Mr Stott said the Council has a zero tolerance position on illegal water take.

“The absolute bottom line for the Council is that all water for irrigation in NSW must be measured and water take must be able to be audited. 

"If you can’t measure it, you can’t control it – which is the foundation of the NSW water regulation system.  

"We expect that DPI Water will regularly audit water take to ensure that the licence volumes and the provisions of those water licences are strictly adhered to.  

"What is alleged to have happened on the Barwon Darling will be investigated, and if there are deficiencies in the system there, they need to be fixed immediately.  

“The regulatory system for rural water in NSW has been very effective and irrigators as well as the community expect that the system will be well administered – that is what our irrigators pay water administration fees to the Government for.”

Mr Stott said much of the comments since the Four Corners program aired on Monday night was "well wide of the mark".

“Firstly, the assertions on Four Corners regarding the threatening of the Murray Darling Basin Plan are simply not correct," he said. 

"The allegations against Barwon Darling irrigators have nothing to do with the Murray Darling Basin Plan, and certainly would not undermine the Plan.”  

“Second - irrigators in other river valleys are not impacted by these allegations.  

"The compliance system is robust and we are confident that if any deficiencies in water compliance management are found, the Government will move very quickly to tighten it – so that everyone has confidence that the compliance system remains sound and is well managed."

With Colin Bettles

The story Murray Darling scandal sparks independent review first appeared on The Land.

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