NSW government’s handling of water theft allegations may have exposed irrigators to ongoing legal challenges, judging by NSW Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO) latest legal action.
The community legal advocate has launched action action in the NSW Land and Environment Court, issuing a summons to Moree cotton grower Peter Harris on behalf of its client Inland Rivers Network, which is funded by a range of green groups.
NSW EDO claims between 2014 and 2016 Mr Harris illegally extracted 1.5 gigalitres under an A Class entitlement and 3.1GL under a B Class.
They want Mr Harris to return the water it is claimed he stole, or to forfeit future entitlements of equivalent volume.
The EDO assisted with the ABC Four Corners report aired in July, which included the alleged water theft the Barwon Daring, meter tampering and a failure of the compliance arm government to enforce regulations.
Deputy Director General of Water Gavin Hanlon, who has now resigned, was recorded in an exclusive meeting with a small group of irrigators offering to provide confidential information to guide their lobbying efforts in Murray Darling Basin Plan process.
The case against Mr Harris is based on the limited information released to the EDO by state-owned regulator Water NSW under freedom of information laws, within a broader request for water compliance information.
“The case is based only on particular alleged breaches identified in documents obtained under freedom of information laws,” EDO principal solicitor Elaine Johnson said.
“We are also seeking access to more detailed information, but we have not obtained further documents than those in the current litigation. There may be other potential breaches.”
Despite persistent requests to Water NSW dating from April this year, the state’s compliance agency had not responded appropriately to the “matter of urgency” identified by the EDO.
NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair said government immediately referred the matters to Independent Commission Against Corruption, instructed Water NSW to address allegations, moved the state’s compliance agency out of Water NSW and ordered the independent Matthews Review, which is due to report by November 30.
“We still don’t know if the investigation includes Mr Harris in the outcomes,” Ms Johnson said.
Mr Harris told News Corp he looks forward to “vigorously” defending himself in court.
“We maintain we have at all times fully complied with our obligations under our Water Access Licences and have nothing to hide.”
Water NSW deferred its response to Minister Blair’s office.
A spokeswoman for Mr Blair said: “WaterNSW is working on finalising a number of these investigations, but as they are ongoing and matters are also with ICAC, it is inappropriate to comment on specifics at this time.”
NSW based private irrigation company Murray Irrigation welcomed the action from government, and the strong response to compliance issues in the Matthews report.
“We do not believe Water NSW or the NSW Government have been slow in reacting to the allegations made by Four Corners,” said chief executive Michael Renehan.
“We are particularly happy with the thoroughness and candid language used by ministerial appointed enquiry chief Ken Matthews. His clear and unambiguous observations and recommendations were an unexpected but refreshing response to a complex and highly emotive issue.
“We are just as keen however, to wait to see what allegations (if any) manifest into fact.