PUBLIC consultation on NSW’s rural water reforms will kick off this Friday in Dubbo, with meetings to follow across the state into April.
State government is seeking comment on a draft bill which was drawn up in response to rolling controversies over its regulation of irrigation and the Murray Darling Basin water resources, including alleged water theft in northern NSW.
The bill contains a hit list of controversial issues, with accompanying discussion papers on measuring and metering, water market transparency, environmental water as well as a new floodplain harvesting policy in NSW’s northern valleys.
Former water bureaucrat Ken Matthews was commissioned to review NSW’s water management in July last year when the scandals first broke.
Mr Matthews’ report detailed a litany of “serious concerns” about NSW Department of Primary Industries Water division.
He criticised the agency’s senior management for DPI Water’s poor performance in compliance, enforcement and transparency, and for regulations that fail to protect environmental flows in the Northern Basin.
In response to Mr Matthews findings, as well as those from the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s compliance review, NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair committed to reforms under the Water Reform Action Plan.
He has established a new office of the Natural Resources Access Regulator, headed by former Murray-Darling Basin Authority chairman and Labor Minister Craig Knowles.
The draft bill, the next significant step in his reform agenda, was welcomed by irrigator groups.
“We strongly embrace the new regulation and compliance system announced by Minister Blair because water theft is abhorrent to the irrigator sector,” said NSW Irrigators chief executive Mark McKenzie.
“The recent fallout over allegations of water theft has unfairly tarnished the reputation of irrigation farmers generally – damaging the reputation of the many thousands of irrigators who abide by the rules and follow their licence provisions to the letter.”
Mr Matthews report blamed departmental restructure “churn” for “confused processes, noting there was no record of senior managers acting on allegations of widespread law breaking.
The NSW Ombudsman concluded frequent restructures had rendered NSW incapable of delivering an effective compliance and enforcement program, following a decade in of ongoing investigations.
“There were no adequate policies, no proactive monitoring of compliance… no compliance strategy, and poor record keeping,” the Ombudsman said in its most recent report.
Cotton Australia chief executive Adam Kay said NSW’s poor performance had let industry down, and warned government not to skimp on funding.
“This is a huge concern to irrigators who pay to maintain those structures. They have every right to know the funds they contribute are supporting an effective compliance system,” he said.
“For any compliance regime to work properly, it must be resourced appropriately.”
The Murray Darling Association, representing local governments across the Basin, encouraged community members to attend the meetings.
“The NSW Government is not shying away from what has been done poorly in the past and what needs to change in the management of water resources across the Basin,” said Albury City Councillor David Thurley.
“I’m delighted to see a transparent process emerging around management and compliance and I get the strong impression that the Government is very serious. I expect to see action and results quite quickly.”
Public consultation meetings:
- Dubbo on Friday, March 16.
- Broken Hill Tuesday, March 20
- Bourke Thursday, March 22
- Moree Tuesday, March 27
- Coffs Harbour Wednesday, March 28
- Gunnedah Wednesday, March 28
- Wentworth Wednesday, April 4
- Griffith Friday, April 6
For more details visit NSW’s water reform information page, where you can read the draft bill, discussion papers and have your say.
Submissions close April 15.