AFTER eight months of playing catch up on water regulation, NSW is set to take the lead among Basin states with ambitious reforms, and set the high water mark for transparency and compliance.
Regional Water Minister Niall Blair is beefing up laws to increase public confidence in bulk water use, winning plaudits from irrigation industries for his efforts to clean up what has become a public relations disaster.
Controversy over alleged water theft, weak government oversight and ineffective protections for environmental flows has pushed public perceptions to a new low.
As the Murray Darling Basin Plan nears the pointy end, the four participating states are looking into each others’ backyard to check on the neighbours and NSW’s shiny set of new laws will be hard to ignore.
Victorian Farmers Federation water council chairman Richard Anderson acknowledged NSW’s precedent could push the Ministerial Council of Basin states toward common standards.
He wants to see “a stock exchange type system for the water market” that provides all relevant information, except for commercially sensitive information that could distort the market.
Local irrigators have welcomed the government’s initiative, but hold reservations over several proposals.
NSW has proposed to make public individual more information on water licence holders than ever before, such as trading history and the amount of consumption left in an account.
Irrigators said this information could distort markets, particularly for temporary trade. For example, a broker or an opportunistic neighbor would know if a farmer who needs water to finish a crop is falling short and may seek to jack up the price.
They said comprehensive water use data should be publicly available, but in an aggregated format to prevent individual businesses being identified.
Cotton Australia general manager Mike Murray said regulators “absolutely must know at any given time” if irrigators are operating within licence conditions.
“But I would be very concerned if information such as the amount of water an irrigator has left in their account or their trading history,” he said.
As part of our public consultation we are asking for feedback on whether there are risks associated with publishing this information and how these risks can be managed while still improving transparency.
A spokesman for the Department said it recognised the potential for commercial implications from its reforms, “which is why we are consulting with the public”.
Stakeholders “must own and provide feedback on this issue, which will be critical to informing how we better inform the public and reduce any risk to water entitlement holders”, the spokesman said.
Stakeholder groups said while the NSW water register collects comprehensive information on water use, recording consumption and availability, but the information is difficult to access, spread across clunky, confusing websites.
“The transparency measures in the reform are supported so long as they do not result in the capacity of water brokers to manipulate the market for temporary water trades,” said Namoi Water executive officer Jon-Maree Baker.
“This could hurt a family farms, in those times when they might be trying to finish a crop by changing the market dynamics, so these sort of perverse outcomes need to be avoided in the final product.”
NSW Irrigators chief executive Mark McKenzie he as confident consultation could deliver a good outcome in the reform process.
However, he argued that “just about all that information is already available” and he would not accept publication of commercially sensitive information.
In its reform package, NSW has also committed to a ‘no metering, no pumping’ approach.
Ms Baker said blanket metering requirements may not work.
“The industry, including the unregulated water users (in the Northern Basin) has been in favour of modern metering on a user pays basis for over a decade,” she said.
Government has proposed a mandatory requirement for all water meters to meet Australian Technical Specification 4747. These meters are expensive, are not currently available in the quantity which would be needed, and it remains an open question how long installation would take under the current crop of technicians.
Ms Baker, citing the example of the Namoi Valley, said flexible arrangements targeted at local conditions could be more effective.
“The Namoi system does not have large distances between pump sites and there are multiple telemetred gauging stations operated by the regulator that provide an accurate check and balance.”
The reforms also propose to increase the amount of compliance officers, to oversee the state’s monitoring and metering regime, overseen by a new watchdog, the Natural Resources Access Regulator, headed by former Murray-Darling Basin Authority chairman and Labor Minister Craig Knowles.
In a final report following a decade of ongoing investigations last year, the NSW Ombudsman concluded frequent restructures had rendered NSW’s water administration incapable of delivering an effective compliance and enforcement program.
“There were no adequate policies, no proactive monitoring of compliance… no compliance strategy, and poor record keeping,” the Ombudsman found.
In Queensland, where irrigators harvest overland flows into on-farm storage, water use is metered and the compliance regime is paid for by irrigators. But the since the former Newman government, usage has been self-reported (at a 95pc compliance rate).
Despite good industry participation, Agforce water spokesman Kim Bremner said the state government should go back to inspectors.
NSW’s laws are yet to be finalised. Public and industry consultation meetings are underway. Visit: www.industry.nsw.gov.au/water-reform
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