On Monday night, an explosive 4 Corners episode “Pumped” revealed serious allegations of improper behaviour of NSW Government water officials and of alleged illegal water extraction by irrigators on the Barwon-Darling River system in northern NSW.
The Barwon-Darling spans from Mungindi on the Queensland/NSW Border to the Menindee Lakes. The 4 Corners spotlight was shone on “A-Class” irrigation licences in the Barwon-Darling, which on average allow around 10GL of extraction. For context, when the Basin Plan is fully implemented, the overall level of extraction that will be permitted across the Basin will be around 10,873 GL.
The irrigation industry was swift to respond with National Irrigators’ Council chief executive Steve Whan saying that
“Irrigators do not support water being taken against the rules. This is theft from all other water users and the community…We expect the NSW Government, as the regulator, to do its job properly and thoroughly investigate these allegations if they have not already done so, and take appropriate action if allegations are proven.”
The industry’s zero tolerance for illegal water take was echoed by NSW Farmers’ President Derek Schoen who said:
“The overwhelming majority of farmers and irrigators do the right thing, however, strong regulatory enforcement is needed when it is proven that water has been taken against the rules, or tampering/disabling of metering equipment has occurred. This is theft from all other water users and it should not be tolerated."
The episode was followed by a barrage of calls for full investigations, with state Ministers, Senators, Oppositions and stakeholder groups from all corners highlighting the need for full and transparent investigation of the issues.
Allegations against former NSW Water Minister Kevin Humphries and senior water official Gavin Hanlon have been referred to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, whose primary function is to investigate and expose corrupt conduct in the NSW public sector.
...we don’t want to see people using this as an excuse to run into their corners and unravel the really historic consensus that was achieved in 2012 when the plan was agreed.
Tony Mahar, CEO, National Farmers' Federation
NSW Minister for Regional Water, Niall Blair has also installed former National Water Commission chief Ken Matthews AO to lead a comprehensive, independent inquiry into the allegations, with this to report initially by the end of August and to be concluded by the end of November.
There was much speculation from all quarters that these allegations could undermine the integrity of the management of the Murray-Darling Basin as a whole, and the ability to deliver the Basin Plan.
The man responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Basin Plan is Murray Darling Basin Authority Chief Executive Phillip Glyde. In his statement in immediate response to the program, Mr Glyde said that
"It is important that all water users trust and have faith in the compliance system."
and in the days following Mr Glyde said in an interview with Fran Kelly on Radio National’s RN Breakfast said
'"it's not an acceptable state of affairs if the rules of racing are not being followed…we have got a problem with compliance and that's a reason for fixing compliance, it's not a reason for throwing out the Basin Plan'."
NFF CEO Tony Mahar echoed Mr Glyde’s voice of reason the next day on RN Breakfast saying that
"Our concern is that we don’t want to see people using this as an excuse to run into their corners and unravel the really historic consensus that was achieved in 2012 when the plan was agreed."
And that is the crux of the matter. While allegations of illegal water take and potentially lax compliance systems are concerning and have the potential to damage confidence, they do not provide a case for scrapping the whole Basin Plan.