Irrigators in the Gwydir Valley remain frustrated that their reputation continues to be sullied, following the release of a scathing independent investigation into NSW water management and compliance.
The interim report by former senior water bureaucrat Ken Matthews was commissioned by the state government in the wake of ABC’s Four Corners report about alleged water theft in the Barwon-Darling system of the Murray-Darling Basin.
Among his key findings, Mr Matthews said NSW water compliance and enforcement has been “ineffectual” and “require significant and urgent improvement”.
As a result, Mr Matthews has made a number of recommendations including establishing a new NSW Natural Resources Access Regulator, improving transparency by making all water entitlements, licence conditions, meter readings, water account balances, and trading activities readily accessible by the public, and introducing a basin-wide ‘no metering, no pumping’ rule.
Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association executive officer Zara Lowien welcomes the report’s recommendations for improved transparency and effective compliance, however said it’s “frustrating” that it fails to recognise the high standard of the Murray-Darling Basin system that’s successfully operating througout most of the state.
“It’s good for everyone to have an understanding of how water is being used,” she said.
“Improved transparency around a range of users, for the environment and irrigators, is a good outcome, it’s something we’ve been asking for for a long time.
“We want an effective compliance system, it’s in irrigators’ best interests to have that.
“We want an effective regulator. We want to achieve what [water sharing and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan] is meant to achieve which is that water is going to the users it’s allocated to and that no-one is taking water from other users.
“While the report has highlighted opportunities to improve the system, there’s a lack of recognition of the system we’ve got - that it is such a high standard already, internationally, I would say.
“In this valley, 95 per cent of water is measured.
“The vast majority of water in our region is already measured with the most accurate technology commercially available
“Headlines from the report like ‘systemic response’ doesn’t give credit to how the system is operating outside of the areas of the narrow terms of reference.”
The ‘no meter, no pump’ recommendation could also have serious implications for the whole state according to Ms Lowien, who said that it would not only impact irrigators but all landholders who access water.
“Such statements do not recognise the overall level of risk we are concerning ourselves in terms of the volume of water take,” she said.
“We wouldn’t even have enough meters to meet those requirements.”
While Matthews’ recommendations might not have a direct impact for irigators in the Gwydir Valley who already operate under a high level of measuring water, Ms Lowien is concerned the report continues to damage the reputation of those doing the right thing.
“Making broad recommendations for the state is feeding on the perceptions and actions of a few,” she said.
“There will be implications to the whole industry and whilst we need to ensure everyone has faith as to where the water is and at what time.”
“We cannot do this at the expense of the irrigation industry, which the economies of rural communities and the state of NSW depend on.
“Therefore, all parties will all need to be across the relevant facts and be part of the solution.”
Ms Lowien would also like to see a final response to the allegations of water theft and bad irrigator behaviour.
“A decision should be made regarding the status of those allegations. It’s frustrating for the industry and disappointing for irrigators,” she said.
“It hasn’t found anything new except that department process might not have been best.
“It’s important that these allegations are addressed.
“That’s what’s doing damage to the perception of irrigator behaviour and it’s not how irrigators intentionally behave. We do have meters and measurements in place, those meters are read regularly and actions are taken by the authorities to address any short-falls.”