Updated: Jan 18
The Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) has begun the prosecution of a former-vineyard operator in Wentworth, New South Wales, for allegedly bypassing water meters and pumping up to 13,000 megalitres of water past their allocated water license limit from the Murray-Darling River. The water was allegedly stolen over 4 years in the aftermath of the millennium drought, a period wherein the basin and the majority of southern NSW farming areas were still severely affected by dry conditions, between 2011 and 2015. The amount of water stolen would fill 5200 Olympic swimming pools. The case's hearing will commence on the 9th of December in the NSW Land and Environment Court.
In 2019, an unrelated Wentworth vineyard operator was also prosecuted for stealing water illegally, pleading guilty to 8 charges of taking water from a watercourse without an allocation between 2016 and 2019.
The NRAR's Director of Investigations and Enforcement, Lisa Stockley commented on the significant harm operators can cause by taking water illegally, even in the context of these regions having experienced recent flooding:
“Periods of abundant rainfall have a way of taking attention away from the overall reality of finite water resources...When people irrigate unlawfully, they’re not just risking heavy penalties. Illegal water take can also cause significant harm to the environment and their own community."
The most recent quarterly NRAR regional compliance breakdown notes that of more than 1000 property inspections and nearly 300 investigations carried out over 3 months, offences related to taking too much water or breaching water meter regulation remain the most common issues at 48% of all offences. Six prosecutions are currently underway in court.
This latest prosecution comes in the wake of Federal Government's announcement to implement to all 23 recommendations provided in the Water Market Reform: Final Roadmap Report.
Water Market Reform: Final Roadmap Report
In October 2022, the Federal Government released the Water Market Reform: Final Roadmap Report, provided by the NSW Agriculture Commissioner, Daryl Quinlivan. As part of the 23 recommendations provided by the report, the Federal Government is set to introduce new legislation and a mandatory code of conduct to "deliver integrity safeguards, and lift conduct standards, comparable with other markets," with penalties introduced for brokers who do not comply.
Tanya Plibersek, the Minister for Environment and Water, detailed in a press release how Australia's water market does not operate under the same regulations as other markets:
"Unlike Australia’s financial markets, water markets are poorly regulated and lack the features that make comparable trading markets work effectively and transparently. For example, unlike in financial markets, there is no regulation around broker behaviour, no prohibitions against market misconduct, and few reporting obligations. A lack of regulation, transparency and data means that farmers and irrigators are unable to be sure that they are dealing with brokers who are acting in their best interests. Under the Government’s reforms, market conduct will be regulated by the ACCC, building on their expertise and experience with water markets."
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan
The Murray-Darling Basin plan was originally a $13 billion strategy which decreed in 2012 that 450GL would be returned to the Murray-Darling river system by 2024. The plan originated from the millennium drought, took years to develop, and saw many conflicts between both states and political parties and conservationists and irrigators.
In August 2022, it was reported that only 2 of a promised 450 gigalitres of water had been delivered to the Murray-Darling Basin with the most recent Water for the Special Environment Account (WESA) report finding that this target for the Murray-Darling Basin plan "cannot be achieved under the current program settings."
Ms. Plibersek, criticised the former Coalition government for "sabotaging" this process with "brown tape" which limited what projects would be approved:
“They tied up the water for the environment special account … with irrational rules [in a] deliberate effort to sabotage the plan."
While the 450GL addition was legislated, a deal in 2018, agreed between state and federal water ministers, added the condition that this amount would only be delivered if socioeconomic consequences could be avoided. This has been interpreted to mean that the project would not go ahead in the event that single job could be lost. Only a fraction of the account's $1.775 billion has been allocated with Ms. Plibersek accusing the Coalition government of “deliberately hoping to leave [the WESA money] unspent”.
“This is another report that was kept secret by the previous government...The previous government had no intention on delivering on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan – they just didn’t have the guts to admit that before the election...Their failure to deliver on the plan wasn’t due to a lack of money – it was a lack of will.”
When asked if water buybacks were the only feasible option to meet the target, Ms. Plibersek confirmed that "nothing's off the table at this stage." The Australia Institute and Greens have both agreed that buybacks, which were first capped under the Coalition government, are the only means to provide water to the basin. The current lack of water within the basis threatens many species and habitats.