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MDBA split proposal

Monday, 10th December, 2018

By Craig Brealey

A federal inquiry into allegations of theft and corruption in the Murray-Darling Basin says a new independent authority is needed to deal with law breaking on the river system.

It has recommended that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority be split into two entities: the Murray-Darling Basin Corporation, and the Basin Plan Regulator, with the Regulator established as a statutory independent authority. 

This was one of six recommendations from the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport’s investigation of the integrity of the water market in the Basin.

The inquiry was called a month after Four Corners broadcast its report on cotton irrigators in northern NSW entitled “Pumped’: Who is benefiting from the billions spent on the Murray-Darling?” in July last year.

The senate inquiry committee, comprising representatives of all political parties and chaired by ALP Senator Glenn Sterle, took evidence in Broken Hill in November last year and inspected the Menindee Lakes.

Hearings were also held in Adelaide and Sydney. In all, 55 witnesses gave evidence and most of it concerned the damage being done to the rivers by over-extraction, theft, and maladministration within government and the MDBA.

The senate committee issued its report late last week and recommended a uniform set of penalties and sanctions for breaches of water laws throughout the Murray-Darling Basin.

All money raised by the Basin Plan Regulator from fines it collects should go to the regulator to help fund its work, and the Commonwealth must also ensure that it is properly funded and resourced, the inquiry recommended.

It also wants the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources to present detailed annual reporting on its allocation of funds, in accordance with the Water Act 2007. 

The senate inquiry examined the allegations raised by Four Corners that included large volumes of water were being extracted beyond licensed limits; pumping during embargoes; water meters being tampered with or deliberately broken;  records and log books not being maintained; and water channels and other structures being illegally built on Crown land.

NSW Government agencies were also accused of failing to investigate breaches of the law, and the NSW Department of Primary Industries staff of giving confidential documents to irrigator lobbyists on the Barwon-Darling river.

The inquiry was told that 147 billion litres of water was extracted in 2015-16, “some of which was possibly in breach of permitted extraction limits” and when pumping was banned to protect the drinking water for Broken Hill. 

When the MDBA and Geosciences Australia examined satellite imagery (showing where water was in the landscape) and flow gauges in the river, the data suggested water bought for the environment upstream was disappearing before it reached the downstream gauge, the inquiry said.

“Given the allegations of water theft made throughout 2017, it is clear that improvements are needed in metering and monitoring, particularly in NSW,” it said.

The success of the Basin Plan, which was meant to ensure the proper allocation of water between agriculture and the environment, depended on the states enforcing the law, the inquiry said. 

It noted the difference in water management and compliance between the southern and northern Basin. 

“Over the four years from 2012-13 to 2015-16, between 64 per cent and 73 per cent of Basin surface water was metered. Among the states, South Australia has the highest metering rate with 96 per cent of take being metered. In the northern Basin between 25 per cent and 51 per cent is metered. 

“With no more than 51 per cent of northern Basin surface water metered, it appears to the committee as no surprise that such large-scale water theft is alleged to have occurred in that area.” 

Extraction in the north had also increased since NSW introduced its Barwon-Darling Water Savings Plan in 2012 that allowed irrigators to pump from the low and medium flows. 

On the Lower Darling, irrigators who took more than their entitlement were immediately detected and prosecuted but this did not happen in the northern basin, the inquiry found.

It also accepted evidence that since 2002 the Lower Darling had ceased to flow  15 times due to excessive diversions in the northern Basin, including the use of environmental water for irrigation.

Water from floodplains, that should have flowed back into the rivers, was also being taken and diverted to dams by way of illegal channels and other structures. 

Many witnesses at the inquiry complained that government and the MDBA had plenty of time for the “big end of town” but ignored the people who lived in the river such as Aboriginal groups, graziers and townsfolk.

The inquiry stated that the Basin states had to acknowledge the findings of the various reviews and investigations, such as the SA Royal Commission and the Matthews report in NSW, that had taken place over the last 17 months and implement their recommendations. 

“Since the Four Corners episode ‘Pumped’ in July 2017, there have been significant and positive developments concerning regulatory and enforcement frameworks for compliance with water usage rules across the MDB, and within the Basin states.” 

Despite the difficulties, “stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds expressed to the committee their strong support for the Basin Plan. The economic, environmental and cultural significance of the Basin is well understood and should not be underestimated. 

“To this end, all Basin states, the MDBA and the Commonwealth must work together to restore public trust in the administration of the Basin, and confidence that water use is being properly managed.” 

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