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Enforcing water law: But fears still held for lakes

Saturday, 16th December, 2017

By Andrew Robertson

Former MDBA chairman and state government minister Craig Knowles will lead a newly-created regulator charged with overseeing compliance and enforcement of water laws in NSW.

Mr Knowles was yesterday named the inaugural chairman of the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR), while veteran bureaucrat Ross Carter has been appointed its interim chief regulatory officer.

A regulator independent of government was a key recommendation of Ken Matthews in his report into NSW’s water use compliance and enforcement practices.

The government has released a timeline for when it expects a raft of other new reform measures to be implement over the next 12 to 18 months.

NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair said the government was also introducing new water measurement rules with a “no meter, no pump” policy for larger water users.

Consultation was expected to begin early next year. 

“All water users and the broader public require ready access to information about water use in NSW and this is why increasing transparency in water management is a key part of this reform package,” Mr Blair said in a statement.  

“It’s also very important that environmental water is managed effectively and NSW will work closely with stakeholders and Basin states to ensure this occurs.”

Mr Blair told the ABC yesterday that while the vast majority of water users were doing the right thing “clearly there were some areas that we needed to have some reform”.

Mr Knowles was chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority from 2011-15 and was a senior Labor minister from 1999 to 2005, holding a number of portfolios including Natural Resources.

He will lead a three-member board that will also include environmental lawyer and policy expert llona Millar and agribusiness professional Bruce Brown.

Mr Carter has over 30 years’ experience in the design and implementation of policy and regulation and has held senior positions with the NSW EPA and Australian Clean Energy Regulator. 

The reforms could ultimately see more flows travel down the Darling River and into Menindee Lakes but irrigators below the lakes say proposed changes to its management will send them to the wall.

The planned shake-up of the lakes, which is also part of the government’s reforms, is expected to generate up to 110 gigalitres of water savings which would help NSW achieve its water recovery target under the Basin plan.

But Rachel Strachan from Tulney Point Station said it would also reduce water supply for irrigation, increase the frequency that the Menindee Lakes are dry and come at a huge cost to water users on the Lower Darling River.

“This will destroy the farm businesses on the Lower Darling River that grow high value permanent plantings including stone fruit, citrus, wine grapes and table grapes,” she said.

The Commonwealth government recently paid $79 million to purchase Tandou farm and its water entitlements, said Ms Strachan, while the NSW government was spending $500m building a new pipeline for Broken Hill. 

Yet neither have done anything for farming families, she said.

“Lower Darling irrigators are being left with no secure water supply, no other options and no future.”

The Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council is expected to consider a business case for the Menindee Lakes Water Savings Project when it meets in Albury next week.

Ms Strachan said the council must ensure the future of family farms and irrigation businesses before agreeing to changes to the operations of the lakes.

“Before agreeing to changes to the Menindee Lakes, we would expect the Ministerial Council to honour the requirement of the Basin Plan to ensure that there are no detrimental impacts on reliability of supply of water to holders of water access rights that are not offset or negated.”

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