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Boom and bust

Saturday, 6th January, 2018

Allowing the biggest cotton growers on the upper Darling River to take as much water as they like has been defended by the NSW Government which says they need it to get through drought.

Cotton companies, such as Webster, are the biggest water holders in the Murray-Darling Basin and state government licences granted to them do not exist anywhere else in the Basin.

Last year the Federal Government bought Webster’s water licence at Tandou, near Menindee, for $78 million, and the decision to pay so much has been referred to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. 

In 2012 the NSW Coalition Government rewrote the water rules so as to let the cotton growers pump 300 per cent of their allocation every year and then carry it over into the next.

Webster, for instance, has accumulated vast volumes of water from the Barwon-Darling rivers, using a combination of its high and low-flow licences, according to a report in The Weekly Times this week.

“In a move that has stunned southern basin irrigators, each year the NSW Government grants Webster a 100 per cent allocation against these two classes of water shares, no matter how much water is flowing down the Barwon and Darling rivers,” the paper reported.

“The only limitation is that Webster can draw down only 300 per cent of its water shares in any one year. But with enough allocation credited against its account, Webster can keep pumping 300 per cent of its allocation year after year.”

The general manager of Webster Darling Farms told The Weekly Times that the NSW Government had granted Barwon-Darling irrigators the favour in return for having their licensed volumes cut by two-thirds, from 523 gigalitres to 189GL. 

“Other unregulated systems in NSW are restricted to 300 per cent of entitlement over three consecutive years (an average of 100 per cent),” the report said.

In reply, the NSW Department of Primary Industry said that water sharing rules for the Barwon-Darling rivers were “built around the ‘boom and bust’, or flood and dry, nature of this unregulated river system.

“The potential for long dry periods in the Barwon and Darling rivers means licence-holders need ample carryover provisions.”

Last month the NSW Greens referred the decision by the Commonwealth to pay Webster $78 million for its Tandou licence to the NSW ICAC on the grounds that the valuation that the government accepted came from the NSW DPI.

The chief of the NSW DPI at the time later resigned amidst allegations of corruption and collusion with the cotton growing industry, and after an independent inquiry recommended that he be investigated for misconduct.

The $78 million valuation that was accepted by former Federal Water Minister, Barnaby Joyce, was $38 million higher than provided to him by the Commonwealth’s own Australian Bureau of Agriculture Resources.

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