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Illegal dams ‘legal’

Saturday, 1st September, 2018

By Craig Brealey

A cotton farm built dams and channels that took more than 50,000 million litres of water from the Barwon-Darling river without government approval but was not prosecuted. 

Instead, the NSW Government granted approval to make the works legal, it was revealed in parliament yesterday.

Water NSW documents showed that Bengerang, a company owned by stock exchange-listed Webster Ltd, had its channels and dams approved on April 16 this year.

Webster’s two cotton farms near Bourke - Darling Farms and Carbuu - won the retrospective approval for 10 kilometres of deep channels and seven dams with a combined storage capacity of 50,300 megalitres. 

The channels connect the dams to the river. 

Webster applied to license the works in January this year, after the Water Minister, Niall Blair, changed regulations to allow retrospective approvals. 

This was confirmed yesterday by the CEO of Water NSW under questioning from Labor MLC, Daniel Mookhey, during a Budget Estimates hearing.

Mr Mookhey said that Water Minister, Niall Blair, denied all knowledge of it in parliament, and that his decision to effectively pardon Webster had not been made public. 

“Under this Government they won’t prosecute water theft and they are happy to secretly approve mega dams and channels,” said Mr Mookhey. 

“Every farmer in Western NSW is barely surviving this terrible drought and yet today they learn that the Nationals have said yes to a massive dam for a corporate irrigator.

“If the Government won’t take responsibility for this decision then how can anyone believe that they are cleaning up water theft? 

The Shadow Water Minister, Chris Minns, said it was “yet another example” of the untrustworthiness of the Liberal-Nationals government on matters relating to rivers and irrigation. 

“Even after two years of scandalous revelations, decisions are still mired in secrecy and hidden from the public,” he said

Just over a year ago the ABC’s Four Corners reported allegations of water theft and dodgy dealings between cotton farms on the Barwon-Darling and the NSW Government. Several irrigators have since been charged and are before the courts. 

Also last year Barnaby Joyce, who was then the federal Water Minister, approved a payment of $78 million to Webster for its water entitlements for the Tandou cotton farm at Menindee.

The valuation was provided to the Commonwealth by the NSW Department of Primary Industries, even though the Commonwealth’s own Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics and Sciences had estimated that it was worth about $40 million. 

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