The NSW government has been accused of withholding information on alleged water thefts on the same day prosecution against irrigators began.
WaterNSW on Thursday announced it had launched legal action against several irrigators on the Barwon-Darling in the state’s north-west, eight months after the ABC’s Four Corners investigated the issue.
The state’s ombudsman tabled a report on the same day to “correct the record”, saying WaterNSW gave false figures when it earlier claimed there had been 117 enforcements between July 2016 and November 2017.
Ombudsman Michael Barnes said there had, in fact, been none.
NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair was alerted to the WaterNSW error in February, days before the senate voted on the northern Murray-Darling Basin.
Federal Labor environment spokesperson Tony Burke said they should have been informed, and was thankful “we did exactly the right thing” in voting changes down.
“We were told at the time of the disallowance that the NSW government had already acted on the water theft, a series of water theft allegations,” Mr Burke said on ABC radio.
“What we know now is not only had there been inaction, but the minister knew and had chosen to not reveal that information when the disallowance motion was happening.”
State Labor water spokesperson Chris Minns said the ombudsman report was a “damning indictment” on Mr Blair.
A spokesperson for Mr Blair told The New Daily: “No set of facts or figures could convince the Labor Party and the Greens to make a decision in the best interests of regional NSW.
“The ombudsman’s findings were preliminary and unrelated to the disallowance motion debated last month.”
Mr Barnes said he believed the error from WaterNSW was unintentional.
He said he initiated the investigation after his office received complaints about the figures, published in the ombudsman’s November report, and found WaterNSW had inflated the statistics.
“The information provided to us indicated that the updated statistical information from WaterNSW that we’d published was significantly incorrect,” Mr Barnes said.
He raised the issue with WaterNSW, which admitted to the mistake and apologised.
The agency’s CEO, David Harris, said staff have now manually reviewed all actions taken.
Irrigators facing legal action
WaterNSW on Thursday announced it had begun prosecutions in the Land and Environment Court.
Those being prosecuted include prominent irrigator Peter Harris and his wife Jane Harris. The couple, who own a major cotton farm near Brewarrina, were named in the July 2017 ABC television program.
They have been accused of taking water when the flow conditions did not permit it, and breaching licence and approval conditions. The maximum penalty for each offence is $247,000.
Mr Harris said the couple looked forward to “vigorously defend these allegations in a legitimately constituted forum where the rule of law applies”.
“We have always believed we acted in accordance with the conditions of our Water Access Licences. While these allegations relate to events that happened more than 21 months ago, this is the first time WaterNSW has raised this matter with us.”
Three members of another prominent family are also facing charges: cotton grower Anthony Barlow from Mungindi near Moree, and Frederick and Margaret Barlow.
The Barlows have been accused of pumping during an embargo and pumping while metering equipment was not working.
The proceedings began in the Land and Environment Court this week.
WaterNSW is investigating other alleged water thefts in the Barwon-Darling and other areas, and said it should be able to update the public on that soon.
Mr Blair welcomed the legal action, and said the government was “committed to doing all we can to protect one of our most valuable resources”.
He said the government had taken action since the explosive allegations aired on Four Corners.
“In November, the Government legislated to establish a new independent Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) dedicated to building first-class compliance and enforcement regimes for water in NSW.”