An irrigator in NSW’s northwest allegedly stole more than five billion litres of water from the Barwon-Darling River, and a community group has had to take action to enforce water laws when the government did not.
The NSW Environmental Defender’s Office, on behalf of client Inland Rivers Network, has served the irrigator and Nationals Party donor Peter Harris a summons demanding he return the water, which exceeded far more than what the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan permits.
The environment and communities depend on the river, as well as the fish, water birds, Aboriginal culture and floodplain graziers, serving as a key link between the Northern Basin and Murray River system.
This is not the first time the IRN has had to become a “watchdog” to ensure that water licences and entitlements on the Darling River are used according to the water sharing rules, IRN spokesperson Melissa Gray said.
“The IRN wants a fair go for everyone and the river, but that cannot happen if people who break the rules go unpunished,” Ms Gray said.
“The government should enforce the laws but if it will not, we will do everything we can to ensure justice prevails.”
The alleged water theft is subject to an ICAC inquiry, as well as an Office of Water inquiry.
Ombudsman reveal sordid state of affairs in NSW
The news comes as the Ombudsman took the dramatic step of bypassing the government and delivering a report into maladministration of the state’s water portfolio directly to parliament, following the previous three reports being buried.
The report found cover-ups of water maladministration at the highest levels of government for the past decade, and has led to the Greens calling for a Royal Commission.
“It’s clear that enforcement of water law does not function in NSW and is rotten to the core,” NSW Greens water spokesman Jeremy Buckingham said.
“The government has been repeatedly warned by the Ombudsman that water compliance and enforcement is rotten, yet has turned a blind eye and deliberately hid previous Ombudsman reports from the public.
“It is only because the Ombudsman used his powers to go around the water minister and have this interim report tabled in parliament that we now know just how rotten things are in Water NSW.”
He also called for the Nationals to be stripped of the water portfolio, alleging water minister Niall Blair must have known about serious compliance and enforcement issues, “but has done nothing but stonewall and cover up”.
“Enforcement actions have plunged under Minister Blair from 820 in 2014/15, to 200 in 2016/17.”