By STEFANIE SCHULTE
Water Policy Manager
New South Wales Irrigators’ Council

The old adage “when it rains, it pours” seems quite apt in the context of Australia’s recent water woes.

What started with a mainstream news report aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in late July about alleged water theft of Federal environmental water in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin and purported maladministration by State Governments, soon forced both the Federal and State Governments to initiate a raft of inquiries and reviews into legislative, policy and practical implementation of compliance in water management across the Murray-Darling Basin.

None of the reports so far have been able to provide conclusive evidence of any water theft by irrigators anywhere within the Murray-Darling Basin, however the report highlights how the Australian water management and compliance system are not beyond reproach.

What the reports so far have shown is that there are some key shortfalls in the State Government’s administration of water resources:

  • The State Government has mismanaged fees paid by irrigators that were intended to support water delivery oversight, which in turn undermined the public’s confidence in the water management system.
  • The State Government has failed to conduct meter readings and repairs despite ongoing calls for action from irrigators and other water licence holders in the state.
  • The State Government has chosen to restructure the state water department at a critical point in the Basin Plan implementation without providing sufficient support and leadership to guide the transition.
  • The State Government has chosen to authorise the State water utility to conduct meter reading and compliance activities despite the conflict of interest due to the utility’s dual water supply and water compliance functions. It is clearly a case of judge, jury and executioner all being lumped into one office.

Irrigators across the state have called on the State Government to immediately fulfil its obligations to improve its management of the established compliance measures and reset the state water extraction compliance system in order to re-establish confidence in the system – by both irrigators and the general public.

The fact is that the original news report certainly (unfairly) damaged the reputation of the Australian irrigation industry and has provided greater leverage for the environmental lobby to demand a greater share of Australia’s water resources and more environmental friendly water management regulation. However, despite this very obvious agenda and the ongoing attacks on the irrigation industry, it is clear that failings at the State Government have led to unfair public criticism of irrigators who, through no fault of their own, were blamed for illegal water diversions that remain unproven.

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