A federal government inquiry into allegations of water theft in northern NSW is unlikely according to federal water minister Barnaby Joyce who has said it’s “overwhelmingly an issue for NSW”.
Mr Joyce yesterday addressed the media for the first time since ABC’s Four Corners report aired on Monday night which raised serious allegations about the misuse of water pumping in the Barwon-Darling catchment area - a critical link in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources and Deputy Prime Minister said the program raised serious concerns about water-theft, however stressed they were only allegations at this stage.
“Just like there are cattle thieves, just like there are sheep thieves, there are car thieves, there are people who break into your house, there are people who steal water,” he said. “And if you break the law, and that is an allegation, not a fact, it's an allegation. If you break the law, then you are going to be dealt with in the same process as any other criminal who steals things.”
The Four Corners report alleged a number of large-scale cotton irrigators in the Barwon-Darling had been illegally tampering with their water meters in an effort to mask the amount of water being pumped from the river.
Mr Joyce also dismissed concerns of South Australia and Victoria about the effect the alleged water theft would have on the Murray-Darling Basin, saying the volume of water allegedly stolen was 10 gigalitres, just a fraction of the 32,000 gigalitres which make up the Murray-Darling catchment.
“When people talk about swimming pools, [the Murray-Darling Basin catchment] is about 13 million swimming pools,” he said.
“So of the 32,500 gigalitres, we're talking about 10. Of the 7,000 gigalitres that flows over the barrages[ in South Australia], we're talking about 10 about 1,000km away.
“So when you say that is going to have a massive effect on the Coorong, a portion of 10, and is going to upset the lower lakes and it’s a massive issue for South Australia that belies the reality of the hydrology and the arithmetic.”
The program also aired leaked recordings of NSW’s top water bureaucrat, Gavin Hanlon, apparently offering to share confidential information with irrigation lobbyists to help them lobby against the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, as well as discussing a possible plan to withdraw the state from the $13 billion project.
Mr Joyce admitted these allegations are “an issue”, but one for the NSW government to deal with.
“It's an issue for the people who live around where that water may have been taken,” he said. “The people who live around where that water may have been taken live all in NSW.
“I've spoken to the NSW minister and he has an independent, a person from outside government to do an independent inquiry on it. And that would make abundant sense, because it's an issue for NSW.”
NSW Minister for Regional Water Niall Blair yesterday announced the appointment of Ken Matthews AO to conduct an independent investigation into the issues raised by the Four Corners program.
“The terms of reference for the review will cover all allegations raised in the broadcast that involve the responsibilities of DPI-Water and any of its employees,” Mr Blair said.
“If the review identifies staff whose conduct has not been in keeping with Department policies or processes, this information will be provided for decision-making in any subsequent disciplinary processes. Referral of any potentially illegal or corrupt activities identified will be made to relevant authorities.”
Mr Joyce said that once the investigations were complete, the findings would be discussed at the next state water ministers’ meeting.
“If all the ministers there, if they're not happy with the process, then we can have the discussion there,” he said.