Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has requested a national independent review of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, just days after his deputy and Water Minister Barnaby Joyce played down the allegations of water theft in the Barwon-Darling catchment.
Mr Joyce will write to his state counterparts this week seeking their agreement for the Murray Darling Basin Authority to carry out a basin-wide compliance probe of the state-based regulations that govern water use.
Namoi Water executive officer Jon-Maree Baker said irrigators followed a regulation process that “has been in place for decades”.
“What we would like to see is if that compliance process is working as effectively as possible,” Ms Baker said.
“The opportunity here is to have a Basin-wide review, rather than one focusing on the innuendos and allegations made in the Four Corners report.”
Recently, an irrigator in the region was prosecuted for taking water illegally, which “showed the system is working”.
“That farmer was found to be doing the wrong thing and he was fined accordingly – that’s compliance,” Ms Baker said.
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Moree Plains Shire mayor Katrina Humphries welcomed the review, but encouraged the government to look deeper into the nation’s water management.
“We can’t keep doing things the same way and expect Mother Nature to provide enough water for us, because we know she can’t,” Cr Humphries said.
“We need to find better ways to use what we have. I believe the start of that is the building of more dams.”
The Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) will report back to the Commonwealth government by the end of the year.
The MDBA review will run alongside an independent review led by Ken Matthews, an investigation by the New South Wales ICAC and an audit by the Australian National Audit Office.
Murray Darling Basin water fight explained
Advocates of the Murray Darling Basin Plan say changes to water extraction rules in 2012, which allow irrigators to pump large amounts of water from the Barwon-Darling system, have undermined the efforts of the Murray-Darling Basin plan
An ABC Four Corners investigation is expected to report that between 2012 when the Basin Plan was signed, and June this year more than 74 billion litres of environmental water has flowed into the Barwon-Darling.
But the Murray-Darling advocates, including Inverell Shire Councillor Mal Peters, are concerned that billions of litres extracted by irrigators - allowed by state government rules - could undermine the $13 billion Basin Plan.
"It rendered the whole plan, in my mind, completely null and void because the amount of water that could be taken out was huge," Cr Peters told the ABC.
WHAT IS THE MURRAY-DARLING BASIN PLAN?
The Basin Plan is a coordinated approach to managing the broader Murray-Darling Basin, which flows through four states - Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
According to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), the Basin Plan sets out how much water can be taken from the Basin each year for consumptive use (urban, industrial and agricultural).
That volume, the "long-term average sustainable diversion limit", is meant to be an amount that will not have an adverse impact on the natural environments and the functions of the rivers, waterways, groundwater and wetlands of the Basin.
The Barwon-Darling River flows through north-western NSW from Mungindi on the NSW-Queensland border to Wentworth in south-western NSW.
Since the Murray-Darling initiative was announced, taxpayers have spent more than $3 billion on water buybacks, called "E-Flows" to save the Murray-Darling River system.
But the Four Corners investigation will report that an email from MDBA board member George Warned indicated water use by irrigators "effectively mine the E-flows that make it into the Barwon-Darling".
WHAT THE CHANGES MEAN
Changes to extraction rules have meant irrigators can legally extract environmental water from the Barwon-Darling system.
These changes have also ramped up the value of water licenses, resulting in two irrigators - including Webster Limited, which holds a $30 million water portfolio, the largest Australian-owned private holding - owning 70 per cent of licensed water in the Barwon-Darling.
"We have bought the property with these licence conditions. We have modelled the viability of the farm on those conditions," Webster Limited director Joe Robinson told the ABC.