Nationals with water portfolio like ‘fox in the henhouse’

Leaving the Nationals in charge of state’s water portfolio was like leaving “the fox in charge of the henhouse”, NSW Labor leader Luke Foley said, following an independent investigation into water theft from the Murray Darling Basin.

Both Labor and the Greens have called for the party to be stripped of the portfolio, following the interim report by former senior water bureaucrat Ken Matthews.

Among his key findings, Mr Matthews said the overall standard of NSW enforcement “has been poor”, with metering of water extraction from the Barwon-Darling River was “not at the standard required for sound water management”.

Local irrgators frustrated 

Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association executive officer Zara Lowien welcomes the report’s recommendations for improved transparency and compliance, however said it was “frustrating” that it failed to recognise the high standard of the Murray-Darling Basin system that’s successfully operating throughout most of the state.

“It’s good for everyone to have an understanding of how water is being used,” she said.

“Improved transparency around a range of users, for the environment and irrigators, is a good outcome, it’s something we’ve been asking for for a long time.

“We want an effective, compliant system, it’s in irrigators’ best interests to have that.

“We want an effective regulator. We want to achieve what it is meant to achieve which is that water is going to the users it’s allocated to and no-one is taking water from other users.

“While the report has highlighted opportunities to improve the system, there’s a lack of recognition of the system we’ve got - that it is such a high standard already, internationally, I would say.

“In this valley, 95 per cent of water is measured. We’ve got a high standard here locally which is being tainted by the brushstroke of the industry.

“The report saying things like ‘systemic response’ doesn’t give credit to how the system is operating.”

While Matthews’ recommendations might not have a direct impact for irigators in the Gwydir Valley who already operate under a high level of measuring water, Ms Lowien is concerned the report continues to damage the reputation of those doing the right thing.

“Making broad recommendations for the state is feeding on a lack of public confidence in the system,” she said.

“There’s implications to the whole industry and whether people have faith as to where the water is and at what time.”

Ms Lowien would like to see a final response to the allegations of water theft and bad irrigator behaviour. 

“A decision should be made regarding the status of those allegations. It’s frustrating for the industry and disappointing for irrigators,” she said.

“It hasn’t found anything new except that department process might not have been best. It’s important people address those allegations.

“That’s what’s doing damage to the perception out there to irrigator behaviour. To my knowledge that’s not how irrigators behave. We do have meters and measurements in place.”

Allegations against Barwon MP

The report touched on allegations Barwon MP and former Water Minister Kevin Humphries told irrigators to disregard a temporary water restriction, but did not come to a clear conclusion on the matter.

“The disagreement surrounding the alleged statements by former minister Humphries has remained unresolved since 2015,” the report stated.

Mr Humphries told The Leader he welcomed any improvement to water compliance in the state that increased the confidence and transparency of the system.

“It is important that investigators are able to undertake their work without political interference and ill informed commentators,” he said.

Water Minister Niall Blair said the results were “both confronting and significant for government”.

“I commissioned this independent investigation as I was deeply concerned about the seriousness and complexity of the allegations and issues aired on ABC Four Corners in July,” he said.

“We now have a better understanding of what has happened, as well as strong recommendations to address the issues identified.”

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