Protecting the environment’s water in the Murray-Darling Basin

Bill Johnson, River Ecologist and former Water Manager with the Murray Darling Basin Commission

For a few years in the 1990’s the NSW water agency had on display, in the foyer of its offices in Parramatta, a statue celebrating tampering with irrigation meters and, by association, water theft. Sculpted by the Department’s creative souls in Moree, this two metre high artwork was exhibited in Head Office. It was the agency’s celebration of the larrikin irrigator, his irreverence and defiance of authority, even while that agency was the authority being defied.

By 1995 the times seemed to be changing. Starting on the Gwydir, the water department undertook a full review of meters in NSW. The Macquarie River meter review found that only a quarter of meters in the valley were satisfactory[1]. Many were improperly installed and showed evidence of tampering. A celebrated method was the ‘Gwydir goanna’ – restraining the meter’s propeller during flows so that take wasn’t measured.

Among the conclusions of the review were that ‘…irrigators can, and will, implement improper practices to prevent meters operating as required,’ and that the Department needed ‘…to be more pro-active in all phases of managing its metering system.’

Water metering and satellite technologies have improved greatly in the last quarter of a century. The ability to measure water extraction has improved, and many modern meters don’t have propellers, so there aren’t as many Gwydir goannas about as there used to be. Satellite photos allow water to be tracked with great precision, whether in rivers or pumped into channels and storages and applied to crops.

In spite of this, water theft continued. It was reported widely in early 2017 that environmental water, intended to reach the Barwon-Darling, was taken for irrigation. Rumours were given substance by the Four Corners story, Pumped, in mid-2017. Later in the year more examples of bad behaviour were exposed by Lateline and the 7.30 Report, in their stories about alleged misuse of Commonwealth irrigation funding near Goondiwindi.

A welcome response was the creation of the NSW Natural Resource Access Regulator in April 2018. The regulator’s aims are to ensure accountable compliance and enforcement measures and maintain public confidence in management of natural resources. The Commonwealth Government appointed Mr Mick Keelty as the independent Northern Basin Commissioner in September 2018. The Regulator and the Commissioner are already active.

In spite of these initiatives, concerns remain. The attitudes of some irrigators and bureaucrats are slow to change, and reports of water theft continue. Channels divert water to and from watercourses. Banks, levees, ‘roads’ and ‘airstrips’ block streams and floodways.

It is on the record that water taken by floodplain and overland flow harvesting is not measured in NSW.[2] At a public meeting in Dubbo in March 2018 the water department acknowledged that ‘there is currently no monitoring of floodplain harvesting diversions’ and that no-one knows how much is being taken except that the amount has been ‘grossly underestimated.’ While ever an unknown volume of water can be taken from rivers and floodplains there remain many opportunities for abuse.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Office (CEWO) and NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) are not yet confident that the environmental water they manage is safe from theft. These agencies have legal responsibilities to protect and manage water, on behalf of the public, for the benefit of rivers.

They proposed an environmental flow in the Barwon-Darling and its tributaries in 2018. The irrigation industry’s offer to allow flows down the river by ‘self-regulating’ to stop irrigation extractions reassured no one, and was met with a polite refusal. The NSW government imposed an embargo on pumping to guarantee that the rivers’ water would be protected.

The CEWO demonstrated outstanding management of environmental water, combining up-to-date environmental knowledge, good use of technology, and clear and open communication before, during and after the release. It used satellite photos to track flows from the tributaries, along the Barwon-Darling to Menindee. It provided an excellent example of how government agencies can work within government, and with communities.

Governments must not only be willing to prevent water theft, but must be enthusiastic about it. In spite of several excellent initiatives since the Four Corners report in 2017, people in many parts of the Basin believe that governments were forced to act, and are still sceptical that changes are permanent.

Water theft may have been a bit of a joke for irrigators and water agencies a quarter of a century ago, but times and conditions change. Water remains over-committed to irrigation, demand is increasing, the health of wetlands and rivers in many parts of the Basin is declining, and one of the effects of climate change is that there is less water to share. Advances in technology mean that communities now have better access to better information, and old excuses no longer carry any weight. There are even signs that the irrigation industry itself is moving past its old strategy of turning a blind eye while publicly blaming ‘a few bad apples.’

Governments have always been aware of their responsibilities; the difference now is that, in large part because of public pressure, there is reason to hope that they will carry them out.

After publishing this article a  cotton farmer on the Barwon-Darling River has pleaded guilty to three charges involving water misuse, including pumping during an embargo, following a lengthy investigation. Read the article

[1] Department of Land and Water Conservation, 1995. Meter review (Macquarie River meter audit), Department of Land and Water Conservation, Sydney.

[2] Department of Industry Water, Water Reform Action Plan Stakeholder meeting, 16th March 2018, Dubbo.

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