The NSW Government will conduct an inquiry into allegations broadcast in an ABC Four Corners investigation on Monday night.
The program revealed allegations of pump tampering, a secret recording of the top water bureaucrat in NSW, Gavin Hanlon, offering to help lobbyists campaign against the plan, and discussion within the State Government of dropping support for the plan altogether.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the State Government remained committed to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
“We support the Murray-Darling Basin plan. That’s something we supported strongly at the time and the Minister for Primary Industries says he will investigate those issues that were raised.”
Regional Water Minister Niall Blair said he would commission an urgent and independent overview of all the compliance matters raised in the Four Corners program.
“I’ve asked my secretary of the Department of Industry to work with the NSW Ombudsman to make sure we have a good look at some of those allegations that were raised,” he said.
The NSW Opposition also has announced it will refer former water minister Kevin Humphries and a senior water bureaucrat to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
Shadow Water Minister Chris Minns said the Government’s inquiry was not satisfactory action, which was why Labor would be referring the matter to ICAC.
Water-sharing rules manipulated, conservation council says
Nature Conservation Council chief executive Kate Smolski said the Government’s management of the water in the Barwon and Darling Rivers was a disgrace.
“The rules governing water-sharing in NSW have been manipulated to save a few big irrigators at the expense of the environment and downstream communities,” she said.
Ms Smolski said downstream ecosystems were degrading, and water bird populations had declined by more than 80 per cent.
Meanwhile, 90 per cent of the basin’s floodplains and wetlands had been lost, she said.
National Irrigators Council chief executive Steve Whan said irrigators left 60 per cent of the water in the Barwon-Darling.
He said there was no tolerance for water theft, and wanted the matters raised in the Four Corners program to be addressed.
“People who steal water are damaging communities, and they’re also damaging fellow irrigators and even neighbours because they’re pinching water that other people could be using for proper purposes,” he said.
Government ‘failed to police the system’
Terry Korn is president of the Floodplain Association, which has often complained about irrigation upstream of the Macquarie Marshes.
He said the NSW Government had failed to police the system, and changes were needed to the pump rules and metering systems to ensure the money spent on environmental water was not wasted.
Mr Korn said the state’s compliance unit had been “gutted”.
“They’ve lost corporate knowledge, compliance capacity and those things demoralise staff and operations and make it difficult to operate effectively,” he said.
“I want to see the pump rules changed so that low flows are protected … and we’d like to see real time monitoring, so we can keep track of what is actually happening with water.”
Southern NSW irrigator Jeremy Morton, who is also president of the Ricegrowers Association of Australia, said his members were not as shocked as others by the revelations in the program.
He said the system was different in the north because there was a need to put the water into farm dams, and irrigators like Websters (who were named in the program) had actually been encouraged to make productive use of the water to grow the economy in that region.
“Websters have invested in water and they’re using it to make money, and that’s what the Government wanted to happen, so to turn around and say ‘Well, that’s a bad outcome seems a little ironic really’,” he said.