Big-scale irrigator, Webster Limited, is bracing for a backlash of public fury after this week’s media allegations of water theft and flouting of Murray Darling Basin extraction rules by some major NSW water users.
But the corporate agricultural business says its conscience is clear.
“I know there’ll be a lot of commentary fuelling the debate about what people believe, or how water is used, but at the end of the day we can hold our heads up knowing we act within the regulations,” said Webster company secretary, Maurice Felizzi.
“I know we pump (from the Murray Darling river system) only when we are meant to pump.
“When our pumps work they are meant to be working.
“They’re monitored and regulated as part of our compliance commitment.”
The irrigation industry is under intense scrutiny this week and fending off multiple calls for inquiries into apparent misuse of water allocations and extraction caps in the upper Murray-Darling system and the waste of taxpayer funds committed to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
The Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young responded to Monday’s ABC’s Four Corners report claiming the Basin’s much-debated water management plan had “always been about lining the pockets of big irrigators”.
“It’s been haemorrhaging money while the sustainability and the health of the river has fallen by the wayside,” she said.
“A Senate inquiry to investigate what exactly is going on here needs to take place as soon as possible, leaving no stone unturned.”
Webster, which only recently moved its management from Tasmania to southern NSW, is reputedly Australia’s biggest single irrigation water user.
However, it often sells portions of its seasonal water entitlement rather than using its full allocation.
Its huge cotton farm water storages and massive riverbank pumps in North West NSW featured prominently in the Four Corners report.
Since making a big expansion push into broadacre irrigation two years ago, the 180-year-old company has accumulated more than 220,000 megalitres of licensed water entitlements and farms stretching from southern Queensland to Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.
The listed public company’s share price has faltered since being in the media spotlight – down slightly from $1.38 on Monday to $1.34 mid-week.
Previously best known for its horticultural and walnut operations in Tasmania and the NSW Riverina, Webster began seriously expanding into broadacre operations with the $117 million purchase of the "Kooba" aggregation of properties on the Murrumbidgee River at Darlington Point in 2014.
That purchase included 11,800ha of irrigated country, 9100ha of dryland crop area and 25,800ha of pastoral land.
By early 2015 it had teamed up with Moree-based Australian Food and Fibre’s David Robinson in a $200m bid to buy the western NSW lakebed farming business, Tandou, and absorb the Robinson partnership’s Bengerang farming assets in southern Queensland and northern NSW, plus Darling Farms at Bourke in the state’s Far West.
The takeover, completed by June 2015, included almost 13,000ha of lakebed irrigation country at Menindee Lakes which is now to be converted to dryland grazing country for Webster’s other big interest, Dorper sheep.
Last month the company announced it was selling all 21,901 megalitres of its Tandou water licence to the federal government for $78m and decommissioning the lakebed irrigation and cotton ginning operation, which dates back to the 1970s.
Webster properties grew more than 10,500ha of cotton last season – almost all irrigated.
The company, headed by former ports heavyweight, Chris Corrigan, also has about 2000ha of irrigated walnut plantations producing almost 95pc of the nation’s commercial walnut crop.
Mr Felizzi conceded the Four Corners program was difficult publicity for big irrigators, but as a public company Webster took its governance responsibilities seriously and had not flouted any pumping laws.
“As a listed company answering to corporate regulators, shareholders and the community as a whole, we’ve got too much to lose if we don’t abide by the rules,” he said.
“Our conscience is clear.”
Mr Felizzi said there was little he could say which was likely to alter the current perceptions of those who saw the television report and were set in their views about cotton farming and its water use.
“We can only continue to work within the rules and do our best as a professional and efficient business.”
In some seasons the best business decision, based on water market values, was selling entitlement to other users who were willing to pay more than it was worth to grow irrigated cotton or grain crops on some Webster farms.