NIALL Blair’s irrigator reforms were meant to wash away concerns around theft and mismanagement - but they’ve left fuming irrigator groups and farmers in their wake.
The National Irrigators’ Council says state government must “urgently act” to limit the powers of NSW Water Ministers - current and future - to implement cease-to-pump orders if they deem a flow is for environmental purposes.
“(It) could have very far reaching and financially damaging impacts on irrigation enterprises, and on the value of irrigators’ water licences if a Water Minister began to regularly use this power to prevent irrigators from extracting water they are legally licensed and entitled to,” Irrigators’ Council chief executive Mark McKenzie said.
This Bill, which was supposed to be the important response to concerns about metering and measurement shared by us all, has now gone so far as to meddle with longstanding property rights.
But farm groups are angry the amendments that passed state parliament this week will allow embargo powers to be used for environmental releases too.
That this could diminish irrigator water rights without compensation, or appeal, has been the key concern for irrigators throughout the reform process.
- Water fears surface as Minister’s embargo powers rise
- Last-minute chaos as Niall Blair pushes water reform through
- “Couldn’t manage water in a dunny”: NSW under the pump after irrigation expose
Also angering industry was what many deemed substandard consultation on the laws, and an alleged rushing of the Bill through parliament, which was a key focus of Labor and Greens detractors this week.
Mr Blair has stood by his reforms and says they will allay any fears the public may have around alleged water theft and mismanagement.
On the Section 324 concerns, he told parliament it met government's intent of “clarifying that the scope of public interest within the current temporary water restriction order power includes managing water for environmental water releases without the need to set up a new separate power.”
‘People’s property rights are at stake’
The amendments passed on Wednesday are the latest chapter in a turbulent 12 months that began with allegations of water theft in an ABC Four Corners report last July.
This week government actually wound back proposed expansion of embargo powers via amendments to its own legislation.
However, under the final amendments the Minister retains environmental embargo powers under the public interest test.
Farmer groups are not happy.
The Irrigators’ Council said the rules opened the Act up to misuse by future governments.
“We absolutely support the protection of environmental flows whenever environmental water held by Government is released from storages,” Mr McKenzie said.
“However, this legislation will allow the Water Minister of the day to go much further and stop irrigators from using water they are currently able to access under their Water Sharing Plans, even when some of the flow in the rivers is from rainfall events and tributary inflows below the dams which would normally be shared between irrigators, the community and the environment.”
“Implementing cease to pump orders should never be done lightly, because peoples’ property rights are at stake.”
NSW Farmers president Derek Schoen noted another amendment removed crown liability if riparian landholders were impacted by the release of environmental water.
“A negotiation framework , if rigorous, is good, but it’s not enough, we need a commitment to compensation for damage caused through the release of water,” Mr Schoen said.
“We are pleased with a small concession that the Minister will not enact this provision until the negotiation framework exists.
“(But) overall it is highly disappointing that this Bill, which was supposed to be the important response to concerns about metering and measurement shared by us all, has now gone so far as to meddle with longstanding property rights.”
Blair said the legislation was one of the most important pieces of legislation parliament had considered this year.
“We’ve worked hard since the release of the Matthews’ final report in December to consult on and develop our Water Reform Action Plan, which is our road map to improved water management, compliance and enforcement in NSW,” he said.
Corporations illegally taking water in NSW could face penalties of up to $5 million and individuals $500,000.
There will also be new tools for the Regulator, including mandatory audits and enforceable undertakings and a requirement for all licensed users to be metered, subject to some exemptions to be detailed in the regulations.
Opposition from ‘bottled water electorates’
In the Lower House, Nationals’ Barwon MP Kevin Humphries went into bat for the reforms and against “electorates that supply bottled water”.
“(The Opposition) have no irrigation licences and they have not grown up with the industry,” Mr Humphries said.
“This is about an inner-city argument between The Greens and the Labor Party trying to fight for a minimalist environmental vote that has plummeted in the bush”.
“If The Greens were ever in a position of responsibility where they did not support dams or weirs and if the Labor Party were not to support this legislation, despite us having worked together for years to get to this point, the rivers largely out west would become a dish drain. We do not want to go back to that.”
Let us not use a debate like this to denigrate all those very good people in the industry who do their best, have complied with the law, are trying to make a living and support their local community
Labor MP Ron Koenig rebutted Mr Humphries.
“An inquiry by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, a South Australian royal commission, the top three bureaucrats in NSW have been sacked or resigned, and criminal charges have been laid for water theft, yet the member for Barwon, and former Minister, says that this as a Greens' inner city leftist conspiracy,” he said.
“What a joke!
The Nationals’ Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall said he rejected assertions from some MPs seeking to denigrate irrigators.
“There are great people in every industry and ultimately there are bad people and those who will try to exploit and push the boundaries.
“If they choose to do that, then they should be rooted out and face the consequences of their actions, and I fully support that.
“However, at the same time, let us not use a debate like this to denigrate all those very good people in the industry who do their best, have complied with the law, are trying to make a living and support their local community, the economy and the many thousands of jobs that rely on the work of that industry.”