THE BELEAGUERED northern irrigation sector finally has some good news after the chief of NSW's water compliance body made a public statement to thank irrigators in the Namoi / Macquarie systems for their efforts in imposing a voluntary embargo during a recent flow.
However, Jon-Maree Baker the executive officer of Namoi Water, the peak industry group for irrigated agriculture in the Namoi Valleys said the experience, which saw media reports of illegal extraction said she feels like irrigators in the region have been 'thrown under a bus' in terms of coverage of the embargo.
M Baker said what should have been a positive story for the northern irrigation industry, hard hit in recent months by publicity surrounding the poor condition of the Darling River and allegations over-extraction of water upstream is to blame for the river's health, turned into a witch hunt when reports went out claiming there had been illegal pumping in the area.
A localised rain event saw tributaries upstream of the Namoi River, such as the Mooki River and Cox's Creek, running, which traditionally gives irrigators with unregulated licences the ability to extract water.
However, an embargo on water harvesting out of the systems was put in place on the Sunday by the NSW government.
Ms Baker said this was of note because unregulated licence holders have not been subject to embargoes on pumping in the past.
She said issues communicating this message meant many farmers did not receive notice of the official embargo until Monday.
However, she said at the same time, Namoi Water had decided to hold a voluntary embargo on pumping.
"We recognised that for the health of the river system overall, including those downstream, it was best to get out and tell our members not to pump."
Ms Baker said she was disappointed what should have been a positive story about irrigators recognising their obligation to the environment had been hijacked, with what she said were unfounded reports of illegal pumping.
Grant Barnes, chief regulatory officer with Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) confirmed there were no specific breaches found during NRAR's concerted compliance campaign last week in the region.
He said there had been one complaint of pumping registered with the body which was being investigated but added there were legal small scale operations which could be performed under the embargo.
"Water users were still allowed to pump for stock and domestic purposes, and some high security users such as town water utilities were allowed to source water for residential supply," he said. "This can make it difficult for the public to detect non-compliance.
Ms Baker agreed, saying the public should not jump to conclusions when they saw a pump running.
"People could be getting water out of their fields, they could be transferring between storages, a pump does not necessarily mean someone is doing something they shouldn't."
From a legal perspective, the voluntary embargo was important as it stopped irrigators breaking the mandated embargo.
The onus lies on the irrigator to see whether they are able to pump, Mr Barnes said.
He thanked water users for doing the right thing.
"They need to ensure there is no restriction on their ability to pump before they do so, and that is exactly what we've seen over the past week, the level of compliance is very encouraging."
Ms Baker said more needed to be done on the communication front to allow farmers to not risk non-compliance through a lack of information.
"You've essentially got a situation where the unregulated licence holders see the visible flow, which is their queue to be allowed to pump, then halfway through, without finding out unless they are listening to the radio or on social media, the rules change.
"It's like driving down the road and suddenly finding the speed limit has gone from 100 to 80 without a sign."
"There was also mixed messaging about whether farmers were in the Upper or Lower Namoi systems for regulatory purposes.
She said the Mooki and Cox's Creek have traditionally been regarded as in the Upper Namoi system but were now officially part of the Lower Namoi in terms of pumping regulations.
"So when the embargo was talked about as for the Lower Namoi, many on the Mooki and Cox's Creek did not necessarily realise it applied to them.
Ms Baker also added more local input was required in the decision making process.
"There needs to be more consultation, more engagement with irrigators, there doesn't seem to be a lot of local knowledge on conditions, we all need to work together on this."
Water NSW, through the NSW Department of Industry have been contacted and are in the process of putting together a reply but could not provide comment prior to publication.
The NSW Water Minister is responsible for imposing an embargo on pumping, while NRAR is responsible for compliance to the order.