Water Management: Australian Conservation Foundation v WaterNSW

In July, ABC’s Four Corners aired an exposé of alleged illegal water harvesting in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), highlighting major flaws in the way that our scarce and precious water resources are regulated, particularly in relation to the MDB Plan. The story has since been picked up by all the major news networks and has prompted both the NSW and Federal Governments to order reviews of water use in the MDB.

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Water conservation in the MDB is a matter that EDO NSW has been working on for a long time, alongside successive governments, scientists and the community.

Records we obtained on behalf of our client, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), indicate that a large scale irrigator may have taken about five times more water than what was permitted under their water licences. Pumping this much water from the system, at a time when flows were critically low and Broken Hill’s town water supply was under threat, may have seriously affected the river’s ecosystem and the ability of other farmers to access water for stock and domestic use.

In April 2017 we asked the responsible government agency – WaterNSW – to provide evidence that the pumping was legal. To date, our question remains unanswered. We have filed proceedings in the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT), challenging WaterNSW’s withholding of access to this important information. The hearing is likely to occur in late October/early November, at which point NCAT will decide whether the information we’re seeking should be released.

Similarly, the MDBA has refused our requests for access to information about alleged water theft, access licences, reporting, and other material related to our client’s allegation of unlawful taking of water from the Murray Darling Basin.

On 2 June 2017, on behalf of ACF, we requested the Commonwealth Information Commissioner to review the MDBA’s refusal of these access to information requests. The Information Commissioner has accepted this application, but it is not yet clear when a decision will be made.

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