Four Corners Investigation highlights our work to protect the Murray-Darling Basin

Last night, ABC’s Four Corners aired an exposé of alleged illegal water harvesting in the Murray-Darling Basin. The episode highlights major flaws in the way that our scarce and precious water resources are regulated. This is a problem that EDO NSW has been working to fix for a long time, alongside successive governments, scientists and the community.

The episode focuses on allegations that irrigators in the Barwon-Darling catchment have been pumping more water from the river system than their licences, and the law, allows. It also highlights the failure of the responsible government agency to take action to protect this important resource and the communities and environments that depend on it. 

25 July 2017

Water extraction in the Barwon-Darling

The Barwon-Darling river system flows from the western side of the NSW-Queensland border to south-western NSW. It flows into Menindee Lakes, and is vital for town water supply, livestock grazing, and irrigated agriculture. It also provides environmental water to nationally and internationally protected matters, including numerous wetlands that support migratory and threatened species.

The extraction of water in rural NSW for any use other than domestic or stock purposes is not permitted without a water licence. Water licences are subject to conditions and, during times of low flow or drought, embargos can be placed on licences prohibiting or limiting the pumping of water.

In 2014-15, an embargo limiting the amount of water that could be pumped from the Barwon-Darling and its tributaries was imposed on licence holders. This embargo was necessary because there was very little water flowing down the Barwon-Darling and into the Menindee Lakes. As a consequence, the Lakes were virtually empty. This posed a significant threat to Broken Hill’s town water supply, local farmers and businesses, and the environment.

What is EDO NSW doing to help?

Despite this embargo, records we obtained on behalf of our client, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) indicate that a large scale irrigator may have taken approximately five times more than what was permitted under the licences. Pumping this much water from the system when flows were critically low and when Broken Hill’s town water supply was under threat may have had serious impacts on the environment, and on the ability of other farmers to access water for stock and domestic use.

In April 2017, on behalf of our client, we asked the responsible government agency – WaterNSW – to provide evidence that the pumping was in fact legal. To date, our question remains unanswered.

It is looking more and more likely that our client’s quest for environmental justice will end up in the court.  We have already filed proceedings in the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal challenging decisions by WaterNSW to withhold access to important licensing information. We will be appearing before the Tribunal on this matter next week.

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