Lack of transparency on on-farm irrigation EDO NSW blog Dr Emma Carmody

Lack of transparency in irrigation efficiency programs

An article by Kerry Brewster in the Guardian this week reports on a significant fraud investigation by Queensland's Major and Organised Crime Squad (Rural) into subsidies granted to a landholder under the Healthy Headwaters Water Use Efficiency Program.

In our EDOs of Australia submission to the Productivity Commission dated 31 October 2017, we raised serious concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding on-farm irrigation efficiency programs - as well as inadequate auditing and monitoring of individual projects funded through these programs.

By Dr Emma Carmody, Senior Policy and Law Reform Solicitor

12 April 2018

On-farm irrigation efficiency programs are funded by the Commonwealth Government and administered by Basin States. The idea sounds like a good one: the State subsidises a landholder or irrigation district to upgrade their infrastructure to make it more efficient, thereby saving water. It is our understanding that the contract entered into between the landholder and government stipulates the works to be undertaken and the percentage of 'saved water' that must be surrendered to the Commonwealth in the form of water entitlements (in Queensland, for example, it is generally 50 percent of projected savings).

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Cotton irrigation. Photo: Ronjhino, Wikimedia

Unfortunately, there is little publicly available information to help the community understand whether contractual obligations are being met or water is actually being saved. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on these programs - ostensibly to restore the health of the Murray-Darling Basin - but with no real opportunity for proper scrutiny of their administration or efficacy. What if contractual obligations are not being met? How do we know that they are actually resulting in less water being consumed and more water being returned to the river system? Evidence* suggests that in many instances they are not.

The allegations discussed in Kerry Brewster's Guardian article - and the investigation itself - make it abundantly clear why our concerns should be acknowledged and our recommendations for law reform given serious consideration. 

Implementing our recommendations - which focus on transparency, auditing and monitoring - would restore the public's confidence in these programs - and help to protect the reputations of grant recipients who are meeting their contractual obligations.

Protecting the reputations of honest landholders is a live issue for EDO NSW: we represent and advise many farmers and are therefore keen to ensure that they are able to maintain their social licence to operate.

As public interest environmental lawyers, we would also like to know that these programs are actually reducing the volume of water that is being consumed - and improving the health of our most important river system.

The importance of this issue cannot be overstated: the 450GL of additional 'environmental water' provided for under the Water Act 2007 - and which is supposed to improve the health of the Ramsar listed Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth - is currently tied to 'water savings' from on-farm irrigation efficiency projects. However, will these projects actually increase the pool of environmental water? Again, we believe law reform is needed to ensure that only those projects capable of doing so will receive government funding.  

The future of the Murray-Darling Basin depends on it.