Murray Darling Basin issues - EDO NSW

Murray Darling Basin


Last November we began civil enforcement proceedings in the NSW Land and Environment Court on behalf of the Inland Rivers Network, in relation to allegations of unlawful water pumping by a large-scale agribusiness operator on the Barwon-Darling River.

Our client alleges that the owners of the agribusiness pumped water in contravention of some of the conditions and rules of two of their water licences restricting the permitted access to take water from the Barwon-Darling River, thereby breaching relevant provisions of the Water Management Act 2000 (NSW). The original allegations are based on licence data we obtained in 2017 from WaterNSW, which points to two alleged instances of unlawful pumping of significant amounts of water in 2014-15 and 2015-16.  Since then, our client’s case has been amended to include further allegations of unlawful water extraction, in total amounting to over 7 billion litres (over 2860 Olympic swimming pools).

Of particular concern is the alleged over-extraction in the 2014-15 water year, as this period was so dry that the Menindee Lakes (filled by flows from the Barwon-Darling River) fell to just 4% of their total storage capacity. This in turn threatened Broken Hill’s water security and led the NSW Government to impose an embargo on water extractions during part of that year in order to improve flows down the Barwon-Darling, into the Lakes and Lower Darling River. 

For months we’ve also been seeking access to licensing data through the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and in late March we appeared before the Tribunal (this was the subject of a story in The Guardian on 28 March).   A hearing date will be set by the Tribunal in June.

In March, after 3 years of complaints and inaction, Water NSW finally announced they will prosecute a group of irrigators linked to water theft allegations. Though long overdue, it is good to see the regulator taking action.  It is worth noting that a criminal prosecution will usually only result in fines, whereas our civil enforcement case is seeking remedies including an injunction preventing the licence holder from continuing to breach the relevant licence conditions, and the restoration of water to the river system.


Farmers, community members and groups throughout the Murray-Darling Basin continue to share with us their serious concerns about ongoing revelations of systemic mismanagement of water resources - the same water resources that they depend on for their livelihoods and wellbeing (as covered by recent media reports, including Peter Hannam’s story in the Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 2018).

Our Policy and Law Reform team has been preparing a detailed submission - and advising our clients on their submissions - to the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission.

We are also in the process of completing our response to the NSW Government’s Water Reform Action Plan. The Action Plan is intended to implement the recommendations made by Mr Ken Matthews AO in his Interim Report. Mr Matthews met with EDO NSW in 2017 while preparing his report; a number of his comments and recommendations are consistent with those made by our Policy and Law Reform team in their submissions, legal opinions and articles over the last few years. At the Federal level, the Productivity Commission has asked us to sit on a Stakeholder Advisory Panel for its‘ five year assessment of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Finally, we continue to advise a range of clients about systemic water management issues across various jurisdictions.

Read our blog on the lack of transparency in water efficiency programs

For more go to EDO Water Management Policy