Water watchdog racks up convictions, inspections in first year

Mike Foley
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NSW's anti-water corruption watchdog has marked it's first year on the beat, racking up more than 800 investigations, 320 property inspections, 150 fines and notices and launching 10 prosecutions.

Former Regional Water Minister Niall Blair created the National Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) to address systemic failures in NSW's compliance regime which were identified in an independent report from Ken Matthews AO, and by the NSW Ombudsman.

The agency monitors across the state and released a progress report today.

It fielded 845 cases for investigation in the past year. There were 310 cases in the Murray Darling Basin, 182 in the coastal Northern Rivers region, with the remainder spread across the rest of the state.

A case is logged for each breach of the law, so one dodgy operator who is pumping water without a meter, and has built an illegal structure across a river, could have multiple cases logged for one instance of water theft.

NRAR chairman Craig Knowles said the agency was focused on results, and making sure it was respected by the community.

"We will continue to engage with stakeholders and build on our success as a fair and equitable regulator, taking firm regulatory action when required," Mr Knowles said.

"NRAR will be using new technologies and intelligence to focus compliance activities on hot spots for potential water law breaches, and working with our officers to get more out of every minute they spend in the field."

Last month Murray Darling Basin Inspector General Mick Keelty said NRAR was a "tremendous" improvement on compliance and it was now up to Victoria, South Australia and particularly Queensland to follow suit.

NRAR has built up to 146 staff and says the majority are employed in frontline roles, including field officers for on-site inspections and satellite technology to detect suspicious volumes in private dams and unauthorised channels and levees on water courses.

It plans to use new technologies to compare private water storage levels with the law by using satellite imagery and ultrasonic equipment to measure capacity.

The satellite technology is being combined with data analytics, which means NRAR can pinpoint properties where crop area and water demand appear to outstrip combined surface water and groundwater entitlements and water trades.

New technology also enables NRAR to identify properties that appear to be using basic landholder entitlements for commercial irrigation and other unauthorised purposes.

NRAR has seven cases being heard either in the Land and Environment Court, or local courts.

One case involves a vineyard owner from Corowa who pleaded guilty to stealing 1378 megalitres of Murray water, over three years from 2016, in the Land and Environment Court

Another case from a local court resulted in a company being whacked with more than $100,000 in fines and costs for removing vegetation at three sites on Nanabah Creek near Port Stephens, and depositing rock and turf at one of the sites.

There are two cases listed for hearings in the Land and Environment Court later this year involving alleged water theft and illegal offtake channels in the Walgett region.

Various local courts will hear later this month allegations of illegal flood harvesting works at Moree, an illegal dam near Dubbo, and unauthorised riverbank clearing at Bathurst.

NRAR's biggest impending challenge will be its new job of monitoring floodplain harvesting, which has recently been brought under the state's licensing regime.

The are potentially more than 1,800 floodplain harvesting licences, as well as any unauthorised floodworks which are yet to be identified.

"This presents a large compliance burden for NRAR to cover with existing resources and will require the use of innovative technological solutions to assist our monitoring, audit and enforcement operations," NRAR's report said.

Water watchdog racks up convictions, inspections in first year