Murray-Darling water theft review highlights delay concerns

A report into alleged Murray-Darling water theft has raised concerns the NSW government will dilute reforms designed to remedy "longstanding problems" in the system.

The Independent Investigation into NSW Water Management and Compliance - authored by Ken Matthews - was released last Thursday, two months after an interim report set out a list of recommendations to "restore health to the system".

While the report praised the government's willingness to accept a diagnosis of "serious shortcomings" in the state's water management, it said the recommendations set out to remedy them were at risk of delay.

“I am disappointed that decisions have still not yet been taken about whether to proceed to prosecution in the several alleged cases of noncompliant irrigation activities aired in the Four Corners program,” he said.

“The overwhelming honest majority of NSW irrigators take compliance seriously themselves and are firmly in favour of action against the small minority who may not be playing by the rules. They too, want the system fixed.”

There have been no prosecutions over the matters aired in media reports, which included allegations of meter tampering and pumping of environmental water during periods of embargoes.

Mr Matthews says he has been told that more decisions should be taken by February next year.

In the meantime, he expects community concern about water compliance shortfalls will intensify.

“My overall assessment of progress to date is that the government was quick out of the blocks to accept the diagnosis and adopt the prescription. However, I am concerned that work on other elements of the total reform package is at risk of delay,” he said.

“I am concerned also about the risks of unwarranted watering down of the reform measures as implementation proceeds.”

One of his major concerns is that metering and monitoring of water extractions in the Barwon-Darling system “were not at the standard required for sound water management”.

There is no metering at all in some parts of the system, and the rollout of modern water meters has focused on smaller extractors.

The review identified five risks to implementing reform:

1. risks associated with planning the implementation of the reforms

2. risks in not allocating the necessary financial and staff resources to the tasks

3. the challenges in translating the government's desired high-level reform outcomes into specific and practical measures on the ground

4. increasing pressure from certain stakeholders to ‘water down’ key reforms, including reforms to water metering and improving transparency of information about water usage

5. the risk of uncooperative relationships between government agencies and the risks associated with a new round of restructuring of staff involved in compliance and enforcement.

The full report is available here.

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