The Four Corners program reported on the implementation of the 2012 NSW Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling system. The Water Sharing Plan sets out the water entitlements for stakeholders (including irrigators, the environment, communities and industry). It forms the basis for individual water licences issued under the NSW Water Management Act 2000.
The program focussed on the extraction of large volumes of water for irrigation, highlighting the impacts on downstream water users and communities. It suggested water purchased with taxpayer funds for environmental purposes was being diverted for irrigation. It alleged certain irrigators had pumped water from the river system in periods when pumping was not permitted, or in quantities greatly in excess of their entitlements. It alleged meter tampering was common in the region and compliance and enforcement efforts were ineffective. It carried a report on an irrigation channel allegedly constructed on Crown land without approval.
The program carried an alleged audio recording of a teleconference between senior NSW Government officials and representatives of certain irrigator groups in which an official offered the irrigator groups special access to restricted government information. It was alleged that this information provided these irrigator groups with inside knowledge not available to other stakeholders, and thus advantaged them in their negotiations and dealings with government and other parties.
The program also interviewed a former departmental staff member who alleged that a proposed region-wide compliance and enforcement campaign had not received the necessary support from senior officials. Known individual compliance cases have remained unaddressed to the present day. It was alleged that structural and staffing changes made within the department had reduced the focus on compliance enforcement. It was argued that this reflected a loss of appetite for compliance on the part of senior officials.
Accordingly, this interim report, and the final report to follow later in the year, will seek to address the following public concerns:
• a loss of public confidence in water compliance and enforcement arrangements in the Barwon–Darling region, and NSW more broadly
• a loss of public confidence in the efficacy of water metering arrangements in the Barwon–Darling region, and perhaps more broadly across NSW
• concerns that water purchased at taxpayers’ expense for the environment is not being successfully managed for that purpose, and instead, is being accessed by certain irrigators either because of perceived inadequacies in the rules, or outside the rules entirely
• a loss of public trust in officials of the Department of Primary Industries specifically, and the NSW Government more broadly
• concerns that all stakeholders with interests in the Murray–Darling Basin Plan are not enjoying the same access to policy makers
• concerns that arrangements for water management in the Barwon–Darling and the Murray–Darling Basin more broadly, are complex, non-transparent and difficult to access and understand for those not ‘on the inside’.