New data has found two-thirds of NSW irrigators are not complying with a critical new water law, four months after it became mandatory.
The ‘non-urban metering framework’ was first announced in December 2018 requiring water take to be measured and reported, with specific meter requirements for surface water pumps 500mm and above.
The NSW government was spurred into action on the issue after the ABC’s Four Corners report Pumped in 2017, which showed very few of the big irrigators had functioning meters. It led to a major review of water regulation and compliance based on the principle of “no meter, no pump.”
Irrigators were given a one-year extension to December 1, 2020 to install the new meters due to difficulties faced with the drought.
The Natural Resources Access Regulator’s (NRAR) chief regulatory officer, Grant Barnes, said the data indicated, of the 1,100 irrigation licences they surveyed, more than 700 had not taken any action to install accurate, tamper-proof or approved meters.
Mr Barnes said the authority would be “fair but firm” where irrigators had faced problems becoming compliant.
“We’ve heard from some groups that they’ve had difficulties obtaining the right types of meters,” he said.
“COVID has certainly had an impact on market access, there have been challenges for some engaging with duly qualified persons to install the local intelligence devices.”
NRAR had already begun contacting water users and 30 officers would be on the ground to understand what legitimate barriers existed.
“We expect where users have encountered difficulties that they provide documented evidence of consistent efforts to comply,” Mr Barnes said.
According to NRAR, the Gwydir and Namoi made up about 40 per cent of cases where it appeared there had been no efforts to comply. That was followed by the Macquarie and Border River area, which made up 30 per cent of cases.
Mr Barnes said it was important to stress these figures were from “desktop data” and the authority would now be “on farm to validate the data”.
Cotton farmer and Macquarie River Food and Fibre president Tony Quigley said he was aware irrigators were making genuine efforts to comply but were struggling to source the right equipment.
“It’s been a pretty frustrating process for people all the way through,” he said.
“People are pretty stressed about trying to be compliant, nobody wants to be called out by NRAR or even their peers, everybody understands we need to get to that point.
Mr Quigley said farmers told the water reform metering task force right from the start their timeline was at best ambitious.
“Their argument was the market would fill the void,” he said.
“It’s pretty clear the market has struggled to fill the void. Both meters and the LID telemetry equipment is not available for a lot of people in this stage.
“We’ve had one on order for our operation for over six months and it’s still a few months away at present.”
Mr Quigley said many irrigators had existing pumps that could meet the requirements subject to testing and verification on-site and he was concerned the figures did not indicate that.
“It paints a bad picture, but it doesn’t include meters that have been grandfathered through serial number test bench data and their check by DQP (the peak certifying body in NSW) to see they are properly installed and I can’t see where that’s been accounted for,” he said.
“They’re effectively compliant, so I’d like to understand if they’ve been accounted for that’s the great bulk of meters — 70 per cent of meters in Macquarie anyway.
“A lot of the issue is people have been waiting to see which meter works the best, which is the best way to go because there are different technologies to what we’ve used before.
‘A few bad apples’
Macquarie Marshes grazier Dugald Bucknell said it was very concerning for people downstream who relied on water making it down the system.
“Politicians and bureaucrats said everything would be OK with irrigator compliance. In actual fact there are problems, things aren’t happening to date,” he said.
“At the same time, they’re giving out floodplain harvesting licences when they don’t know what’s going on and they haven’t got the metering right.”
Mr Bucknell said while there were certainly “a few bad apples” he was concerned there were some fundamental problems that had to be addressed.
“I think the majority of irrigators are honest and trying to do the right thing, it’s just a few people that push the limits too far and have made more money, become bigger and more powerful and are still pushing the boundaries all the time,” he said.
“That’s the thing, that’s becoming unsustainable.
“These are the biggest irrigators with the biggest pumps using the majority of the water.
“They had a 12-month extension, it’s really quite damning in that regard.”