WATER AFR 070510 PIC JESSICA SHAPIRO… The Campaspe River, a tributary of the Murray River runs through Rochester in Central Victoria and irrigates land for the surrounding agriculture. GENERIC crops, grain, paddock, livestock, murray darling basin, water allocation, restrictions, farmers, feed, agriculture, crisis, drought, climate change, environment, rain, irrigation, export, import, trade… AFR FIRST USE ONLY PLEASE!!! SPECIALX 64942Water enforcement in NSW became so depleted that by mid-2016, the entire state had fewer compliance staff than the City of Canada Bay had parking inspectors, the Ombudsman said in a report that has prompted calls of a cover-up.
In a scathing assessment, the Ombudsman on Wednesday revealed details of four investigations of the sector since 2009 – none of which had been made public previously. The lack of disclosure came even though their repeated recommendations for change “did not always occur”.
“It’s a pity we didn’t get this out a hell of a lot earlier,” John McMillan, acting NSW Ombudsman, told Fairfax Media. Disclosing the industry’s compliance issues sooner may have prevented them becoming “as deep and explosive” as they are now, he said.
The Ombudsman’s latest investigation began in June last year after a number of staff within the Department of Primary Industries approached it out of concern the Strategic Investigation Unit – itself set up in the wake of the Ombudsman’s first probe – was being “rendered ineffectual”.
Among the complaints was that DPI Water executives were alleged to have improperly directed SIU staff not to take enforcement action against a landholder for unlawfully enlarging a dam.
Other cases of unlicensed dams containing large volumes of water used for irrigation were also escaping enforcement, the whistleblowers said.
Public pressure for action, though, was only triggered in July this year, when an ABC Four Corners report revealed cases of alleged water theft on the Barwon-Darling River, among other abuses.
A slew of investigations has since followed, including an independent inquiry by Ken Matthews that made a range of recommendations the Berejiklian government pledged to implement.
The report comes as the government sought support on Wednesday for its Natural Resources Access Regulator legislation.
The bill if passed “will reform once and for all the way we manage water compliance and enforcement in NSW,” Niall Blair, minister for regional water, said.
“While we cannot change what has happened in the past, this government is taking action to quickly and transparently address the issues that this report and other investigations have raised,” he said. ‘Devastating’
The Ombudsman’s fourth investigation – due for completion by April next year – outlines nearly a decade of mismanagement made worse by major overhauls of the bureaucracy roughly every two years since 2003.
“[T]he impact of these changes on staff, loss of expertise and corporate knowledge, disruptions to systems and strategy, and continuity of service delivery, have been devastating,” the report found.
Underscoring the depletion of DPI’s capabilities, the report found total enforcement actions plunged 72 per cent in 2016-17 in one year alone, following the compliance unit’s latest “transformation”.
(See chart below from the Ombudsman’s report.)
Enforcement actions 2010-2017.
Worse, there were no prosecutions at all in the 12 months after the overhaul, the report found. Conflicted roles
Despite the Ombudsman’s third probe identifying in 2013 a potential conflict with the combination of industry promotion, licence issuing and regulatory action, the concerns went largely ignored.
Compliance staff often had part-time roles, along with licensing, despite requiring a “different skill set”, Professor McMillan said.
By 2016, the number of “proactive” compliance and enforcement staff had shrunk to as few as six, the report found. That compared with 130 parking and ordinance rangers employed by the City of Sydney, and nine such staff by the Canada Bay Council – the latter covering just 20 square kilometres.
“That tells you what the challenges are for [water] compliance,” Professor McMillan said.
Jeremy Buckingham, the Greens water spokesman, said the Ombudsman’s report confirmed enforcement of water law in NSW was “rotten to the core”.
“We need a broad ranging Royal Commission to investigate water in NSW so that all the issues and allegations that are out there are thoroughly investigated independently. Public registry
Jamie Morgan, a former head of the SIU who has spoken out about the stripping of compliance resources, supports the creation of a public registry of water usage because the current system “has zero integrity”.
The Murray Darling Basin Authority should hold the central data base and there should be “physical evidence of the reading so a meter reader can’t delay entry or alter data”.
Water use should be debited in real time, not weeks or months later. “If they have insufficient allocation then the meter reader is notified at the time, and he or she would advise the landowner to cease extraction until water is credited to the account,” he said.
Chris Minns, Labor’s water spokesman, said a public registry would help bring transparency to an industry in dire need of it.
Mr Minns conceded that “not enough was done in the late 2000s to look at enforcement” during the last Labor government but added “these problems were greatly exaggerated after 2011”.
The Ombudsman’s evidence was “all the evidence anybody needs” that the Resource regulator legislation needed to be strengthened.
“This is our one shot in the locker to get it right,” he said.
Mr Blair was non-commital about the prospects for a public registry of water use.
“While supporting the principles behind Mr Matthews recommendations, there are important privacy considerations, which is why we will consult with the public next year,” he said.