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Update: water theft allegations prompt Murray-Darling Basin review

The Federal Government has ordered an independent review of Murray-Darling Basin water use following allegations of water theft last month, despite the Minister for Water initially insisting that a review wasn’t necessary.

Four Corners investigation reported that Barwon-Darling irrigators may have tampered with meters to mask water volumes and that confidential information was offered to irrigation lobbyists by NSW water bureaucrat Gavin Hanlon.

Minister for Water Barnaby Joyce initially refused a Basin-wide review, stating that the onus was on state governments to prove compliance.

However, in a joint statement released last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Joyce said the review is a necessary step to restore confidence in communities that compliance is being met.

“While the government is confident about COAG's [Council of Australian Governments] implementation plan, it is important that Basin communities and all Australians have confidence that the rules that underpin fair and lawful water use throughout the Basin are being followed,” the statement said.

“We expect that, as part of their agreement to the review, Basin water ministers will commit to providing the MDBA [Murray-Darling Basin Authority] with ready access to all relevant information and the full support and cooperation of relevant state officials.

“The vast majority of the irrigation sector follows the rules attached to their water licenses, and the Coalition Government remains strongly committed to supporting this innovative and productive industry.”

The review’s terms of reference will include: compliance with state laws and statutory instruments (including water resource plans), conditions of water licences, the adequacy of water measurement and monitoring arrangements and the adequacy of institutional arrangements to ensure compliant water use.

“This review will complement a number of other actions underway in response to recent allegations, including the independent review lead by Ken Matthews AO, the investigation by New South Wales ICAC, and the audit being undertaken by the Australian National Audit Office,” the joint statement issued by Turnbull and Joyce said.

The MDBA will be required to provide its report to COAG by December 2017.

Since the water theft allegations came to light, the NSW Government has postponed an internal review of the state’s water management regulations that was due to take place next month.