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Satellites guard against water theft in Murray-Darling Basin

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is looking to space to help guard against water theft.

The MDBA has completed a successful trial using satellites to track flows in the Barwon and Darling River systems during a major release of environmental water between April and June this year.

In a report detailing the trial, the MDBA said satellite images were used to monitor compliance with the New South Wales Government's temporary ban on consumptive extractions during the event.

There were 100 images provided to the MDBA by Geoscience Australia over four months. These were taken from the Sentinel-2 satellite system, operated by the European Space Agency, and were so detailed they could detect water in irrigation channels and on-farm storages as well as any changes to crops.

MDBA acting Head of Compliance Brent Williams said the images, together with on-ground gauge data, helped the MDBA keep a close eye on the water.

“Satellite technology has helped us have a detailed look over a large area, giving us a valuable new tool to ensure water is delivered to where it is needed and is not diverted for unauthorised use … We’ll now look at how to use it wholesale to strengthen monitoring and compliance across the Basin,” he said.

The issue of water theft in the Murray-Darling Basin surfaced in July 2017, following an episode of ABC TV’s Four Corners that made allegations about the misuse of Commonwealth-owned environmental water in the Barwon-Darling system.

This prompted reviews into compliance and water management at both the state and Commonwealth levels. These highlighted the need for a more proactive approach to environmental water protection and a tightening of rules and policies.

In its report, the MDBA said satellite imagery alone would not guard against water theft, but it could be used as a “rapid ‘first filter’ compliance check”.

“An important part of strengthened compliance investment is the testing and trialling of the use of remote sensing, particularly the use of satellite imagery, to assist with future compliance checking and investigation,” the MDBA said.

“It is a necessary part of an effective compliance framework, but it must be combined with other data (such as accurate metering and a robust hydrometric network), and with a compliance culture that is supported by the community and enforced by Basin governments.”

The satellite trial is the latest in a series of initiatives from the MDBA and the Commonwealth to strengthen water compliance across the Basin.

The MDBA established a committee in February to provide expert advice on the design, implementation and adequacy of its compliance program, while the Commonwealth recently appointed former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty to monitor compliance in the Northern Basin.