Corruption is killing our rivers

Tandou Station sold tens of millions of dollars’ worth of water rights to the government at more than twice the market price.

The ABC 4 Corners program “Pumped”, which screened on July 24, 2017, showed that far from saving the river system, the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has created a financial windfall for a select few.

Political corruption and fraud have been a part of the process from the beginning, ensuring that big irrigators, who are also National Party donors, have been the major beneficiaries of the extra environmental water being returned to the river. Water speculation has been encouraged. Environmental water purchases have ended up as simply a way to privatise water for the financial gain of a handful of big corporate irrigators.

Tandou Station

Once, there were many small irrigators along the Murray-Darling river system. But that changed with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and now just two companies own 70% of the water in the river system. One of those companies, Webster Ltd, under its chair Chris Corrigan — notorious for leading the charge against the Maritime Union of Australia on Australian wharves in the late 1990s — owns $300 million in Murray-Darling water allocations — second only to the federal government. Webster owns Tandou Station, where it grows cotton in a good year. But it makes more money in drought by selling its water to desperate farmers.

The federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on water "buybacks", for water that effectively does not exist, except during heavy rainfall and peak water conditions. The first of these was the sale of $34 million of supplementary water rights in 2008 by Tandou Station, 100 kilometres south-east of Broken Hill and just south of the Menindee Lakes. The most recent of these so-called "empty buckets of water", was the government’s purchase for $78 million of Tandou Station’s entire 21,900-megalitre water right. That deal, which was personally negotiated by Barnaby Joyce, was at more than twice the market price for water.

Webster also owns several large cotton properties upstream at Bourke and Moree, as well as being one of Australia’s biggest water traders. Among its shareholders is Australian Food and Fibre, which is controlled by the Robinson family, a major donor to the National Party.

As part of the sale of its water, Webster has agreed to decommission the irrigated horticultural enterprise at Tandou and return the property to dryland farming.

The NSW government recently legitimised floodplain harvesting, granting free licenses to divert floods before they reach the river. Webster can take all the promised jobs and economic activity with them to their northern NSW cotton farms, where they can intercept the water before it enters the Darling River. This means Webster will have been paid for their water then been given it back upstream for free. And the $112 million water "buyback" will do nothing to benefit the river or water users downstream.

Blocked investigations

The other major player in the Murray-Darling is Peter Harris, the powerful irrigator who owns Clyde Cotton, and whose family's properties and water licences are worth at least $150 million.

In 2013, Jamie Morgan set up the Strategic Investigations Unit inside the NSW Department of Primary Industries. Harris is now fighting several charges of water theft before the courts, after Morgan’s unit investigated his huge irrigation farm east of Brewarrina. The ABC reported that when the investigators looked inside the water meters, they saw unplugged cables, suggesting “possible meter tampering” and “possible pumping outside of required river heights”.

Under NSW law, when a meter is not working, irrigators must keep a detailed logbook, which the farm manager insisted he had done. It turned out Harris's manager had been lying and there was no logbook.

Environmental Defender's Office CEO Sue Higginson said: “The system relies on compliance with having meters that are fully functioning and adhere to a particular standard, or the maintenance of log books. So, if they're not working, or they're not being complied with, those requirements, then that's an illegal act, and a very significant one at that.”

Morgan said: “We were there to conduct a full investigation, in relation to all our specs of water management on the property. ... In the northwest, the meters I looked at, I didn't see one that actually worked. We had cables unplugged, batteries removed, impellers missing...

“So, it was my desire to run a proactive operation out in that area and inspect every single river pump at times by boat down the river, identifying where all the extraction points are, confirming that they're complying with their licence, and if they weren't, taking action to bring them into compliance.”

The operation was not approved, and Morgan told the ABC that at about the same time the investigations unit made its request to proceed, the hierarchy went cold on compliance, moved it out of the department and reduced his staff.

“I think that it was clear that there was no appetite for compliance anymore. It was odd timing in my view. It was only when we went to the northwest of the state, where we found significant problems, that our team was very quickly disbanded after that. Our briefings weren't being answered.”

Other Harris properties were also recorded pulling huge volumes of water out of the river at Brewarrina when pumping was not allowed, with a confession of meter tampering by his brother Ron Harris, co-owner of their property at Hay. Ron Harris pleaded guilty four years ago to meter-tampering, using a sophisticated technique to jam the meter.

Higginson said: “The evidence or the facts agreed to in the Land and Environment Court prosecution was that he had made a device in his shed, he'd oxy-welded a device that fit perfectly into his water meters, and actually stopped the impeller, which then of course stops the count. 2.531 billion litres had been actually extracted.”

“This was at least a billion litres of water more than was allowed, in the same year Broken Hill almost ran out of water because not enough water was getting down the Darling River.”

Political interference

In 2012 the NSW government introduced the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan, which increased water entitlements and allowed upstream users to draw water from the river even during low flow periods. The plan has been contentious from the start and serious allegations were raised in February last year about the conduct of the then-minister for primary industries, Nationals MP Katrina Hodgkinson, in unilaterally altering the plan after it was finalised by her department. Hodgkinson resigned from parliament on July 31, 2017, a week after ''Pumped'' aired on the ABC.

Andrew Clennell reported in The Daily Telegraph that her successor, the Nationals’ water minister Niall Blair was pushing Cabinet colleagues to change irrigation laws to retrospectively justify Hodgkinson’s changes to the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan. It came after his department in 2016 overruled what it called a “minor” error in the law to grant Peter Harris extra irrigation rights.

A department briefing said the error was impacting on “some users wishing to trade between river sections covered by the plan”. The briefing was written shortly after Harris was given the right to trade rights to move pumps to another section of the Barwon-Darling River. Harris gave $10,000 to the National Party prior to the 2011 election in combined personal donations and those made by his company.

Being allowed to pump from low flows meant irrigators could pump from environmental water meant to keep the river alive. Worse, this lobbying by Harris resulted in his being able to move water allocations from downstream licenses to his upstream properties. This meant the water never got downstream. This contravenes the water license system, which is designed to prioritise water for the environment and critical human needs before farming. The new rules gave the irrigators first go at the water upstream and left none to keep the downstream river and river communities alive.

The result is the devastating fish kills along the Darling River. Professor Fran Sheldon, of Griffith University Australian Rivers Institute, wrote: “While high flows will still make it through the Barwon-Darling, filling the floodplains and wetlands, and connecting to the River Murray, the low and medium flow events have disappeared. Instead, these are captured in the upper sections of the basin in artificial water storages and used in irrigation. This has essentially dried the wetlands and floodplains at the ends of the tributaries. Any water not diverted for irrigation is now absorbed by the continually parched upstream wetlands, leaving the lower reaches vulnerable when drought hits.”

[Elena Garcia is a grazier who lives in Littleproud’s Maranoa electorate in Queensland. She is a co-author of Sustainable Agriculture versus Corporate Greed. This is the latest in the ongoing "Rivers in crisis" series. To read the others articles click here.]