Rivers in crisis: Water theft and corruption in the Darling River system

January 31, 2019
Dead fish at Menindee. Photo: Rob Gregory

Politicians and bureaucrats have launched endless inquiries in an effort to appear to be dealing with the water crisis in New South Wales, where a blue-green algal bloom has deprived a 40-kilometre stretch of the Darling River of oxygen and a million fish died as a result. Rural communities, wildlife, graziers and stock are also running out of water.

Yet these same bureaucrats have been very slow to implement any of the recommended reforms and few steps have been taken to deal with the mismanagement, water theft and corruption that led to this crisis.

Federal drought envoy Barnaby Joyce has rubbished claims that corruption within the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is to blame for the crisis and that big irrigators have been given unfair access to water.

“It’s not corruption. That’s a load of garbage,” Joyce told 2GB’s Steve Price on January 11. “What we have is a massive drought. This is one of the worst on record.”

Federal agriculture and water minister David Littleproud agrees. On January 23, he announced that an independent panel would carry out a “fair dinkum” inquiry into what he dubbed was a “natural event” in the Menindee region.

Littleproud has repeatedly asserted that human consumption and environmental water are top priorities and that only after these needs are met is water allocated to irrigation.

But he could not explain to ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly why residents of the NSW town of Walgett are being forced to drink bottled water while cotton is still being irrigated. Nor could he explain why so many Murray cod, which have survived more than 50 years of droughts, died in the recent fish kill.

Meanwhile, the Menindee region continues to be hit by severe heatwave conditions, with temperatures in the high 40os celsius, and blue-green algal blooms and fish kills are ongoing.

Rejecting the warnings

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to argue on January 13 that, despite the “devastating ecological event” the government had been “operating in accordance with scientific evidence” provided back in 2012.

However, a leaked 2012 memo from Fisheries NSW contradicts his claim.

It said that the then proposed Barwon-Darling basin water sharing plan had not taken into consideration “any scientific information on the impact of extraction or changes to the environment that have been detailed in the last decade”.

“As a result,” the notes stated, “Fisheries NSW is concerned that the proposed ten-year draft plan does not include sufficient rules to ensure environmental outcomes in low and medium flows that will ensure the maintenance and recovery of the endangered aquatic ecological community of the Lower Darling Catchment.”

Economics professor Quentin Grafton, environmental lawyer Emma Carmody, ecologist Matt Colloff and Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists founding member John Williams said that successive governments have refused to act on similar warnings that a fish kill of this magnitude was inevitable unless adequate measures were taken

In a joint article published on Policy Forum they write: “Ecologists who investigated the 2004 fish kill on the Lower Darling River recommended improved water quality monitoring and adequate storage at Menindee Lakes for downstream releases so as to improve water quality.


“Yet the agencies responsible failed to act on this advice.

“Those in charge of water management in the Basin were told what would happen as far back as 2010, and that the problem would get worse unless less water was extracted from rivers.

“They were also told what they should do to stop it from happening.”

Writing for The Conversation on January 16, Professor Fran Sheldon, of the Griffith University Australian Rivers Institute, rejects the argument that the current water crisis can be simply put down to the drought.

She pointed the finger at government inaction.

“The deaths of millions of fish in the lower Darling River system over the past few weeks should come as no surprise,” Sheldon said.

“Quite apart from specific warnings given to the NSW government by their own specialists in 2013, scientists have been warning of devastation since the 1990s.

“Put simply, ecological evidence shows the Barwon-Darling River is not meant to dry out to disconnected pools — even during drought conditions.”

Instead, Sheldon said, the current crisis is a result of “water diversions [that] have disrupted the natural balance of wetlands that support massive ecosystems…

“By continually keeping the Barwon-Darling in a state of low (or no) flow, with its natural wetlands dry, we have reduced its ability to cope with extended drought.

“While droughts are a natural part of this system and its river animals have adapted, they can’t adjust to continual high water caused in some areas by water diversions — and they certainly can’t survive long-term drying…

“Unless we find a way to restore more of the low and medium flows to this system we are likely witnessing Australia’s worst environmental disaster.”


The crisis however cannot simply be put down to politicians ignoring the science.

University of Queensland economics professor John Quiggin told The Guardian on January 22 that Joyce as water minister and Littleproud's actions “were so damaging” that the only conclusion to draw is that they were “deliberately designed to destroy the fragile ecosystems of the Murray-Darling Basin, and to produce outcomes like those we see today”.

Quiggin also blames the National Party-run NSW Primary Industry department, which, he says, “has been either acquiescent or complicit in undermining the basin plan”. 

Overall, Quiggin said, “the problem is one of systemic mismanagement”, particularly that of the politicised MDBA that has become “little more than an advocate for the destructive policy agenda of the LNP.”

A report released by The Australia Institute (TAI) on January 19 backs up Quiggin’s criticisms.

It said that decisions made by the MDBA seem to have been motivated by the need to build the case for the new Broken Hill pipeline — which will supply two new mines with water — and the Menindee Lakes project. The latter project seeks to “save” water by effectively letting the lakes (which are crucial fish and waterbird breeding areas) dry up to reduce evaporation.

TAI senior water researcher and former MDBA employee Maryanne Slattery noted: “Systematic mismanagement, cover up and maladministration has undermined the proper implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

“Implementing the Plan for political expediency, without transparency or accountability by the [MDBA], has resulted in a fraud of a Basin Plan.

“It has benefited big irrigators, at the expense of everyone else, including Aboriginal people, regional communities, floodplain graziers, small irrigators and the environment.”

Since the recent fish kills, Slattery has analysed the inflows and outflows from Menindee Lakes and how they have been managed compared with previous years.

She said: “It is clear what has caused the Darling River fish kill — mismanagement and repeated policy failure.

“To blame the fish kill on the drought is a cop-out, it is because water releases were made from the lakes when this simply shouldn’t have happened.

“The lakes were drained in late 2016 and 2017, with a total of 819 [gigalitres] released from Menindee Lakes, almost the equivalent of two Sydney harbours.

“This is not a natural phenomenon, but a management decision.

“Such releases have been made in the past, but in recent times inflows from the northern basin to refill the lakes have declined significantly.”

Slattery noted that long-standing MDBA practice “is to prioritise releases from Menindee Lakes above other storages to minimise evaporation”.

“However, causing an ecological disaster to avoid evaporation can hardly be described as good environmental management.”

Nor were the releases made for downstream need.

“Releases were made from Menindee Lakes in excess of South Australia’s requirements,” Slattery said. “In fact, parts of South Australia were recovering from flooding and months of wet weather at that time.”

TAI has called for a royal commission and greater transparency of the decisions the MDBA is making.

South Australia already has such a royal commission, which is due to finish in late January.

The commission has been hampered by the federal government going to court to prevent anyone employed by the MDBA appearing before it.

It is also not clear when the commission will release its final report as there is a battle over whether it will be made public at all, given the NSW and federal elections in the first part of the year.

Richard Beasley, senior counsel assisting the royal commission, has already made his position clear: “The implementation of the [Murray-Darling] basin plan has been marred by maladministration,” he said. “By that I mean mismanagement by those in charge of the task in the basin authority, its executives and its board, and the consequent mismanagement of huge amounts of public funds.

“The responsibility for that maladministration and mismanagement falls on both past and current executives of the MDBA and its board.”


But the problems do not stop there.

An independent inquiry, commissioned by the NSW government and headed by Kevin Matthews, released a report late last year that contained strong allegations of water theft and corruption in the Murray-Darling basin.

As a result, misconduct procedures were launched against then-deputy director-general of water at the NSW Department of Industry, Gavin Hanlon, who was secretly recorded promising to share internal government documents with irrigation lobbyists opposed to the Murray-Darling basin plan.

Hanlon was subsequently stood down and he later resigned.

On November 26, Barwon-Darling River cotton farmer Anthony Barlow pleaded guilty to three offences of water theft alleged against him by WaterNSW, after a lengthy investigation prompted by a July 2017 ABC Four Corners program.

The program reported water thefts involving potentially billions of litres at his family's Mungindi property near the NSW-Queensland border.

Peter Harris, one of the two biggest irrigators in Australia, is fighting separate charges of water theft, with his case due to go to court this year.

NSW regional water minister Niall Blair responded to the inquiry and subsequent arrests by announcing that the NSW government will finally establish the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) and implement stronger metering regulations.

But none of this should have come as news to the government. For years, the Environmental Defenders Office NSW has worked to draw attention to non-compliance, only to be repeatedly ignored.

Governments have chosen to ignore this because big irrigators have recruited politicians of all persuasions through big party donations.

We now have a situation where up to 75% of surface water extractions by irrigators in the Northern Basin — home to the electorates of Joyce and Littleproud — are not even metered.

Meanwhile, compliance inspectors have been cut back and blocked from acting, and monitoring and audit programs have been cut.

Blair claims that metering will happen over the next year, but without independent monitors and inspectors this cannot be verified.

Water Act priorities

Joyce continues to insist on the need to prioritise economic and social needs over the environment, an emphasis that is clearly evident in the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

But this prioritisation reverses the entire intention of the Water Act 2007, which aims to save the living river system.

The Water Act recognised that too much water was being extracted and sought to reset the balance between the amount required for human consumption and the amount needed to keep the river alive.

The MDBA was set up to implement this balance, but has failed miserably.

After five years and $13 billion of public money spent on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, there is less water in the river than ever before and more water in the private water storages of a handful of National Party donors.

Politicians agree that only water will save the river, but none have mentioned the possible solution of pumping water back out of these storages.

This is despite billions of litres of water having been illegally pumped out by a handful of corporate thieves or funnelled away through illegal diversion works, often paid for by public grants, such as Queensland’s Healthy Headwaters scheme.

Instead Joyce, his National Party cronies and their big irrigator donors have put a lot of effort into convincing rural communities that scientists and environmentalists are their enemies and that environmental flows are “green tape” that will sabotage rural communities.

As a TAI September report, Trickle Out Effect — Drying up money and water in the Lower Darling, noted: “The conflict around the Basin Plan is typically presented as agriculture versus the environment, or upstream states versus downstream states.

“While such framing helps politicians and advocacy groups champion their respective constituents, it distracts from the more important point — that Aboriginal people, graziers, downstream water users, communities, small irrigators and the environment are being sacrificed for the profits of ever more powerful irrigation corporations.”

However the ongoing huge fish kills have brought home to river and rural communities that unless we keep “environmental water” running down the river system, it will die and bring down all those depending on it.

A royal commission into MDBA mismanagement and its political masters is crucial.

We also need to implement the recommendations from the NSW Matthews inquiry and the South Australian royal commission.

This would represent a first step towards strong, independent, transparent and fair management and monitoring of where water is going, and ensure that enough water stays in the rivers to keep them and the communities, wetlands and floodplains that depend on them alive and thriving — even in times of drought.

Grafton, Carmody, Colloff and Williams have also put forward a number of proposals.

They believe the Water Act should be amended to “improve governance arrangements and reduce the possibility of conflicts of interest undermining the lawful management of Basin water resources”.

They argue that the Basin Plan should be amended “to increase recovery of water for the environment, augment actual stream flows, and buffer against the impacts of climate change.

“Full accounting of where water goes in the Basin, including return flows from farmers’ fields, must occur, while controversial changes to the management of the Menindee Lakes need to be reconsidered and any water infrastructure projects that are claimed to deliver the equivalent of increased stream flows should be subject to rigorous cost-benefit analysis to ensure they deliver a net positive public benefit.

Water resource plans’ for each catchment, which come into force within the next year or so, must also include rules to maintain sufficient flows and water quality, and to protect environmental water from legal pumping.”

The Productivity Commission’s 5-year report on the Murray Darling Plan, which came out last August, has recommended the MDBA be restructured to separate its service delivery and regulatory functions into two institutions. It called on the federal government to establish the Murray-Darling Basin Corporation as the agent of Basin governments, and the Basin Plan Regulator as an independent Commonwealth Statutory Authority by 2021.

These are fine proposals, but ways must be found to ensure that these bodies are immune to political pressure and that corporate-irrigator-controlled state governments are forced to implement the Water Act. Otherwise, we are simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

It is up to all of us to demand that the rivers be saved.

[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.]

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