Allegations of irregular water extraction aired by the ABC’s Four Corners program this week are ‘‘disappointing and disturbing’’, according to Murray Irrigation Limited acting chair Ben Barlow.
The special report by Linton Besser aired on Monday night alleges water is disappearing from the river systems despite the aim of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in restoring and protecting the river and its environments.
The program suggested there had been illegal use of water and meter tampering, and included recordings of ‘‘back room discussions between bureaucrats and powerful irrigators the plan was meant to manage’’.
One person providing comment to the program even alleged that environmental water was being pumped into storages with the purpose of growing cotton.
While the report concentrated on the northern part of the Murray-Darling Basin, local irrigation stakeholders have said it raises serious concerns for the entire basin.
‘‘Murray Irrigation expects the full suite of federal and state investigative resources to pursue every allegation and accusation with vigour and it needs to happen very quickly if the Basin Plan is to remain intact,’’ Mr Barlow said.
‘‘If substantiated, the allegations constitute a serious betrayal of every sector seeking to create a better Murray.
‘‘We cannot afford any relationship that favours any group over another and which seeks to circumvent either the Basin Plan or any element of the Water Act.’’
Mr Barlow said Murray Irrigation’s Private Irrigation Infrastructure Operators Program Round 2 $206 million infrastructure upgrades and its closed system provide its landholders and Basin Plan stakeholders with a high level of integrity that would be envied by many who appear affected by the upstream allegations.
“While it is prudent for the company to provide investigators and authorities with the clear air to go about their business we strongly encourage close scrutiny of any investigations by the NSW and National Irrigators Council,’’ Mr Barlow said.
Southern Riverina Irrigators chair Graeme Pyle said his members were calling for the investigation to come in the form of a Royal Commission.
He said it’s a request he will push, saying anything less may not get to the root of the problem.
‘‘The general thrust from our regional areas is that a Royal Commission is required to investigate the array of problems highlighted by this program, as well as the facets and assumptions of the plan itself.
‘‘We need to ensure the environment and the productive sectors are being looked after in equal measure, and at the moment the focus is just on the environment.
‘‘The allegations on Monday night’s program that water is being pilfered from the Darling River means our (Murray Valley) allocations are affected, as water that ends up in Menindee is considered in our allocations. This suggests irrigators are taking water from other irrigators.’’
NSW Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Water Niall Blair responded to Monday’s program yesterday by confirming he would launch an investigation.
It has included directing the NSW Department of Industry secretary to provide ‘‘an urgent overview of all the compliance matters raised in the program’’.
‘‘We acknowledge the importance of every drop of water in the basin, but the fate of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan won’t hinge on irrigators in the Barwon-Darling,’’ Mr Blair said.
‘‘This government is determined to address the economic, environmental and socio-economic concerns around the river system, with local communities front and centre in this balancing act.’’
The ABC’s Four Corners program mentioned can be viewed at www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2017/07/24/4705065.htm.