Satellite imagery raises questions about source of dam water in drought-hit NSW

By David Donaldson

Monday October 28, 2019

Water earmarked for the environment has boosted the health of Barmah Forest, Victoria

Following revelations of a failing New South Wales water management system in 2017, regulators have been fighting back against water theft with new tools.

This includes a combination of satellite imagery, metering, telemetry and human observation, explained representatives of both federal and state water regulators at the ANZSOG regulators’ forum earlier this month.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s use of satellite imagery is generating debate in the media, with the agency recently releasing a report into flows of much-needed water across NSW — including evidence suggesting water may have been taken illegally. Now, it is under investigation by Murray-Darling inspector-general Mick Keelty following a backlash from the irrigated agriculture industry.

In autumn, long-awaited rainfall in the northern Murray-Darling Basin led to significant flows, said MDBA Chief Executive Phillip Glyde — the first for more than a year in the Namoi river and for many months in the Macquarie river, both in central-western NSW.

“The MDBA used satellite tracking to monitor the water’s progress and irrigator compliance with NSW government embargoes, which were imposed to protect these important flows from extraction between 1 April and 7 May,” Glyde said.

“The embargoes were put in place a short time after the flows began, to enable this ‘first flush’ to reach as far down the two rivers as possible after a long dry spell. The first flush was of critical importance to the rivers’ ecological health and to downstream communities struggling with the drought.”

They were particularly looking out for any dams that suddenly filled up.

In the Namoi catchment, the MDBA found that 29 large dams appeared to fill or partially fill during the embargo. In the Macquarie area, another three private storages were found to fill during the embargo.

Water storage filling in the Namoi river catchment, 31 March and 5 April 2019. Source: MDBA.

Information has been referred to the NSW Natural Resources Access Regulator for further investigation — though Glyde noted there are legitimate reasons the dams may have filled in that time.

The report includes images of dams that filled up during the embargo period — something that has been criticised by irrigators and federal Member for Parkes Mark Coulton as unfair to farmers.

“I am very disappointed with the insinuations that have resulted from a published document identifying private storages in the Namoi and Macquarie Valleys as alleged sites of illegal pumping during an embargo,” said Coulton.

“Without any charges being laid, and in the absence of any thorough investigations whatsoever, farmers in my electorate could be linked with illegal activity.”

Read more: Location, location, location: what was actually wrong with the ‘incorrect’ MDBA report

The regulatory agencies explained at the ANZSOG regulators’ forum that they regard the imagery as only one line of evidence, and that further inquiries are needed to determine whether anything illegal has taken place.

“It’s not much use as evidence at this stage for a prosecution. But together with river gauges and telemetry information and the metering etc, we’re able to put together a story,” said Di Mead, the MDBA’s director of audit, investigations and assurance.

Indeed, the publicity serves the MDBA’s goal of raising awareness of its use of satellite imagery — in turn hopefully improving compliance and ensuring improved management of the Murray-Darling’s finite water resources.

Find out more about how the MDBA and NRAR are tackling water theft at Mandarin Premium, including comments from the MDBA’s Mead and NRAR’s director of regulatory innovation at the ANZSOG regulators’ forum.

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