NSW irrigator hit with $350,000 fine for water theft offences

Moree Plains company found guilty of knowingly taking water with faulty metering equipment for crops such as cotton

A Moree Plains irrigator has been ordered to pay a record $350,000 in fines after pleading guilty to knowingly taking water, using an under-recording meter system and constructing an unlawful dam.

It is the first time a “tier one” offence has been successfully prosecuted by the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR).

NRAR alleged Henry Payson Pty Ltd knowingly took water while its metering equipment was not working, as well as building and using a 610ML dam without approval.

On Tuesday, the New South Wales land and environment court convicted the company of four water offences dating back to 2016. The company was fined $353,750, plus costs of $2,374.

But the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) said the Moree floodplain water-theft ruling highlighted the urgent need to review penalties for unlawfully extracting water.

While the successful prosecution of these instances of water theft are welcome, the inadequacy of penalties for these offences needs prompt review,” EDO lawyer Andrew Kwan said.

“On its face, $353,000 sounds like a decent fine but it is just 5% of the maximum penalty that was available,” he said.

The company committed the offences at a property called Binneguy Station, 38km east of Moree in northern NSW. Of the 1,500 hectares (3,706 acres), 152 are used to grow crops irrigated from the Gwydir River, which include cotton.

The NRAR director of investigations and enforcement, Lisa Stockley, said the case is significant because it’s the largest combined fine handed down in a land and environment court prosecution since NRAR started in 2018.

“But also it’s the first tier one offence that we’ve successfully prosecuted,” she said.

Under the NSW Water Management Act, Stockley said a tier one offence relates to “intentional, negligent or reckless conduct” and has “more serious penalties”.

The four water offences carried a potential maximum penalty of more than $6m.

NRAR said expert evidence found approximately 1,418ML of water was taken above what was recorded by the meter during the offending period.

That is equivalent to more than 560 olympic-sized swimming pools.

In their investigation, Stockley said an expert used crop growth information and satellite imagery to estimate how much water would have been needed to grow the crops during that time.

Dr Wayne Meyer, who is an adjunct professor of natural resource science at the University of Adelaide, identified that 2,750ML would have been needed to sustain the crops over the entire offending period.

“When you compare that to the meter reading, that’s 1.8 times more than what was recorded on the meter,” Stockley said.

The court fined the company $175,000 for 12 instances of knowingly taking water while metering equipment was not working between July 2016 and June 2017, and another $125,000 for 27 instances between July 2017 and June 2018.

For constructing and using a dam without approval, the company was fined $53,750. Henry Payson Pty Ltd will pay NRAR’s legal costs, which have yet to be determined, and a further $2,374 to cover the cost of NRAR’s investigation.

Stockley said their investigation focused on the offence of knowingly taking water while metre equipment wasn’t working between June 2016-17 and June 2017-18.

In her judgment handed down this week, Justice Rachel Pepper said she was “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Payson knowingly took water while the meter was under-recording”, and the company’s actions “deliberately deceived the regulator” about the amount of water pumped from the Gwydir River.

Stockley said NRAR has only been in existence for five years, during which they have brought in 36 prosecutions to the state’s environment or local court in relation to water law offences, compared with 23 in the 18 years prior.


Fleur Connick

The GuardianTramp

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