“There is a heightened awareness of the need to protect water and an expectation it’s being used fairly and lawfully,” Mr Barnes said.
“There is a minority of users who think they can wilfully break the law and not get caught.”
The agency was set up in April 2018 after a Four Corners report into water theft, particularly on the Barwon-Darling River, prompted a series of inquiries into compliance.
Of the 24 prosecutions commenced since the agency was created, half relate to land used primarily to produce cotton, Mr Barnes said.
“The most significant of these actions remain before the NSW Land and Environment Court and relate to alleged offending that took place before NRAR was formed and which drew the attention of the NSW Ombudsman,” he said.
One indication that the flurry of alleged compliance issues was linked closely to the drought is the recent slowdown in the growth of possible breaches.
During the first three months of this fiscal year, NRAR has received 302 reports of suspicious activity, similar to the 292 reports during the July-September period in 2019, Mr Barnes said, adding the peak of such reports was between November 2019 and February 2020 before the relieving rains arrived.
The report also detailed a range of new technologies used to ensure water users continue to abide by the conditions of their licences.
For instance, when water began returning to the northern Murray-Darling Basin, NRAR used satellite imagery to monitor water take by 3503 on-farm water storages of larger than one hectare. After reviewing the satellite data with aerial images, the agency whittled the “sites of interest” to just 28.
More officers have also been trained in the use of drones, aiding the quick identification of suspicious water extraction and also allowing staff to continue to take action despite coronavirus-related restrictions on their movements.
Compliance teams are also using hidden cameras to record alleged theft, such as those deployed near Pop Hole on the Wilson River that triggered action against four water carters.
NRAR also targeted particular regions, such as the Barwon-Darling. An audit of 21 properties found 18 had “numerous non-compliance issues”.
Similarly, 51 of 61 properties in the Hunter Region between the Glenbawn Dam and the Goulburn River found evidence of alleged non-compliance.
As reported by the Herald last month, the horticulture industry around Coffs Harbour was another region of interest to NRAR. Last fiscal year, 21 properties were inspected and 18 were found to be non-compliant.
“These included properties with dams that exceeded their maximum harvestable right capacity by
between 1.5 and 12 times,” the report said, noting that NRAR issued 14 penalty notices.
The agency’s priorities for this fiscal year include reviews of the Gwydir, the Murray and Lower Darling, Macquarie and Murrumbidgee regions, with more work ongoing for the Barwon-Darling.
Sydney is also in the frame as the agency plans to step up inspections of water take by local utilities, the annual report said.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.