Access to water in north-western NSW and how much this precious resource costs were among the hot topics discussed at a workshop convened by UNE’s AgLaw centre today.
The Murray Darling Basin Plan, National Water Initiative and coal seam gas development, all controversial issues, were also on the agenda during the inaugural Regional Water Users’ Issues Forum hosted by the Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law.
Acting Director of the Centre, Associate Professor Amanda Kennedy, said some 15 representatives of irrigator groups, Local Land Services, local government and farming communities attended the forum, which grew out of mounting concern over government water policies and laws.
“We hope to identify the critical issues that stakeholders are facing, and to discuss possible research that the AgLaw Centre might conduct to address those issues,” she said. “A particular problem we have heard time and again from water users is the need for regulatory arrangements to offer a meaningful opportunity for stakeholder consultation in order to optimise the economic, social, and environmental benefits of any development.”
It’s a timely meeting as the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) announced this week that bulk water charges in the Peel Valley would be halved for 2017-2021. Irrigators had waged a 25-year battle to have these charges reviewed. However, in the Gwydir and Namoi valleys water charges will increase.
UNE alumni and Tamworth solicitor Julianna Kneebone, who has helped organise the forum, said water pricing and foreign investment in water licences are the primary concerns of her clients. “Water use is highly regulated in NSW but the legislation is not always practical and consultation doesn’t always take into consideration the people most affected,” she said. “Farmers can get caught out when they are not made aware of changes to the legislation, and a one-size-fits-all approach may not suit a particular region.”
Julianna said the current framework for water pricing means that farmers have limited opportunities to negotiate arrangements suitable to their respective valleys. “Many of my clients are also being gazumped by foreign investors when attempting to buy water,” she said. “These investors have massive buying power and frequently refuse to comply with standard conveyancing practice.
UNE has a history of research in the area of resource development legalities. The Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law has worked closely with local community groups and industry on irrigation and water policy issues, including risks in the implementation of water policy, and conflict over coal seam gas and water resources. Associate Professor Kennedy will soon publish a book that contains case studies from two NSW communities at the heart of disputes over coal and coal seam gas development. As well as documenting their experiences, she suggests improvements to the way such development applications are assessed and communities are engaged.
Associate Professor Kennedy has also just embarked on a three-year Australian Research Council Discovery Grant project, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of New South Wales and Griffith University, to explore the governance of water and coal seam gas development. She hopes that discussions at the Regional Water Users Issues Forum will guide some of this research.