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Irrigators overdrew 40,000ML of water from NSW rivers, audit finds, as farmers protest buy-backs

Irrigators in New South Wales have withdrawn the equivalent of 16,000 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water over their allowed limits from waterways throughout the state.

An audit by the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) found more than 40,000 megalitres of water were overdrawn in 2021-22. Just 6% of water users were responsible for the overdrawing of water.

A review into the 2022-23 water accounts is under way.

NRAR’s director of regulatory initiatives, Ian Bernard, said that while only a small number of water licence holders were responsible for the overdraw, it could have a “big impact on our water resources and can cause significant harm to industry, communities, culture and the environment”.

“There’s an outdated practice whereby people treat their water accounts like bank accounts, occasionally going into the red by taking more than they’ve been allocated and simply paying it back later,” Bernard said.

“That practice is against the law.”

The report came as farmers, irrigators and politicians in the Murray-Darling basin region held rallies calling for an end to proposed water buy-backs.

Protesters gathered in Leeton, Deniliquin and Griffith on Tuesday, supported by local councils and mayors from each shire.

The Edward River council mayor, Peta Betts, said the river was the lifeblood of towns across the basin.

“You won’t find anyone here who doesn’t want to see a healthy river,” she said.

“As locals, we can see the practicalities on the ground. There are smarter things we can do to help the river, rather than just flush more water down through buy-backs.”

The National Farmers Federation president, David Jochinke, said buy-backs would reduce the value of agriculture in Australia by an estimated $855m each year.

“Rather than working with local knowledge-holders, they’re trying to bulldoze through with a lazy plan that will shut down farms, destroy jobs and increase the price of food,” he said.

The Griffith wheat and rice farmer Glen Andreazza said farmers in the region remembered the “terrible social and economic costs of previous water buy-backs”.

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“We’re afraid the government will bleed us to death,” he said.

“This is an incredibly productive food and fibre growing area, but this government wants to tie our hands behind our backs rather than let us grow food to feed people.”

Not all irrigators in the Murray Darling agree with the campaign against buy-backs. The federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, announced in August that buy-backs would be back on the table, alongside an agreement with some states to extend the Murray-Darling Basin plan.

In Victoria’s Sunraysia region, irrigator Bill McClumpha described the rallies as a “scare campaign” and said protesters have conflated economic issues with buy-backs.

“Most irrigators do support the basic elements of the basin plan and accept the need for meaningful water recovery,” he said. “Rural decline has many causes, but water recovery is not one of them.”

Gamilaraay, Wirri and Anaiwan woman Polly Cutmore said the river was a “source of life”, crucial to culture, and deserving of respect.

“What we know about our country and the changes that the colonisers have brought, tells us that drier times are coming,” she said. “We need to restore the flows that give life to the river and support our culture.”

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