On the 21st of June Dr Sarah Mansfield, member of the Victorian Legislative Council representing the Western Region, asked the following questions without notice to Water Minister Harriet Shing.

Questions without notice and ministers statements

Moorabool River catchment management

Sarah MANSFIELD (Western Victoria) (12:00): (185)
My question is for the Minister for Water. The ABC recently revealed that 200 new private dams have been constructed along the Moorabool River catchment since 2012. Many appear to be unlicensed, and the water regulator, Southern Rural Water, has failed to enforce the law. In fact last year Southern Rural Water made not a single prosecution. The proliferation of unregulated dams poses a significant risk to essential inflows to the Moorabool, which is already one of the most flow-stressed systems in the state. Will the government place an immediate moratorium on the construction of new private dams within the Moorabool catchment whilst this issue is being investigated?

Harriet SHING (Eastern Victoria – Minister for Water, Minister for Regional Development, Minister for Commonwealth Games Legacy, Minister for Equality) (12:01):
Thank you for that question about Moorabool and about the issue of dams and the way in which dams may be constructed over time. I want to acknowledge the work of PALM, the community group that has been identifying issues around concerns relating to the extension of existing dam footprints which may be subject to a stock and domestic licence – for example, using an existing bore. You do not currently need to have a licence to expand a bore where it is 3 metres by 3 metres, and there are other regulations that apply in the event of wanting to expand a bore, a dam or a holding beyond that process. There have been concerns raised by PALM around the very issues that you have talked about, which have been brought to my attention. We have had a discussion around surveys of what is actually happening. It is really difficult to get onto private landholdings to see what has changed over time and whether it has occurred inadvertently or intentionally. We know from the compliance system in Victoria that we have a very, very high level of compliance and enforcement with the rules and regulations that apply around the capture and storage of water, and in fact we lead the nation in that regard. To that end, I think we have seen about 3000 breaches notified, with only about 20 of those proceeding to prosecution. That should give you an idea about the extent to which undertakings can usually be provided or remedies delivered in order to correct breaches without them needing to be escalated further through a legal proceeding. I have been notified that the work of surveying is continuing and that PALM has been a big part of that. I am looking forward to seeing what the outcome is of those analyses about the footprint of dams across private landholdings. I want to make a couple of general points, if I can, about the importance of maintaining access to water. We know that dams in fact take water away from other areas where it might naturally travel to provide a range of other benefits, whether environmental or to primary producers or to riparian and waterway health overall. Wherever we take water and put it into a large-scale dam, we are in effect denying water the opportunity to move around to where it is otherwise needed. As far as integrated water management and natural resource management go, that is a significant thing to have to manage. I am looking forward, as I said, to getting the outcomes of that survey work and being able to continue to engage on improvement and making sure the community has the transparency that it is looking for. Again I thank PALM for that work and those partnerships that are being informed by the work on the ground.

Sarah MANSFIELD (Western Victoria) (12:04):
I thank the minister for her response. I think it is interesting that you view Victoria’s compliance and enforcement systems as being robust. There is an alternative view that water corporations are structured in such a way that they are actually struggling in their duty to enforce the law. Following similar problems with illegal water theft and illegal dams in New South Wales, the New South Wales government established the Natural Resources Access Regulator to ensure direct government oversight of compliance and enforcement. Does the proliferation of unlicensed dams on the Moorabool demonstrate that the government needs to establish a similar body, a natural resources access regulator, rather than devolving this responsibility for enforcement to water corporations?

Harriet SHING (Eastern Victoria – Minister for Water, Minister for Regional Development, Minister for Commonwealth Games Legacy, Minister for Equality)
(12:05): Thank you for that further question. I do want to point out that the Pearson review in 2018 found that we have around 96 per cent compliance. That is the highest around Australia. What I do also want to acknowledge is the statement that you have made around water corporations being responsible for that compliance work. In fact that consultation and part of the work that Southern Rural Water is doing on discussions with the community include those conversations with Wadawurrung, with PALM and with other community members to understand the presence of and/or the proliferation of and the need to monitor whether there might be any unauthorised or unlicensed dams that are being constructed or are otherwise present in our landscape. We are working across a consultation process, but our water corps are state owned. They are part of the government and not private companies, and when we look at the contradistinction with other jurisdictions and we see that there have been privatised environments, you will see in fact why that is a part of the feature of distinction of the compliance and enforcement systems that we have here in Victoria.



PALM would like to thank Dr Mansfield for her questions.  As someone from the area and the current water spokesperson for her party we recognise and applaud her interest in the plight of the Moorabool River.

PALM would also like to thank Minister Shing for her response particularly in acknowledging the work of PALM community in delivering a greater understanding of what is happening within the Moorabool Catchment.  Hopefully cooperation with all stakeholders and agencies will allow for a more secure future for this highly stressed but vital river system.