WATER WATCHERS: Guy Ohandja, compliance and audit manager with the Natural Resources Access Regulator, inspecting a dam on a Coffs berry farm last week.
WATER WATCHERS: Guy Ohandja, compliance and audit manager with the Natural Resources Access Regulator, inspecting a dam on a Coffs berry farm last week. TREVOR VEALE

New water regulator has a huge task ahead

THE new water regulator tasked with fixing a broken system of compliance and enforcement is in the Coffs region.

With such a rapid escalation in the number of new berry farms in the region in recent years the fledgling organisation has a huge task ahead as they embark on their five-month program.

An independent investigation into water management and compliance in NSW, prompted by an ABC Four Corners investigation in mid 2017, found the state's enforcement ineffectual and unprofessional. The findings were outlined in the Ken Matthews Report which called for: "significant and urgent improvement" to the system and recommended the creation of a new regulator.

The Ken Matthews report specifically recommended the creation of a new NSW Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) and the consolidation within it of all compliance and enforcement functions previously shared between WaterNSW and NSW Department of Primary Industries-Water.

Now NRAR has been established it's getting to work across the state, and the Coffs region has been identified as an area in need of attention.

NRAR's Director Regional Water Regulation (East) Greg Abood acknowledges his team has a big job ahead of them.

"Over the past two and a half years there's been a number of reports from the public with concerns in relation to water take and impacts on waterways but rather than being reactive we want to look at the issue more broadly.

"The first step is to get more of an idea of what the level of compliance is at the moment.

"There is a high level of interest in the community about compliance so we want to gauge that and bring it to the surface so we can have a conversation with the community moving forward," Mr Abood said.


Water regulator Greg AboodNatural Resources access regulator. 28 MAY 2019
NRAR's Director Regional Water Regulation (East) Greg Abood inspecting a local dam. TREVOR VEALE

All commercial operations require water licences and the regulator is keen to find out if farmers understand the associated conditions.

"We have a range of tools available to us from legal action through to more of an educational approach or a combination of the two."

They're selecting properties to be inspected using local knowledge, satellite imagery, water-use records and compliance-history records.

Mr Abood also met with various community groups concerned about water take and impacts on local waterways including Helen Schlangenotto, representing the Bellingen Environment Centre's Intensive Plant Agriculture Sub-committe.

"He was very accessible and it was good to get some of our concerns off our chest and for him to get more intelligence about what's going on.

"While this renewed involvement by NRAR is really encouraging, it is merely one step towards lessening the impact of intensive plant agriculture on residents and the environment in the Coffs Harbour region.

"That's why we and many other residents are supporting council's call for DA approval on all new intensive plant agriculture farms to achieve a sustainable future for agriculture, the environment and our whole community," Ms Schlangenotto said.

Mr Abood has assured the community that NRAR will openly share the findings of any regulatory action that comes from this work with the horticulture industry and the community.

He has also confirmed there are a number of current cases under investigation. In March the Coffs Coast Advocate reported that NRAR was investigating a case at Dundoo Creek where a section of the waterway had been drained dry in a matter of days.

The community is reminded to report any observations of fish kills to Fishers Watch phone line on 1800 043 536 or any water compliance breaches to The Natural Resources Access Regulator on1800 633 362.