NRAR has turned to satellite imagery, drones and motion-activated cameras to continue surveillance during the pandemic.
NRAR has turned to satellite imagery, drones and motion-activated cameras to continue surveillance during the pandemic.

Taking to the sky to detect water theft

Throughout the pandemic, technology has played a key role in keeping communities safe, connected and entertained.

It's also allowed the NSW Water Regulator to continue monitoring and investigating water usage in the region.

The Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) has had a busy year conducting investigations across the state including a targeted operation in the Coffs/Clarence region.

RELATED:

Water regulator uncovers litany of breaches on Coffs farms

Water blitz reveals more oversized dams and illegal bores

Strong action needed on 'wilful offenders'

While many of us were adapting to the 'new normal' - social distancing, staying home and abiding by new lockdown measures - NRAR was also adapting.

The regulator's duties to monitor, assess and investigate water usage across the state meant it had to quickly adapt to new lockdown conditions.

The state's independent water regulator will be continuing its compliance blitz across the region in August.
The state's independent water regulator will be continuing its compliance blitz across the region in August.

Chief Regulatory Officer (CRO) at NRAR, Grant Barnes, explains how the regulator turned to satellite imagery, drones, motion-activated surveillance cameras and aerial photography.

"Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, our team continued to work (from a distance) to get the job done," said Mr Barnes.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, our technology, and the willingness of our team to adapt, enabled us to finalise 1,109 investigations, which is almost a 64 per cent increase on the same time period in 2019."

Between March and November 2020, the regulator took a total of 423 enforcement actions, which included the commencement of eight prosecutions, 131 penalty infringement notices, 111 statutory notices and 173 formal warnings during those difficult months.

By using state of the art technology, NRAR was able to cast a wider and more reliable net over the complex land that spreads across regional NSW. This includes riverside works and dams, which are otherwise difficult to access on foot.

From a remote location, NRAR can accurately calculate the volume of water storage units, including on-farm dams. The regulator can then notify water users of any potential breach of water laws, using this sophisticated image processing software.

Coffs blueberry farms with the Solitary Islands in the background.
Coffs blueberry farms with the Solitary Islands in the background.

NRAR can also gather data in cases that may require further investigation for possible breaches of NSW water law.

"We now literally have eyes in the sky - so the chances of being caught for substantial and wilful noncompliance is just not worth the risk," warned Mr Barnes.

To see the work NRAR does, go to its public register on the NRAR website industry.nsw.gov.au/nrar. Go to 'Reports and data', then 'NRAR Public Register'.

To make a confidential report on suspected water misuse, contact the NRAR Hotline on 1800 633 362 or email nrar.enquiries@nrar.nsw.gov.au.

Workers from Taiwan at a local blueberry farm.
Workers from Taiwan at a local blueberry farm.

Working conditions also under the spotlight

The conditions of workers on local farms has also attracted the attention of authorities in recent months with the release of the Blue Harvest report.

It outlined widespread underpayment and labour exploitation.

The report also revealed that landlords are profiting from the exploitation.

FULL STORY: Coffs investigation shows exploitation 'rife'

Researchers spent 12 weeks in the Coffs Harbour region, gathering data and stories from blueberry workers employed during the 2020 picking season. They found that some were paid as little as $7 a bucket to pick low-quality fruit - the equivalent of $3 an hour.

The report also uncovered exploitation by landlords with nine to 12 people sharing houses rented out at between $125 to $150 per person, netting the landlords approximately three times the median rent of certain suburban areas in the Coffs Coast region.

The report claims to have uncovered one share house cluster of four neighbouring properties in Mullaway with 45 occupants was found to be charging approximately $1500 per week in rent for each property.