25/07/2017 12:01 PM AEST | Updated 25/07/2017 12:09 PM AEST

Four Corners Report: Cotton Farmers Accused Of Stealing Murray-Darling Water, And Everyone Is Furious

The water wars have begun.

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The Darling River in a typically low season. Every drop is like gold.

Irrigators have been accused of stealing water from the Murray River system -- and bureaucrats stand accused of standing by and doing nothing. That's the clear claim from a Four Corners report which aired on Monday night, which has made a wide range of people absolutely livid.

"It's the biggest water grab in Australia's history," one farmer in the ABC program said.

"What we're seeing quite clearly is that environmental water bought by taxpayers is going through pumps into storages to grow cotton," said a scientist.

A quick synopsis of the big picture goes like this:

  • The Murray Darling Basin is Australia's largest river system. Its water is vital for farmers but also for towns and cities which depend on it for domestic use, i.e. drinking water;
  • After eastern Australia's worst drought on record in the early 2000s, former PM John Howard instigated a body called the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to allocate water use fairly and to protect the health of the Murray and its tributaries by ensuring regular flow;
  • The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was signed off in 2012 by the-then Labor government. Its details were always politically fraught, but its general principle of shared water use was broadly agreed upon;
  • The Four Corners report showed that certain irrigators have thumbed their collective noses at the report, illegally taking for their own use huge amounts of water which effectively belonged to the river itself, and the people of Australia;
  • Most of these irrigators are along the Barwon River, a major river in northern NSW which flows into the Darling;
  • The program also alleged that certain NSW government bureaucrats have turned a blind eye to the practice;
  • "There is no question in my mind that the majority of Australians supported the expenditure of a huge amount of money -- $13 billion -- to fix the river. If a number of irrigators have got a huge windfall out of this, I think everybody will be disgusted," cattle farmer and former NSW Farmers Association President Mal Peters said on the show.
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Cotton in northern NSW. The crop requires more water than most.

Peters is right. Just about everybody is disgusted. Among the voices who have spoken out on Tuesday morning include:

Darriea Turley, the mayor of Broken Hill (the large NSW outback town which lies west of the Darling but depends largely on its water): "We're outraged, we suspected it, but every time we raised it every politician would push back on us."

Shadow environment minister Tony Burke (who was Federal environment minister when the Plan came into being): "The purpose of the reform was to restore the system to health, but the plan becomes meaningless if there is no integrity to the system for measuring water."

Australian Conservation Foundation Campaigns Director Dr Paul Sinclair: "Communities across Australia and in the Murray-Darling Basin deserve to know why it appears laws to stop the theft of water flows haven't been enforced by the NSW Government. These are serious allegations of extraordinary abuse of the Murray Darling Plan. There must be an ICAC investigation".

Terry Korn, president of the Australian Floodplain Association: "The Four Corners show has highlighted the inability of the current NSW Government to develop, implement and monitor effective water management policies. As a result we see the health of the Darling River and its tributaries decline and the non-irrigation communities it supports suffer death by a thousand cuts".

South Australian Water Minister Ian Hunter: "There needs to be an independent judicial review... because this strikes at the very heart of the public service in New South Wales, if the allegations are correct. If you don't have confidence in the amount of water that's being taken out... then you can't actually have any compliance under the plan whatsoever."

There are literally dozens of angry responses this Tuesday -- from water groups, environmental groups, farming groups and more. Meanwhile NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair issued statement, which in part read:

The NSW Government remains committed to the Murray Darling Basin Plan, while seeking the best deal for NSW communities within that framework.

It's wrong to suggest that a change to the water rules in NSW in 2012, somehow undermines our determination to see the Plan through.

I have directed the Secretary of the NSW Department of Industry to provide an urgent overview of all the compliance matters raised in the [Four Corners] program.

We acknowledge the importance of every drop of water in the basin, but the fate of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan won't hinge on irrigators in the Barwon-Darling.