Premier Jay Weatherill says South Australia will establish a Royal Commission into widespread allegations upstream irrigators are stealing water from the Murray Darling River system.

The Royal Commission will have wide-ranging coercive powers to investigate breaches of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement. The Commissioner will examine the adequacy of existing legislation and practices and make recommendations for any necessary changes.

The Royal Commission will also look into whether any legislative or policy changes since the agreement was signed in 2012 have been inconsistent with the purpose of the Basin Agreement and Basin Plan.

Yesterday, the Murray-Darling Basin Water Compliance Review revealed upstream states and the Federal Government are ignoring widespread allegations of water theft and are failing to enforce the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

There is currently ongoing work reviewing the Murray Darling Basin system, including a Productivity Commission report and an independent investigation in NSW.

This work will be considered by the Royal Commission, which will begin its work early in the New Year.

Background

South Australia capped its water use from the River Murray in 1969.

Over the decades, upstream states continued to take more water from the system, reducing flows and leading to adverse environmental impacts further down the river.

South Australia campaigned strongly for a basin-wide plan which mandated sustainable water usage. The Murray Darling Basin Agreement was signed in 2012. The agreement ensures the whole system gets the water it needs to be healthy, for the benefit of the 3.4 million people who rely on the system for their drinking water and their livelihoods.

The agreement returns 3200 GL of water or equivalent flow to the Murray Darling Basin system, including an additional 450 GL negotiated by South Australia.

This year, there have been several reports of wrongdoing by upstream states.

In July, Four Corners revealed allegations regarding the theft of water of New South Wales cotton growers and raised questions about the conduct of senior officials accountable for water management in NSW.

Then Federal Water Minister Barnaby Joyce was recorded telling locals at a Shepparton pub reports about water theft were “about them trying to take more water off you” and that the Nationals had reclaimed the federal water portfolio to “stop greenies running the show”.

In August, Lateline aired a number of allegations of irrigators within Queensland creating illegal structures to trap water, and deny flows into the Murray Darling Basin.

The Daily Telegraph reported claims National Party donors had been given special treatment by a National Party Minister.

The Guardian reported farmers and water experts believe New South Wales government rule changes could be causing more water loss to the Murray-Darling river system than before the Basin Plan was put in place.

Last month, Lateline revealed police had raided a large cotton farm on the New South Wales-Queensland border as part of a criminal probe into possible fraudulent use of Murray Darling Basin funds.

Last week, the NSW Ombudsman released a scathing report into water monitoring and compliance activities in NSW, revealing that three previous reports provided to the NSW Government had been buried.

Quotes attributable to Premier Jay Weatherill

We now have widespread claims of water theft by upstream states. This scandal is so extensive, we need a rigorous, independent inquiry with the coercive powers of a Royal Commission.

South Australians fought too hard to secure the Murray Darling Basin Agreement to see our water stolen by greedy upstream irrigators. It’s clear some irrigators in upstream states have no regard for people who live and work downstream.

The River Murray scandal is an absolute disgrace. I will always stand up for South Australia and our right to secure our water.

Quotes attributable to Water Minister Ian Hunter

We are now at a critical stage of the implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement.

The problem isn’t the plan, the problem is a lack of political will and a lack of political leadership to enforce it. For the plan to work, we must ensure South Australia is getting the water flows provided by the plan.

Some upstream irrigators appear to be flouting the agreement to the detriment of our irrigators who have always played by the rules.