Fines up for water theft, but most don’t make it to court

By Geoff Adams

Penalties for water theft have been increased in Victoria, but statistics show only a small number of prosecutions make it to court.

The latest report from 2018-2019 shows only a small number of farmers are prosecuted for water theft, although a large number are given written warnings.

In the past 12 months, two Goulburn-Murray Water customers have been prosecuted for unauthorised taking of water.

A Gunbower irrigator was ordered to pay almost $90,000 in compensation and costs after being found guilty of water theft.

G-MW corporate secretary Chris Dalton said the corporation was in the process of prosecuting 12 customers for unauthorised take involving negative allocation bank account balances.

As at June 30, G-MW had issued 766 warning letters and 128 caution letters for unauthorised take in relation to negative ABAs.

“G-MW has zero tolerance for unauthorised take and has a range of compliance and enforcement tools to draw on if unauthorised take is detected,” Mr Dalton said.

In the most recent statewide compliance report (2018-2019), about 1000 warning letters were issued by Victorian water corporations, including G-MW, and 53 notices of contraventions were issued.

Only 14 were recommended for prosecution and a smaller number made it to court.

Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville has accepted recommendations from an independent review into water theft compliance measures.

In May, Ms Neville appointed former auditor general Des Pearson to undertake the comprehensive independent review, which found most irrigators and water users were already doing the right thing.

While compliance levels were relatively high and processes were already in place to identify and manage water theft – the review identified several areas where compliance and enforcement approaches could be further strengthened to provide consistent and quick resolutions.

The report set a clear target for rural water corporations to reduce existing rates of water theft, currently up to 3.6 per cent of the rural water volume, to less than one per cent.

Ms Neville said to reach the one per cent target new regulations were in place that enabled water corporations to issue on-the-spot fines to water users for water theft.

New legislation that came into effect in October last year increased the maximum fine for intentional water theft to $990,000 for companies and $198,000 for individuals.

That review of water compliance also found generally there were limited prosecutions initiated.

“While recognising prosecutions are rightly a last resort, they also pose a public and high risk in terms of effectiveness and reputation should they not succeed,” Mr Pearson noted in his independent review.

He commented on concerns raised by water corporations that courts tended to divert offenders and to impose small penalties compared to the commercial advantage obtained from unauthorised take.

Mr Pearson also remarked on the differing policies by Victorian water corporations, with some more accommodating of over-use than others.

“It is not evident that all water corporations have yet fully embraced and operationalised the zero tolerance policy,” he said.

“There has been a tendency by some water corporations not to take a rigorous approach to managing compliance within allocations: e.g. accepting rectification within the year, rarely going beyond issuing advisory and warning letters when unauthorised take is identified at mid-season.

“Compounding this is that warning letters have to date generally not been actively followed up except at end.”