THE rapid expansion of the olive industry in the Moore River region has placed the area’s underground water supplies under acute pressure.
Water allocations to growers in one ‘sub area’ within the region exceed the estimated sustainable limit and in two other ‘sub areas’ the current allocations already equal the sustainable limit.
Problems with water management were highlighted by the release last week of an auditor general’s review of the Waters and Rivers Commission.
The audit found that Western Australia’s ground and surface water monitoring program has been progressively reduced over the past decade.
As a result, the commission does not have the information needed to accurately determine the sustainable level of groundwater and surface water use in many areas of the State.
The commission has not determined allocation limits for a significant number of water resources.
The audit found that licensed water use in parts of 13 of the State’s 44 groundwater management areas exceeds the estimated sustainable limit.
The commission’s regional manager Rob Hammond, who has responsibility for Moore River, said three of these ‘sub areas’ were within the Moore River region.
The audit also found that only 11 per cent of the State’s 25,652 water licences have ever been checked for compliance.
Mr Hammond did not challenge the findings of the auditor general.
However he did explain that the Moore River region was subject to greater scrutiny and monitoring than most other parts of the State.
In the southern part of the Moore River region, around Gingin, where the supply demand balance was most under pressure, commission staff had checked every property to monitor water usage.
Mr Hammond said licensed water use exceeded the estimated sustainable limit in one ‘sub area’ because the commission lost an appeal.
In fact, the auditor general found the commission has not won any of the past 25 appeals against decisions to refuse further water allocations.
The Appeals Tribunal has often found the commission’s decisions lack scientific rigour.
In cases where the commission lacks scientific data, it adopts a ‘precautionary approach’ to water allocations.
However, under the relevant act this discretionary approach can, and has been, appealed.
The auditor general said the commission’s ability to perform its work had been adversely affected by the doubling in demand for water over the last 15 years combined with a 33 per cent cut in funding in real terms since 1998.
In addition, legislative amendments in 2001 considerably increased the commission’s workload by requiring more rigorous environmental assessment and greater community consultation.
In response to its problems, the commission has been asking companies seeking major water allocations to fund investigations in areas where hydrogeological knowledge is inadequate.
In the Moore River region, it is understood much of the commission’s knowledge of water resources has been sourced from the major olive growers.
As part of their licence conditions, the big growers are required to prepare monitoring reports.
These include details of bore logs, bore construction, water levels and water quality.
The auditor general said the commission had 3,000 of these reports (across the State) but the information was not being entered onto databases to allow wider use.
Mr Hammond, once again, did not dispute this finding but noted that the reports were reviewed by commission staff.
He characterised the commission’s “precautionary” approach as “extremely conservative”.
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