Cotton farmers guilty of water theft during NSW drought
One of the state's biggest cotton-growing families is expected to fight fines of up to $500,000 after being found guilty of illegally pumping the equivalent of around 720 Olympic swimming pools from the battling Barwon River.
Peter and Jane Harris face being fined up to a staggering $247,500 each for taking the water for irrigation for their Beemery Farm when the river level was too low in 2016.
The Land and Environment Court has found that records showed the farmers were pumping water despite the flows at the Bourke Weir - where the water levels are measured - being more than 1000 megalitres below the minimum flow to allow pumping.
The Barwon is part of the contentious Murray-Darling Basin and empties into Menindee Lakes.
Beemery is part of the giant Clyde Group which includes neighbouring Bourke properties of Janbeth and Latoka as well as farms at Moree, Walgett, Carinda, Rowena and Brewarrina across the state's far west.
The Harrises had pleaded not guilty and challenged the accuracy of the government's water gauges and the state's water laws but Justice John Robson rejected their arguments.
Their water licences entitle them to use their four pumps to irrigate their property but only when the river flow runs over 4894 megalitres a day.
WaterNSW, which brought the prosecution, said that around 1.8 gigalitres was taken in contravention of the water licence conditions over eight days in June 2016 when the Harrises had three 664mm pumps operating.
The court was told that each of them could take between 100 and 140 megalitres a day to irrigate the cotton, the equivalent of between 50 to 60 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Sydney Harbour holds approximately 200,000 Olympic-sized pools, or 500 gigalitres of water.
Mr and Mrs Harris were charged in 2018.
WaterNSW CEO David Harris said that the court's decision "should serve to reassure the broader community that water authorities are serious about managing water resources strictly according to the rules".
The job of policing the water licences now lies with the Natural Resource Access Regulator which was established after a scathing report into water management in the Barwon-Darling.
The Harrises and their company are facing another four water prosecutions.
They will be sentenced at a later date.
Originally published as Cotton farmers guilty of water theft during NSW drought