DROUGHT-stricken farmers will be able to buy water set aside for the environment with the NSW government to release up to 15,000 megalitres being stored in regional dams.
They will also be able to purchase 450 megalitres of groundwater and, in another new assistance initiative to be announced today, National Parks and Wildlife Service trucks and trailers will be used to transport feed.
Last week desperate irrigation farmers battling a historically brutal drought accused the government of “hoarding” water and pleaded for its release. The water release comes amid a crackdown on water theft with the state’s independent water regulator ramping up investigator numbers following more than 200 alleged breaches identified from 1300 calls to its hotline in 100 days of operation.
“Up to 15,000 megalitres of NSW water previously reserved for environmental purposes will be made available for purchase by farmers,” Ms Upton said.
She said all proceeds raised by the sale of water would be held in trust with the Primary Industries Department and used for priority drought-related projects.
“An additional 450 megalitres of groundwater will also be made available in the Riverina area,” she said.
Under water-sharing schemes, the state government requires irrigation farmers to buy a water licence to access supplies, with additional water set aside for the environment. However, farmers and the NSW Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party claimed the government was sitting on more water than was needed for environmental flows.
Ms Upton said release of the additional water would not impact on the health of the NSW river systems, with environmental flows continuing into the wetlands of the Macquarie Marshes and the newly formed Yanga National Park in southwestern NSW.
Maintaining flows to the wetlands was vital as they provided a critical drought refuge for waterbirds, fish and other native animals, while enabling rivers to recover when rainfall returned, she said.
In other measures, the government will wave fees for existing “grandfathered” grazing permit holders in the Riverina and apiary fees for national parks for at least 12 months.
As water supplies dry up, reports of alleged licence breaches have been growing, with the Natural Resources Access Regulator receiving 1300 calls in 100 days of operation, with about 200 breaches determined.
Some 300 site inspections were made, with legal action begun against landowners taking water while meters were not working, and using a channel to convey water. Another 100 warnings and fines have also been issued.