Grant Barnes is a New Zealander who says he has a bit of mongrel in him, and says he would not hesitate in taking on any New South Wales irrigator who is found to be flouting the law.
It will be his job to ensure that irrigators across NSW comply with the legal requirements of their extraction licences after a year of speculation and criticism about the behaviour of some NSW irrigators.
Known as the NSW Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR), the authority is overseen by a board that is chaired by Murray-Darling Basin Authority chair Craig Knowles.
Under the new arrangements, NRAR has stronger powers than previous regulators and can, in the most extreme case, stop irrigators accessing water.
In the four weeks since he started work as the NSW NRAR chief regulatory officer, Mr Barnes has been travelling through the state, meeting irrigators and putting faces to names.
He said the welcome had been warm on irrigation farms.
“What is alleged to have happened was quite possibly the actions of a few who have really sullied the reputation of the many,” he said.
Chief executive officer of the National Irrigators Council, Steve Whan, welcomed Mr Barnes’ comments and said he noted in particular the need for “boots on the ground” in irrigation valleys.
“It is about the importance of having people on the ground, of having people out there working with irrigators,” he said.
“It’s about understanding irrigators and being there reasonably regularly.
“It’s a resourcing issue that our members have been saying they need for some time.”
Mr Barnes has recently returned from meeting irrigators at Bourke on the Barwon Darling, a river valley that he had been told was the hot spot for compliance issues in the state.
Mr Barnes said he had heard speculation that fines for breaching the rules were not a sufficient deterrent and that rogue irrigators built the cost of a fine into their business model.
He said if irrigators were flouting the law he would take stronger measures.
“At the top end of the powers that are applicable is the removal or the lessening of the right to take water,” he said.
“Now that would be quite a punitive sanction to apply.
“Our approach is that of a fair regulator, but there is some firmness, some bite to our powers.
“We won’t hesitate to take action where we see operators flouting the law.”