Reflecting on the year that was 2020

Media release | 22 January 2021

As 2020 drew to a close, I reflected on the hard work of my team at the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) and what we accomplished together last year.

The start of 2020 saw our nation emerge from the catastrophic combination of drought, bushfires, widespread flooding, and almost immediately face the COVID-19 global pandemic.

While last year tested all of us, it also showed that NRAR is resilient and courageous. Our compassion helped to guide us through uncertain times in ways we could not have anticipated.

As the NSW water regulator, we entered 2020 with just two years under our belt and have emerged far more experienced and confident in our role. As the entire world grappled with COVID-19, we had to find a way to work through the lockdowns to ensure we could carry on serving the water community.

We turned to technology, including drones, satellite imagery and motion-activated surveillance cameras, to investigate water compliance without putting our staff and regional communities at risk.

From the early days of the pandemic (March 2020) until the end of 2020, our technology and the willingness of our team to adapt, enabled us to finalise 1,109 investigations. That’s an increase of almost 64 per cent on the same period in 2019, which is a testament to our resilience and increased efficiencies.

We continued to take enforcement action when required for unlawful water take on behalf of NSW, with our legal team securing successful results in almost 90 per cent of our completed prosecutions (7 of 8). By holding wrongdoers to account, we deter potential future breaches.

Some of our recent successes have included a vineyard owner who was fined $131,250 in the Land and Environment Court, a Moree company that was fined $252,000 in the Land and Environment Court, and a Dubbo water user who was fined $18,900 in the Dubbo Local Court.

Throughout 2020, we took a total of 935 enforcement actions, which included the commencement of eight prosecutions, 177 penalty infringement notices, 153 statutory notices and 236 formal warnings.

According to our latest community benchmarking survey, before our inception there was little to no confidence in water compliance and enforcement in this state. From the outset, we have embraced the mandate we were given to rebuild and win back the public’s confidence.

Now, 67 per cent of the general public, 56 per cent of water licence holders and 53 per cent of stakeholder groups reported feeling confident in the enforcement of our
state’s water laws, with more room for improvement that we will be building on throughout 2021 and beyond.

Our targeted compliance campaigns helped us to build greater public trust and we made the decision to increase our on-the-ground presence across regional NSW.

By recruiting an additional 28 field officers as part of our routine monitoring campaign across Tamworth, Dubbo and Deniliquin, we increased our capacity for site visits by three times.

I am proud to say that since the campaign’s launch in October 2020, these teams had visited more than 850 properties across the state by December 2020.

We also diversified our workforce last year when we recruited one quarter of our recent hires as Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander, while 20 per cent were more than 50 years old.

We also turned our focus to engaging and consulting with the community – by meeting with members of the water community face-to-face, we were able to help support them in their water activities and understand their needs.

But perhaps one of our proudest achievements of 2020 was welcoming our fourth board member, the well-respected Gomeroi man Phil Duncan, to NRAR’s board.

Mr Duncan’s experience in water management and his deep connection to Australia’s Indigenous community will bring a crucial new perspective to our operations as we continue our vital work throughout 2021.

But our hard work is far from over – we acknowledge we’ve still got a far way to go. We set ambitious targets for the coming years, by releasing our strategic plan for 2021-23.

Over the next three years, we will increase public confidence in water compliance and enforcement, take compliance action in 90 per cent of high risk cases, ensure 80 per cent of all licencing and approval applications are determined within three months, inspect 5,000 properties and complete 20 compliance programs – to name a few.

As I’ve reflected on the historic significance that 2020 I’m reminded that with the support of our great staff, our engagement with key stakeholders and the general public and our ambitious targets for the next three years – we are in good hands and a good place.

Moving forward into 2021, I know the year will signify more challenges yet more hope, experience, courage and kindness in us all.

To be attributed to Grant Barnes, NRAR Chief Regulatory Officer.

About Grant Barnes: As NRAR's Chief Regulatory Officer, Grant is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the regulator which is charged with adding transparency and building community confidence in water compliance and enforcement in NSW.

About NRAR: The NRAR was established in 2018 under the Natural Resources Access Regulator Act 2017 to be an independent, transparent and effective water regulator with total responsibility for the compliance and enforcement of water laws in NSW.

Greg Abood and Grant Barnes, NRAR