TWO prominent North-West irrigator families accused of stealing water will fight the charges in court after entering formal not guilty please in the Land and Environment Court in Sydney.
The charges against five members of the Harris and Barlow families are the first legal actions over water breaches in NSW after the Four Corners Pumped report stirred up controversy on the Barwon-Darling almost a year ago.
Husband and wife Peter and Jane Harris, whose cotton operations near Brewarrina featured in Pumped, are accused of taking water when flow conditions did not permit it, and breaching licence and approval conditions.
Each offence comes with a $247,500 maximum penalty.
If they had been charged under the new irrigator laws that passed parliament earlier this month, it would have been a maximum $500,500 penalty.
Both Mr and Mrs Harris were represented in the Land and Environment Court by Clifford Ireland.
Mungindi farmers Anthony, Margaret, and Frederick Barlow, meanwhile, were charged with pumping on ‘Burren Downs’ near Moree during an embargo and pumping while metering equipment was not working.
They too face a $247,500 maximum penalty for each offence.
The Barlows were represented in court by Andrew Wong.
Both trials have been set down for November.
Mr Harris had previously indicated he and his wife would “vigorously defend these allegations” and that they had “always believed we acted in accordance with the conditions of our water access licences”.
Mr Harris also said the alleged events pre-dated 2016, adding that WaterNSW had not raised any issue until charges were laid in March.
Mr Barlow had also earlier said to the ABC he believed he had permission to take the water.
Responsibility for ensuring compliance with water laws in NSW now sits with the independent Natural Resources Access Regulator, created by Regional Water Minister Niall Blair in the wake of the Matthews Review late last year.
Back in March, on the same day members of the Harris and Barlow families were charged, the state's ombudsman found WaterNSW had unintentionally provided statistics showing a big increase in enforcements between July 2016 and November 2017.
WaterNSW admitted the error and apologised.
The NSW Environmental Defenders Office is also pursuing Peter Harris in a separate civil case and has demanded he return the 5GL they allege he took from the Barwon-Darling system.