The quantum of fines imposed this week for the theft of almost 2GL of water from the Darling River is disappointing and points to shortcomings in the regulation of water resources in NSW. [1]  

The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) welcomes the prosecution of water theft but questions the effectiveness of a regulatory regime that results in penalties that can be absorbed as a “cost of doing business”. 

The EDO’s comments follow the handing down this week of a sentence by the Land and Environment Court for water theft.  

The court in 2020 found Peter and Jane Harris, owners of Beemery Farm west of Breewarina, illegally extracted 1,896.17 ML (approx. 1.9 billion litres) of water over a seven-day period between 22 June and 27 June 2016.   

Justice Robson fined the pair $40,000 and $20,000 and ordered them to pay WaterNSW’s legal fees of about $450,000. The maximum penalty for each offence at the relevant time was $247,500. 

Sentencing was delayed because the Harrises first appealed (unsuccessfully) to the Court of Criminal Appeal and then sought leave to appeal that decision to the High Court, which was denied.   

EDO Special Counsel Emily Long said: “Our water laws are not delivering justice for communities – for First Nations communities and other river communities who depend on healthy rivers to maintain culture, life and livelihoods.  

“It is a disappointing outcome when the theft of water on such a large scale — almost 2 billion litres — results in $60,000 in fines. 

“A penalty of this size is unlikely to deter large agribusinesses from breaking the law. 

“Water is a scarce community resource that should be treasured and shared equitably. At the moment, that is not happening, and communities are suffering.” 

In February, a Moree Plains irrigator was ordered to pay a record $350,000 in fines after pleading guilty to knowingly taking water, using an under-recording meter system and constructing an unlawful dam. [2] 

The Harrises prosecution followed the 2017 ABC Four Corners expose Pumped. [3] 


[1] WaterNSW v Peter James Harris and Jane Maree Harris [2023] NSWLEC 33 

[2] NSW irrigator hit with $350,000 fine for water theft offences, Fleur Connick, The Guardian, 03-02-23   

[3] Pumped, ABC Four Corners, 24-07-2017  

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