As drought-stricken farmers face severe water shortages in the east, a dispute over excess water has come before the State Administrative Tribunal in Western Australia's far north, this week.
The Ord Irrigation Cooperative (OIC) has spent the past four years fighting a decision by the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER), that would see its annual 335-gigalitre water licence cut by 30 per cent. The cuts were made by the department when it renewed the OIC's licence in 2015, stating irrigators had not been using enough of their water entitlement to justify the full allocation.
The OIC then took the case to the Court of Appeal last year, where it was ordered back before the tribunal, this time in Kununurra. Following four days of hearings, the panel adjourned the case until March, where it will again be held in Kununurra to accommodate the high level of community interest.
The department was requested to reassess the rainfall data it provided, after two hydrology experts signed a joint statement saying the figures could be unreliable.
The OIC, the applicant in the case, was established in Kununurra almost 25 years ago, when the WA government returned some of the water assets, owned by the Water Corporation, to irrigators. It is responsible for water delivery to more than 100 properties in the first stage of the Ord River Irrigation Area.
The Ord Irrigation scheme is the result of a bold plan to develop a food bowl in the north The first stage was completed in 1963, with the construction of the Kununurra Diversion Dam. It's highly complex; operated, maintained and governed by different parties more than 3,000 kilometres apart.
The M1 channel, which is the main diversion point for water gravity fed from Lake Kununurra to crops in the irrigation area, is owned and maintained by the Water Corporation. But the water that flows through the irrigation scheme is controlled by the department, the respondent in this case, which is responsible for issuing and renewing water licences.