But progress on installing meters in the Barwon-Darling has been slow and deadlines have been extended.
“A significant percentage of extractions in the basin and indeed across Australia are not metered or otherwise properly measured,” the special counsel at the Environmental Defenders Office, Dr Emma Carmody, said.
“This is a critical issue as it makes it very difficult to assess the extent of non-compliance with water laws, which has a knock-on effect on the environment, traditional owners and downstream users.”
Carmody, who was part of the international study, said there was no excuse for not metering all surface and groundwater extractions in Australia, especially given water was such a scarce and valuable commodity.
“We can’t afford to ‘guess’ whether people are taking more than their fair share or not.”
Loch said the case studies provided evidence that where authorities failed to support detection and prosecution, theft would increase and stronger deterrents might be needed to dissuade users from stealing water to maximise profits.
“In Spain, regulators were assaulted by users when they tried to stop them from stealing water,” he said. “In the US, marijuana growers stole water from fire hydrants and the police felt powerless to do anything about it.”
“In Australia national welfare suffered and taxpayers’ investments were jeopardised as environmental water was pilfered.”
The amount of water lost through theft, and inadequate laws to combat it, is particularly relevant as governments grapple with the next stage of the Murray-Darling Basin plan.
The last stage of the plan involves spending billions of dollars on water efficiency programs – an expensive way to reclaim water for the environment while there may still be low-hanging fruit through tackling theft.
“Much of the world’s focus right now is on water efficiency investments, which might achieve [at best] between 10% to 20% savings for water managers,” Loch said.
“But if we can recover 30% to 50% of ‘lost’ water, targeting those who steal for profit-making, then that would be good for our water supply, and good for us.”