In October 2020, the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) launched its ambitious routine monitoring program with an additional 30 field officers based in Deniliquin, Dubbo and Tamworth.
The pilot program aims to observe water management practices, build positive relationships with water users and gather valuable data on compliance rates to help shape future compliance campaigns.
Six months into the job, I'm proud to say the program has exceeded my expectations.
At first, I was worried about the number of inspections we had to complete, but halfway in, we've visited more than 2,000 properties and travelled 87,000 kilometres, the equivalent of travelling around the world twice.
Our success is thanks to the exceptional staff we've recruited and their willingness to hit the ground running.
We've got people who were former train drivers, science graduates, ex-police officers and microbiologists. We're also a culturally diverse group, with Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people making up a quarter of the team. We're really proud our team reflects the diversity of the communities we regulate.
During our travels we saw four key trends which will help shape our work for years to come...
Water users don't know who we are
Before the program, our Community Benchmarking Survey revealed 81 per cent of water users surveyed didn't know who we were. When out on farm, we asked water users whether they had heard of NRAR before we showed up and 57 per cent of respondents hadn't.
While awareness levels are still low, we're making progress. If water users know who we are, they're more likely to be aware of the state's water laws and know we're out across the state enforcing them.
Most water users want to do the right thing
During the first six months of the program, our teams inspected 3,941 water works, audited more than 2,074 properties and said a COVID-safe hello to 1,773 water users.
The data confirms our belief that most water users want to do the right thing, but issues arise when they don't know the rules.
In almost three-quarters (70 per cent) of cases, we found water users were compliant with the specific rules our program is focused on.
Those who broke the rules did so out of a lack of understanding or awareness and were very cooperative and compliant with our staff.
Danielle Gibson, a field officer based in Deniliquin, said NSW water users, including farmers and irrigators, have welcomed it.
"Everyone has been really friendly," she said. "It's great to turn people's opinion and attitudes around about water management."
Metering, logbooks and ordering water is troublesome for some
The data also gave us insight into common compliance issues, including metering, failure to keep water usage logbooks and failure to order water before pumping.
Cathryn Marum, a field safety supervisor in the Deniliquin team, is a seasoned worker in the water industry. Before landing in her current role, she worked as an investigator for NRAR.
"Water management is complicated, and the water community can see why NRAR is needed," Cathryn says. "I know it's complicated but if they're using water and getting a benefit out of it, they need to know the rules.
"If I think there is an issue, I always tell [the water user] what it is - that they're not complying in a certain way, and what they need to do to fix it."
Our routine monitoring officers check water users are recording water take in a logbook or with a meter, have the correct sized pumps or bores and are ordering water before they pump.
NRAR's targeted programs check up on other aspects of compliance, including the new non-urban water metering framework. That's why water users may see us out on farm more than once this year.
We're only halfway there, but the program's been a success.
The success of our routine monitoring program comes down to two things: the team fostering a supportive, positive work culture, and the spirit of regional NSW. We've got a great mix of people and we've worked hard to build a culture of teamwork, acceptance and generosity.
We've travelled tens of thousands of kilometres across our farms, towns and rural communities, and seen those same values reflected in everyday Australians.
Our successes are shared, and we will continue to build on them over the next six months.