Drought-stricken farmers are being chased for $610,000 after the NSW government reneged on a ‘verbal deal’ to cover their legal costs after admitting it had mismanaged water rights.
Nearly 150 irrigators from the Murray Darling took the State Government to court over botched management of their water rights in 2007.
Deniliquin sheep farmer Greg Sandford told Daily Mail Australia that under the original deal, everyone was told they would lose 68 per cent of their water allocation, but would be compensated for the loss.
‘At the last minute they changed the formula so some people lost up to 92 per cent of their water and received no compensation, and overnight a small group of people became multi-millionaires and kept all of their water,’ he said.
‘We’re in a major drought down here,’ he said. ‘We’ve had two farmers suicide because they’ve lost their farms out of these cuts, and others who became multi-millionaires out of it, it was so unfair.’
Greg Sandford (pictured) was part of a group of farmers who filed a class action against the NSW Government for mismanaging their water, which they claimed left some people broke and their businesses ruined
The class action of farmers, who represented 80 percent of the Murray irrigators, settled the action out of court in a meeting Mr Sandford described as ‘[former Water Minister] Niall Blair, [former Deputy Premier] Troy Grant and seven government officials in a room’ on September 16, 2015.
Mr Sandford claimed data from the CSIRO showed the water never needed to be taken, and said government officials had admitted to that.
‘They admitted the science was wrong and they knew it, and agreed to give some water back to those who’d lost a lot,’ he said.
‘They also agreed if we dropped the action, we would not be liable for their costs.
‘So we dropped it, and after six months they said sorry boys, the deal’s off.’
Adding insult to injury, the farmers met with NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey late last month and were told the State Government would not be waiving the bill.
In a brief handed to the farmers for fact checking, the Minister had been advised to continue the pursuit of costs, ‘as it acts as a deterrent to the commencement of vexatious legal actions’.
‘We said to her – you’ve got two people who have suicided, others have died and had to sell the farms… we said, are you going to pursue dead people to get your money?’ Mr Sandford said.
‘I’ve got two boys who’ve just come home to the farm and I wish they hadn’t, everyone is trying to get out.
‘Nobody can see a future, because the policy is so absurd.’
Farmer Ian Chessels stands beside a $500,000 water bore, but his oat crop (pictured in the background) has died as his allocation of water was slashed under the new management plan
The farmers (pictured are dry pastures in the Murray region) settled their action in 2015 after a meeting with then-Water Minister Niall Blair. They claim there was a verbal agreement no court costs would be sought after if the claim was dropped
In a recent meeting with Water Minister Melinda Pavey, representatives of the group including Mr Sandford (pictured second from right with Murray MP Helen Dalton) were given a brief that said the Government would continue pursuing costs ‘as a deterrent to vexatious legal actions’
Mr Sandford said farmers are now spending up big to borrow back the water that was taken from them. With a megalitre of water costing up to $8,500 in parts of the state – a price increase of 140 per cent in just 12 months – it’s a massive investment.
‘Our ground water was trading at $400… now it’s going for $3,200 – which goes into the hands of investors,’ he said.
‘They’re forcing farmers to sell their water, because they lost so much – it just feels like it was planned.’
Mr Sandford has spent $1.3million buying back just 20 per cent of the water entitlement he lost – and the allowance is only temporary.
He said the farmers were desperate to know why the water was taken in the first place, when studies from the CSIRO showed it was not necessary, and why it hasn’t been given back.
‘The Government took our water off us, and neither side can tell us why,’ he said.
MP Helen Dalton (pictured on her farm) said the government’s actions were ‘both heartless and evil’
‘They keep making excuses, blaming each other, but the farmers are the ones who suffer.’
The farmer said the loss of water, an asset people had taken out mortgages on, had destroyed his community and torn families apart.
‘I was almost like a counselor – everyone was coming to me with their problems, and I just couldn’t do it any longer,’ he said.
‘You’ve got people in your kitchen crying because they’ve lost everything, and the government couldn’t care less.’
Helen Dalton, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party MP for Murray, said the government’s actions were ‘both heartless and evil’.
‘The farmers are the victims here. The Government was wrong. Now the victims are being stung for legal costs. It’s insane,’ she said.
‘I understand some of the farmers on the list have since committed suicide. It seems the government is going to pursue money from their family members. That’s just insane, you can just imagine the extra trauma it’s adding to these families. It’s like kicking a dog when it’s down’.
Ms Dalton said she wanted NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to intervene and waive the legal costs – ‘and apologise to these farmers and their families’.
‘During this drought, the government needs to help farmers, not cripple them with totally unjustified legal bills,’ she said.
Daily Mail Australia contacted the Water Minister for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.
Farmers and their families have been protesting to have the water that was taken from them under the current basin plan returned, but have so far not been successful