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Water regulator fines respected cotton grower Tony Thompson $57,000 for stealing water in drought

6 May 2022

Tony Thompson stands in the dry riverbed of the Darling River, two years after he illegally pumped water. (Supplied: Cotton Australia)

A well known cotton grower who fronted an industry campaign to discredit the government's environmental water buy back scheme has been fined for stealing water.

Tony Thompson pleaded guilty to the charges of illegally pumping at least 734 megalitres of water while a water meter was not working and will now have a criminal conviction against his name.

He filled his dam twice in one week with a massive amount of water, equal to almost 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools, during the New South Wales drought of 2017. 

Satellites measured the rise in the level of the grower's dam and then later showed it flowing through a canal to a cotton crop.

The Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) brought the charges, and chief regulatory officer Grant Barnes said the landholder had admitted to pumping water for about one and half weeks without measuring their water take.

Thompson pleaded guilty and was last Friday sentenced to fines of more than $57,000, and a further $135,000 in court costs.

He was ultimately charged for using the water and was remorseful in court, attributing it to a negligence as he was not aware of the meter failure.

Justice Rachel Pepper of the the NSW Land and Environment Court said the breach had compromised the accuracy of the metering system for the water source, had caused actual harm to the regulatory regime, and had undermined public trust in the water management system.

Damaging case for cotton industry

Thompson is a well known grower in the cotton industry. 

He owns about 16,000 hectares on the Barwon Darling River floodplain, about 70 kilometres from Bourke.

In an average season he would grow about 800 hectares of irrigated cotton, so his crop that year would have been worth an estimated $500,000.

He has been a director of the North Bourke Cotton Gin, the Catchment Management Authority, and he was a finalist in the Australian Cotton Growers Awards in 2001.

He is involved in Landcare, was recognised by the regenerative agriculture community, and completed leadership and Corporate Governance training.

In January 2017 he featured in a Cotton Australia video as part of the #MoreThanFlow campaign which was opposed to water buy backs for the environment. 

A caption from that video reads "The current 'just add water' approach is pushing communities to the brink and failing the environment".

In the video, Thompson said the buybacks had triggered an alarming loss of business in the region and twice as much water had been taken for the environment than initially proposed.

He warned authorities to "get your hands off the Barwon-Darling".

"We've seen way too much [water buybacks] already, and in actual fact there shouldn't be water taken away from this district," he said in the video.

"It should be brought back to try and reignite these communities that are really struggling as a result of drought and water reforms."

Michael Condon and David Claughton