Water licence fee not welcome: Industry reacts to proposed changes

Vasse MLA Libby Mettam addresses members of the agriculture and wine industry. Image Sophie Elliott.
Vasse MLA Libby Mettam addresses members of the agriculture and wine industry. Image Sophie Elliott.

A state government cost recovery proposal, which involves slugging farmers with sizable water licence fees, has been slammed by the South West agriculture and wine industry.

Around 40 representatives from the region’s industry met with Shadow Minister for Water Dr David Honey and Vasse MLA Libby Mettam on October 8 in Busselton.

The meeting was prompted after concerns were raised by the South West Capes Water Users Group and the Margaret River Wine Industry Association regarding the proposed changes, which are currently under public consultation. 

Water licence and permit assessment fees for mining and public water supply service providers was announced in May’s State Budget.

The fees will recover the cost incurred by the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation in assessing water licences and permits, which is estimated at $720,000 annually.

A department discussion paper on cost recovery suggests the government impose water licence renewal fees of up to $6,668. Currently, water licence renewal is free.

The paper stated WA was the only Australian jurisdiction that did not apply any form of cost recovery for managing water resources including licence administration and assessment.

“Government considers WA taxpayers bearing almost the full cost of providing regulatory services unsustainable,” it said.

“Increase cost recovery from those deriving a benefit from regulatory services is considered fair and equitable.”

South West Capes Water Users Group chair Bruce Pearse expressed his concerns at the meeting.

“Some of the people that I’ve had from our group, some water users, may be sitting on three or four licences for their unique business,” he said.

“They may have properties that are dispersed, and they might be in wine industry with a vineyard on each of those properties and dam associated with it and accordingly to the ‘high risk’ category our region is put under by the government and department, we could be charged $6700 odd dollars for each licence every 10 years. 

“This is a great opportunity for them to have a tax grab and to help fund legislation and regulations that will be against us.”

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A government spokesperson said 93 per cent of licencees in the South West region held a single surface water licence.

In WA, 96 per cent of dams do not require licences.

Under the proposed changes, existing dams that are not required to be licenced, will not face new licences or fees in the future.

Shadow Minister for Water Dr David Honey travelled to Busselton to meet with those in the wine and agriculture industry. Image Sophie Elliott.

Shadow Minister for Water Dr David Honey travelled to Busselton to meet with those in the wine and agriculture industry. Image Sophie Elliott.

Dr Honey said the government’s reasoning for the hike was ‘nonsensical’ and a ‘one-size fits all’ approach for fees was ‘ridiculous’.

“Cross subsidisation makes no sense at all,” he said.

“It makes no sense that you charge the same amount to re-licence the Ord River dam as you charge to re-licence a farm needing kilolitres of water for irrigation purposes.”

Dr Honey also questioned the motive for the introduction of the licence fee and whether the cost would be put to improve water users’ service.

“If you look at process the government uses to do this process, they are not flying in on helicopters, not doing surveys, doing stream flow monitoring surveys, they are sitting in an office in Perth, they’ve got an excel spreadsheet, all they are doing is just ticking boxes,” he said.

“They are saying it costs $14.6 million to renew 2700 licences. That’s where your alarm bells start ringing. That means it costs $5400 per licence.

“They are saying it takes one and a half weeks, 52 hours of someone’s time, to process a single one of those applications, now they are either incompetent or that is untrue and I suspect it is untrue. The truth is, it is clear that the fee doesn't relate to the cost of providing the service, so it has to be covering a whole heap of things.” 

A government spokesperson said there had been no decision to apply water licence and permit assessment fees to water users in the agricultural sector.

“Agricultural water licence holders currently do not pay any fees for water licence and permit assessments, with this cost borne by the Western Australian taxpayer,” they said.

“The Minister for Water will consider the feedback provided through the consultation process before any decision is made.”

Margaret River Wine Association independent chair Barry House, a former Liberal member for the region, blasted the cost recovery measure, and said it was a move Labor had made in his time in parliament.

“I think it is a smokescreen to put it under the guise of cost recovery quite frankly,” he said.

“It’s an agenda driven by different motivations that are not going to help the person on the land who has invested a large amount of their own capital in to supplying their own water source then to have to reapply for a licence adding to that cost, that’s just unfair.” 

For information on the consultation, visit dwer.wa.gov.au.