The Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) uses a range of technologies to monitor and assess compliance with water laws across vast areas of NSW. When our eyes in the sky detect any sites of interest, we pass these on to our boots on the ground for further investigation to determine if the water use was lawful, and if not, to take appropriate regulatory action. Our use of technology makes detection of water theft and other illegal activities much easier and more efficient. It makes the possibility of being caught for wrongdoing significantly more likely.
In NSW, we need to monitor and regulate:
- water across 800,000 square kilometres
- 42,000 water access licences
- 33,000 works approvals for irrigation alone
- 161,000 total works approvals
- 10,000 constructed water bodies greater than one hectare in size
- many ‘sleeperworks and licences’, particularly in unregulated systems.
To do this, we use a suite of technologies and tools to vastly reduce the time it takes to do our work, making our investigations more targeted and robust. These include satellite imagery from NASA Landsat, Sentinel and Planet, as well as Nearmap and NSW Spatial Services aerial photography, and our own fleet of drones.
NRAR uses satellite imagery to monitor water take and usage across NSW. This enables screening across very large areas and hundreds to thousands of properties at a time to identify any anomalies.
Using publicly available satellite imagery data from the European Space Agency (Sentinel), the United States Geological Survey (NASA Landsat) and commercial service provider Planet, we obtain a remote picture of water use which is as complete as possible.
NRAR routinely uses Sentinel and Landsat, which provide images that cover the globe every 5 to 16 days and are excellent for analysis of change through time back to the 1980s. We also analyse Landsat and Sentinel imagery in near real time to quickly detect changes or irregularities that may be of interest during specific events such as protected environmental flows, flood events and temporary pumping restrictions. NRAR also uses Planet satellite imagery which provides higher resolution images than Sentinel or Landsat and covers the whole of NSW every day.
We use drones to gain a better overall understanding of a site when on an inspection. Drones provide real-time high-resolution images on the spot, and unlike satellite images which are always top down, drone footage can show side views. Drones can be flown down the centre of a river to assess illegal works on waterfront land, as well as find pumps, bores and pipes in hard-to-access locations.
Across our coastal areas and some inland areas, we use Nearmap very high resolution aerial photography. With an on-ground pixel size of less than 10cm, we can very clearly see the finest details at any site of interest. Nearmap aerial photography extends back to about 2012 and is captured several times per year.
NRAR uses Nearmap images to map in detail and identify, for example:
- dams likely to be larger than harvestable rights allow
- properties likely to be using bores, approved for stock and domestic use only, in commercial activities
- properties with areas under intensive horticulture that may be larger than water entitlement volumes.
Airborne laser survey and photogrammetric data are used for identifying unlawful waterfront works and changes in the size of approved works. These technologies create detailed digital topographic terrain models of the ground surface, which help identify river channels, benches, floodplains and terraces to help define waterfront lands.
Constructed features such as dams, channels, levees and roads are also clearly represented by these terrain models, allowing accurate and detailed assessment and mapping of these types of constructed water management works.
Our officers have started using a technology made for another application to more accurately calculate dam volumes. The Deeper Pro fish finder is now used in concert with LIDAR and photogrammetric terrain models to gauge whether dams are oversized or not during site inspections.
We also use surveillance cameras when unlawful water take is suspected at a certain location.
Our technology use isn’t just in-house. By collaborating with other agencies, we can share information and make best use of government resources.
We use Geoscience Australia’s DEA Waterbodies tool which uses an archive of more than 30 years of Landsat satellite imagery to reveal changes in the wet surface area of water bodies across NSW. It also allows a detailed examination of on-farm dam construction, filling and emptying through time.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s MDBSat and the Department’s Google Earth Engine platforms are other tools NRAR uses to monitor water take.
An example of the power of satellite imagery and of interagency collaboration is the monitoring of dam size across the state.
Previous technology allowed NRAR to assess up to 600 dams a day when looking for unusual surface water area changes, but now using Sentinel satellite technology through our collaboration with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Geoscience Australia and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, we have a semi-automated process that can scan more than 3,000 dams simultaneously.
Read more about our use of satellite imagery and interagency collaborations.
Technology use for the environment
In 2020, NRAR worked with the Murray–Darling Basin Authority and Geoscience Australia (GA) to conduct the largest, most systematic monitoring effort in its history.
Using satellite data and MDBA’s MDBSat platform as well as GA’s digital infrastructure and satellite data, NRAR monitored an environmental flow as it travelled across 306,400 square kilometres and passed more than 3500 on-farm storages.
Read more about our use of satellite imagery and inter-agency collaborations.
Use of remote technologies during COVID-19 lockdown
With our officers unable to visit farm sites in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NRAR ramped up and fast-tracked the integration of remote technologies into our daily work, not only to allow us to continue detecting non-compliance, but to do it more efficiently and effectively. Desktop assessment of sites is now used routinely in our monitoring and audit campaigns and investigations, to ensure our officers are concentrating on water misuse which has the most potential for harm.
Read more about how our use of technology benefitted our work during lockdown.