NORTHERN NSW cotton farmers Peter and Jane Harris will face the state's Land and Environment Court over alleged water theft, with prosecutions of other irrigators expected to follow.
WaterNSW has today announced it had started court proceedings after investigations into alleged rule breaches in the unregulated Barwon-Darling river system.
The water authority has also launched court action against Mungindi cotton growers Anthony, Frederick and Margaret Barlow for allegedly taking water during an embargo and pumping while their meters weren't working.
It comes as a Murray-Darling Basin Authority report found upstream extraction was a major factor in the increased frequency of low flows and cease-to-flows in the Darling River since the turn of the century.
One of the MDBA's two reports narrowed down the point of human impact on the flows to a stretch of the Barwon-Darling 50km upstream of the Brewarrina weir.
WaterNSW alleges the Harrises took water when flow conditions did not allow it and that they breached their licence and approval conditions.
If found guilty, they face a maximum penalty of $247,500 for each offence.
The Harris property was featured on last year's episode of ABC program Four Corners, which raised concerns about compliance across the system.
Mr Harris said no evidence had been served and that he would "vigorously" contest the allegations.
“We have always believed we acted in accordance with the conditions of our Water Access Licences," Mr Harris said.
"While these allegations relate to events that happened more than 21 months ago, this is the first time WaterNSW has raised this matter with us.
"The prosecution announced today appears to cover issues raised in proceedings commenced late last year by the Inland Rivers Network which is also before the same court."
During a visit to Mildura today, federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud said NSW was "making some big steps" to rectify things "they admit were wrong".
"No one should be afraid of compliance and if someone has done the wrong thing, we should nail them, make no mistake," Mr Littleproud said.
"There needs to be integrity in the system and we continue to work through that."
Mr Littleproud said he would consider the MDBA reports, as well as the results of investigations into water management, before making a decision on how to address concerns.
NSW Water Minister Niall Blair said public consultation on proposed changes to the state's water management regime would begin in the coming weeks.
The changes focus on information transparency, environmental flows, compliance and enforcement.