Water management in Australia



The Australian constitution gives the Australian Government no express legislative power over water—management of water is vested in the states and territories. By 2006, all jurisdictions had agreed to the provisions and objectives of the National Water Initiative (NWI). The state and territory governments determine access to water resources through water plans and the issuing of entitlements, now under an agreed NWI framework that is intended to deliver:

  • secure ecological outcomes, by describing the environmental and other public benefit outcomes from water systems and defining the appropriate water management arrangements to achieve those outcomes
  • resource security outcomes, by determining the shares in the consumptive pool and the rules to allocate water during the life of the plan.59

For the most part, ‘water for the environment’ is secured by the rules set out in a water plan that in some way limits how much water can be diverted into the consumptive pool (allocated for human use). In a few highly hydrologically stressed systems like the Murray–Darling Basin, additional water for the environment has been sourced from within the pool of water entitlements (Box 4.5).

In addition, the NWI has set out guidelines for a more efficient and effective water market in Australia. The National Water Market System project will help improve water market operations, such that price signals reflect the scarcity of water in Australia. As a result, water should flow to the highest value economic, social and environmental uses.

Although Australian research has documented the ecological consequences of diminished flows of water, the challenge remains of quantitatively relating changes in flow regime (or the benefits of increased environmental flows) to the expected ecological response. Flow recommendations still mainly rely on expert ecological opinion, based on incomplete ecosystem models or limited data.60 The growing assertion and development of Indigenous land and water management, and associated recognition of traditional environmental knowledge, is significant in this regard (Box 4.6).

Box 4.5 The Murray–Darling Basin Plan

The Murray–Darling Basin is under enormous stress as a result of past water allocation decisions, a prolonged drought, natural climate variability and emerging climate change.

The Water Act 2007 established an independent Murray–Darling Basin Authority with the functions and powers, including enforcement powers, needed to ensure that Basin water resources are managed in an integrated and sustainable way. The Act requires the authority to prepare a Basin Plan for integrated management of Basin water resources, with the aim of optimising economic, social and environmental outcomes. In doing this, the authority must take account of the principles of ecologically sustainable development and must act on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge and socioeconomic analysis.

The Basin Plan will set enforceable, sustainable limits on the quantities of surface water and groundwater that can be taken from the Basin water resources. It will include an environmental watering plan to protect and restore environmental assets, and a water quality and salinity management plan that will establish water quality parameters for Basin management.

The Guide to the proposed Basin Plan61 was released in October 2010, detailing the authority’s early thoughts about the additional environmental water required to provide for ecological assets and functions in each region of the Murray–Darling Basin. A House of Representatives inquiry into the impact on regional Australia of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan reported on 2 June 2011. The plan is intended for adoption in 2012.

One of the NWI’s aims is to ensure that the flows and levels of water deliver positive environmental outcomes. Since 1992, Australia has also been developing a national approach to improve water quality in our inland waterways under the National Water Quality Management Strategy (NWQMS). The goal is to achieve sustainable use of the nation’s water resources by protecting and improving their quality, while maintaining social and economic development.

The NWQMS provides guidelines for water quality policies and benchmarks, including fresh and marine water quality, drinking water quality, water quality monitoring and reporting, groundwater protection, rural land use and water quality, urban stormwater management, sewage effluent management, industrial waste management, agricultural waste management and water recycling.

Water quality improvement plans are a significant vehicle for implementing the NWQMS guidelines. These plans seek to significantly reduce the discharge of pollutants by setting water quality objectives and target loads for pollutants of concern, and through catchment-based management, including control of diffuse and point sources of pollution.

Box 4.6 Re-emergence of Indigenous water management

Water management is old business for Indigenous people, and offers new ways of thinking for water planning.

The 2009 assessment of the National Water Initiative found that it is ‘rare’ for Indigenous water requirements to be explicitly included in water plans, and most jurisdictions are not yet effectively engaging Indigenous people in water planning processes. A similar conclusion was reached at the 2010 National Indigenous Land and Sea Management Conference. In 2010, the National Water Commission appointed seven members to the First Peoples’ Water Engagement Council—a new group formed to provide advice on national water issues relating to the National Water Initiative and biennial assessments, including engagement in planning processes, the allocation of cultural flows in water plans, Indigenous access to the consumptive pool for economic development and appropriate entitlement regimes to meet Indigenous needs.

Regionally, there have been significant developments in Indigenous land and water management. The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance supports practical Indigenous management by traditional owners across northern Australia; this includes significant research and natural resource management projects, in a broad alliance of groups and communities involved with Indigenous management of land and sea on their country. In August 2009, the alliance convened about 80 Indigenous water experts from across northern Australia on the banks of the Mary River to discuss their water interests and issues. This resulted in the Mary River Statement62 on the seriousness of Indigenous peoples’ contribution and participation in policy decision-making:

As traditional owners we have an inherent right to make decisions about cultural and natural resource management in Northern Australia. In accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples we must have a central role in the development, implementation and evaluation of policy and legislative or administrative measures that may affect us concerning water.

The Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) is a confederation of Indigenous nations or traditional owners in the southern part of the Murray–Darling Basin, formed in 1998 during the historic Yorta Yorta native title case. MLDRIN advocates the participation of 10 Indigenous nations in decisions on natural resource and water management. MLDRIN has a partnership project under the Living Murray initiative to ensure that its advice and knowledge contribute to the management of significant ecological assets, with culturally appropriate outcomes.

The Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations was established in 2009 in Moree. It is a confederation of 21 Indigenous nations in the northern part of the Murray–Darling Basin. Like MLDRIN, it advocates for the right of Indigenous people to be part of water markets and natural resource management decisions within the Murray–Darling Basin. Its key objective is to encourage scientific research towards the quantification of a cultural flow. Volume 1 of the recent guide to the Murray–Darling Basin plan61 states that both the MLDRIN and the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations have developed their definition of cultural flows as:

Water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Aboriginal nations and are of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Aboriginal nations; this is our inherent right.

The South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council is the native title representative body of the Noongar people, traditional owners of south-west Western Australia. The council has active programs of cultural and environmental audits with traditional owners to improve land and water management strategies.

(2011). Inland water: Water management in Australia. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/science/soe/2011-report/4-inland-water/4-effectiveness/4-1-water-management, DOI 10.4226/94/58b656cfc28d1