Recent national assessments of management performance



The National Water Commission reviewed the environmental water management arrangements around Australia at 30 June 2010.63 The aim was to establish a consolidated and agreed baseline to improve national environmental water reporting and management. Key findings included the following:

  • Environmental water management is a complex task that has developed in response to vastly different water resources around the country and a range of historical demands on those resources.
  • Although the determination of environmental water requirements and the commitment of such water flows are improving, the detail, frequency and geographic coverage of monitoring, reporting and review of environmental water use and outcomes vary around Australia.
  • Water plans are becoming clearer with regard to their environmental objectives. However, it is difficult to review the effectiveness of environmental water commitments because monitoring of outcomes is not widespread or consistent due to cost. As well, the timeframes involved in detecting ecological responses and changes in condition are longer than for annual reporting.


The 2011 biennial assessment64 is the National Water Commission’s third assessment of progress in the implementation of the NWI. The biennial assessment is the most comprehensive source of information for assessing the quality and robustness of Australia’s water policies and management, and therefore the degree to which we mitigate the likelihood and consequence of pressures on our inland water environment. Key findings with respect to inland water environmental management included the following:

  • All jurisdictions have environmental water management and institutional arrangements in place. However, approaches to implementation vary considerably, and the past few years have seen a large increase in water recovery activities outside water plans.
  • Transparency and accountability have increased, but reporting remains patchy and does not always clearly link environmental outcomes to environmental management actions.
  • Failure to provide the same level of security of water for the environment as for other consumptive water access entitlements is a threat to the integrity of NWI water management structures. This is likely to inhibit the ability of environmental water holders to use water trade to improve environmental outcomes.
  • In each state and territory other than Western Australia and the Northern Territory, legislation has been enacted that enables delivery of NWI-compliant water plans. All jurisdictions have made significant progress in establishing or revising plans for the management of water resources. However, no jurisdiction has fully implemented NWI-consistent planning except for the Australian Capital Territory, which has only one plan.
  • Currently, there is no national strategic and coordinated approach to the planning and funding of science to support water planning and management. As a result, we still lack the level of scientific understanding and predictive capability that is required to guide sustainable water management. In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to develop a National Water Knowledge and Research Plan to establish priority water research and knowledge themes, ensure coordinated research effort and ensure the best possible returns from new knowledge investments. Extensive consultation on the draft plan is currently taking place.
  • A central requirement of water reform—to return all currently overallocated or overused systems to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction—will not be met in the timeframes envisaged under the NWI, although significant progress has been made and further investment and initiatives are under way.

An additional finding by the biennial assessment is an increased recognition of the cultural values of water resources and the importance of the engagement of Indigenous Australians in water management. While most jurisdictions have established consultative mechanisms intended to engage Indigenous people in water planning, many water plans do not consider Indigenous cultural values and economic development, leaving the cultural and economic expectations of Indigenous Australians as an unmet demand on the water system.

A review of the implementation of the NWQMS across Australia (and New Zealand)65 found that:

  • the NWQMS framework has provided a good, consistent process for water quality management, which has been incorporated into jurisdictions’ legislation and policies and then used as a basis for catchment management plans
  • most water quality management issues have been covered by NWQMS guidelines
  • point sources of pollution are well managed
  • water quality benchmark guidelines provide sound technical underpinning for management plans
  • the NWQMS has reacted to emerging issues associated with water quality, such as water recycling and water-sensitive urban design
  • there is now a good range of water quality management plans for rivers and coastal catchments
  • there is a need to link water quality management with water reform assessments under the NWI.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) assessed Australia’s environmental performance since 1998 in 2008.66 The report recognised that Australia’s economy has grown faster than the OECD average, and our environmental policy response has also strengthened over a similar period. This includes stronger environmental impact assessment of major development proposals, improved and expanded load-based licensing of pollution discharges, and effective voluntary and partnership approaches with industry and communities. However, the OECD concluded that the capacity of environmental agencies is insufficient to meet all of their responsibilities, including inspection, assessment and enforcement of compliance. With respect to water resource management, the OECD concluded that:

  • the NWI, backed by significant government investment, represents real progress towards reform, including setting environmental flow regimes and largely curtailing widespread land clearing
  • catchment management bodies successfully integrate land and water management (however, the National Water Commission’s biennial assessment in 201164 recommends that greater coordination of water management and natural resource management initiatives would yield significant gains, for example by better aligning the development, implementation and review of water plans and catchment plans)
  • salinity in the Murray River is being held in check
  • important challenges remain, including climate change mitigation and adaptation, weeds and invasive species, overallocation of water resources (e.g. Box 4.7), blue–green algae blooms, and the pollution of nearshore coastal waters—many of these reflect the legacy of historical land and water management.

In the past decade, programs to ensure river and estuary health in metropolitan areas of Australia (e.g. Hobart and Brisbane) have set inspirational benchmarks for effective and efficient use of evidence to guide investment, management and policy; and to communicate the condition, trend and potential futures of these systems (see Box 4.8). Key features of these programs include:

  • a stable organisational platform for monitoring, modelling and reporting
  • the ability to incorporate innovations in monitoring and modelling, and to provide robust, auditable results, including forecasts and scenarios
  • effective reporting and communication with the community, industry and government
  • stable and effective partnerships among local government, state government, industry, nongovernment organisations and research providers, all working towards an agreed strategy.

Progress against the Aquatic Weeds of National Significance strategic plans in 2003–08 was reviewed by the National Aquatic Weeds Management Group. Control, eradication and research were found to be well coordinated, with targeted efforts and protocols appropriate to each of the three aquatic weeds now in place. In the Lake Eyre basin, athel pine (Tamarix aphylla) has been brought under control along approximately 420 kilometres of the Finke River. Follow-up treatment and monitoring continue in the upper Finke River system. Control work has also begun on infestations in the Mount Isa area that threaten the Georgina River. Research is in progress on the potential for native biocontrol to assist with long-term management of this weed.

No introduced animal species that has become widespread has ever been eradicated in Australia, even with serious and long-term efforts. Such an objective is unrealistic with current technology. The highest priority of the Australian Pest Animal Strategy67 for protecting ecosystems is preventing further introductions or spread; setting priorities for, and investment in, the management of established pest animals should be informed by a risk management approach.

Box 4.7 Restoring the Snowy River

The construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme between 1955 and 1967 severely altered flows in the Snowy River. In the years following completion of the scheme, less than 1% of mean annual natural flow was recorded in the river at Jindabyne, and 4% of mean annual natural flow at Dalgety. This radical change in flow regime has had significant effects on stream and streamside ecology.

To improve river health, water was released to the Snowy River via the Mowamba River in 2002–06, and from Jindabyne Dam in 2006–10; during this period, an average of 131 megalitres per day was recorded in the Snowy River at Dalgety, compared with 41 megalitres per day before the program of ecological flow releases.

An additional 24.2 gigalitres of water was made available to the Snowy River during 2010–11 through a joint commitment of environmental water made by the New South Wales and Victorian governments and funded by the Australian Government. This allowed the largest environmental flow delivered to the Snowy River since completion of Jindabyne Dam in 1967 to be made during November 2010. Approximately 17 gigalitres was released over 10 days, to mimic the annual flushing flows from snow melt experienced in the river prior to development of the Snowy Scheme. It is anticipated that up to 21% of mean annual natural flow at Jindabyne will eventually be released to the Snowy River.

Box 4.8 South East Queensland Healthy Waterways Partnership

The South East Queensland Healthy Waterways Partnership is a collaboration between state and local government, industry, research organisations and community groups. It aims to improve the management of catchments and the health of the waterways in south-east Queensland, using sound science, rigorous monitoring and adaptive learning. The partnership’s vision is that, by 2026, waterways and catchments will be healthy ecosystems supporting the livelihoods and lifestyles of people in south-east Queensland.

The strategy contains more than 500 actions to maintain and improve the health of the waterways of south-east Queensland through reductions in urban and nonurban diffuse source pollution, protecting and conserving waterways with high ecological value, and decreasing point source pollution. Local governments in recent years have invested $300 million on sewage treatment plant upgrades alone.

The Ecosystem Health Monitoring Program, which is managed by the partnership, is one of the most comprehensive environmental monitoring programs in Australia. It delivers a regional assessment of ambient ecosystem health for each of south-east Queensland’s 19 major catchments, 18 river estuaries, and Moreton Bay, highlighting where the health of waterways is getting better or worse.

(2011). Inland water: Recent national assessments of management performance. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b656cfc28d1