Australia’s water use


Rainfall and run-off amounts vary widely from year to year and place to place, and we have a water management infrastructure with an accessible capacity of more than 80,000 GL to assist in redistributing water across time and space. States and territories have a strong and direct role in managing water resources for both consumptive and environmental purposes.

Water volumes extracted from the environment to support the Australian economy have grown in recent years, from 75,000 GL in 2011–12 to 92,300 GL in 2013–14 (ABS2014a, 2015a). During this time, annual water use by households and industry was between 16,000 and 19,700 GL, and households’ expenditure on distributed water grew from $4.3 billion to $5.3 billion. Agriculture was the single largest water-consuming industry, accounting for some 9400–12,800 GL per year. Between 63,700 and 78,200 GL was returned to the environment in regulated discharges. Agriculture, forestry and fishing spends some $0.6–0.7 billion on water each year, paying an average price of around 7 cents per kilolitre (kL).

We have a mature water policy regime that operates to direct water to meet both high-priority needs and highest market value use. Water markets have grown and developed over the past 3 decades, with the annual value of water traded now around $1.5–2.5 billion per year. Under the 2004 National Water Initiative, successive Australian, and state and territory governments have worked through a considerable water reform agenda that includes:

  • planning
  • entitlements
  • pricing
  • governance and institutional arrangements
  • accounting, engagement and consultation
  • resolution of overallocation and overuse.

Environmental water holdings reflect the government acquisition of water entitlements, for purposes that include protecting and restoring environmental assets. The Victorian Environmental Water Holder (VEWH), for example, holds 25 entitlements, including some held in trust for the Living Murray. In exercising its authority, the VEWH delivered more than 640 GL of environmental water to priority rivers, wetlands (including Ramsar wetlands1) and floodplain systems from July 2015 to April 2016. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, who holds environmental water in the Murray–Darling basin, increased holdings from 993 GL to 2410 GL from 2010–11 to 2015–16, and has used these to deliver more than 5400 GL of environmental water.

Some of the reported benefits of environmental watering include increases in native fish abundance and diversity, successful breeding in platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) populations, and spawning and migration of threatened species such as Australian grayling (Prototroctes maraena; DEPI 2014). The ecological outcomes of environmental watering have been monitored and reported on across the Murray–Darling Basin through the Long-Term Intervention Monitoring Project. This project includes the Edward–Wakool, Goulburn, Gwydir, Lower Murray, Lower Lachlan and Murrumbidgee river systems, and the junction of the Warrego and Darling rivers. The contribution of Commonwealth environmental water to the environmental objectives of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan is also evaluated at the Basin scale. Together, these monitoring and evaluation activities provide examples of closing the management loop for use of water for environmental purposes, whereas feedback from activities is used to inform future management decisions.

Argent RM (2016). Inland water: Australia’s water use. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b656cfc28d1