The past 5 years opened with widespread heavy rainfall and extensive flooding in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, and closed with some areas having record-breaking temperatures from October to December 2015. Most states and territories experienced record low rainfall in some areas for 1–36 months.
A massive expansion in national-scale water information occurred under the Bureau of Meteorology, as flagged in SoE 2011. This includes delivery of National Water Accounts, Australian Water Resources Assessments, extensive national surface-water and groundwater data and information systems, and a variety of services and products. These have contributed to overall situational awareness of our water resources that was unavailable in 2011, with improvements in the comparability and quality of available water information (ANAO 2014). They also provided consistent reporting to support better assessment of trends, both against the 2011 assessment and across longer terms that are more appropriate to ecological systems. In some ways, Australia’s water reporting is approaching the levels that our weather and climate reporting has demonstrated for quite some time. Assessment has also expanded to cultural considerations of water, and the impact that the state of our inland waters can have both culturally and socially.
The operation of our water markets has matured during recent years, as has the level of associated water information. Annual national water market reporting, however, has somewhat diminished. The functionality of state water registers has improved, albeit in the absence of a national water market system. Many barriers to water trade have been removed, and carryover arrangements have supported effective management of water across multiple years. Accountable environmental water arrangements have advanced across all jurisdictions, with a mix of rule-based and held environmental water entitlements in place (NWC 2014).
Groundwater management, although not entirely coming of age during 2011–16, has certainly emerged into the spotlight during the past 5 years. On the back of the millennium drought, where reliance on groundwater increased in many areas of Australia, investigations of managed aquifer recharge and the water resource implications of coal-seam gas mining have shifted focus towards groundwater management. Through the work of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development, and the subsequent Bioregional Assessment Programme, groundwater information, understanding and assessment have increased. Although focused on the bioregions, there are likely to be spin-off advantages for other groundwater ecosystems arising from general improvements in groundwater data quality and accessibility.
Long-term developments affecting water resources and aquatic environments have continued, from urban growth, and social and cultural pressures—Australia’s population has grown by about 1.5 million people in 5 years, with consequential pressures on water demand and aquatic environments. Agriculture, especially irrigated agriculture, remains the greatest consumer of water in Australia (see Box WAT1 for an example of market-driven irrigation). Urban water consumption per person has shown multiyear rises after declining or fluctuating for most of the past decade.
The Murray–Darling Basin Plan came into effect in late 2012. This plan guides governments, regional authorities and communities in sustainably managing and using the surface and underground waters of the Basin. Under the Water Act 2007 (Cwlth), the Murray–Darling Basin Authority was charged with developing the plan, as a significant step in ongoing management of the Basin’s water for the benefit of all its users and the environment. The Basin Plan sets new ‘sustainable diversion limits’ on the amount of water allocated to consumptive use. It also specifies plans and frameworks covering water trading, water quality, environmental water provisions, community access to potable water, and implementation and monitoring of the Basin Plan.
Other (broader) water management and policy factors during the past 5 years that have shaped and are shaping the inland water environment include:
- significant changes in impetus, support and governance of the National Water Initiative, which is the key framework for improving Australia’s water knowledge, planning and management during the past decade
- policy shifts towards developing northern Australia
- increasing our nation’s agricultural competitiveness and productivity.
However, much of the water reform agenda is yet to be achieved. Challenges include improving the conjunctive management of surface-water and groundwater resources; and protecting groundwater quality and yield under potential impacts of coal-seam gas and large mining developments, and the northern Australian development plans.