Water management in Australia


We have significant and expanding knowledge of the relationships between water management actions and ecological condition that are essential for effective management. Much of the focus of action has been on manipulating or providing flows for environmental good, and our knowledge in this area is as diverse as spawning requirements (Cockayne et al. 2013), seed dispersal (Greet et al. 2012), flow regime optimisation (Beesley et al. 2014), requirements of Indigenous populations (Jackson et al. 2015) and risks of benefiting invasive species (Conallin et al. 2012). Other efforts have been directed towards floodplain corridor revegetation, wetland health, pest control, translocations, and engineered river works (e.g. Ellis et al. 2013, Hammer et al. 2013, Lintermans 2013, Pittock et al. 2013).

In the past 2 decades, river research and management communities in Australia have moved gradually from traditional single discipline–based approaches to more integrated and ecosystem-based considerations, including at the whole-of-catchment scale. However, it has been noted that ‘although river management has been transformed in recent decades, much remains to be done to create a holistic foundation for river restoration that links biophysical science to social science and economics’ (Fryirs et al. 2013). Broader considerations in management of inland waters include systematic multidiscipline planning (Hermoso et al. 2012a), greater incorporation of spatiotemporal connectivity (Hermoso et al. 2012b, Linke et al. 2012), and assessment of methods or benchmarks such as the Limits of Acceptable Change applied to wetlands (Newall et al. 2015) or the Ecological Limits of Hydrologic Alteration framework (Mackay et al. 2014). Investigation of catchment-scale governance across 3 catchments in northern Australia (Dale et al. 2014) has highlighted the challenges to effective governance, including the challenges of balancing Indigenous, economic and conservation interests (see Box WAT5).

As noted in the SoE 2011 inland water theme chapter, Indigenous management of water resources has re-emerged. Ecological health of wetlands, for example, is important to Indigenous communities for both aquatic fauna and flora species. Indigenous knowledge of water management is gaining increased recognition for the values that it can add to better inform decisions (Woodward et al. 2012, Liedloff et al. 2013), and there is broader recognition of Indigenous use of water resources (e.g. Jackson et al. 2012). In terms of effective management of inland waterways, Indigenous perspectives about water markets offer insight into ongoing water resource management (Nikolakis et al. 2013). Overall, the National Water Initiative provides a useful and usable framework for Indigenous management of water resources.

Groundwater management, and surface–water–groundwater co-management have also emerged in recent years, including social aspects (Mitchell et al. 2012), management of groundwater-dependent ecosystems (Adams et al. 2015) and management to conserve baseflow contributions to streamflow regimes.

Water management planning and plan implementation, including under the reforms of the National Water Initiative, have continued across Australia in recent years, with varying effectiveness because of the complexity of planning processes and competing priorities. For example, of the Northern Territory’s 9 water allocation plans—5 of which have been declared—only 1 has been declared in the past 5 years, and 3 others have been in draft for more than 4 years. A key element in northern Australian water allocation planning for northern Australia is ensuring equitable participation of Indigenous people in the water reform process. This was advanced by the Indigenous Water Policy Group in 2010–12, with achievements that included quantifying Indigenous access to water in the Oolloo (Northern Territory), Mataranka (Northern Territory), Nicholson (Queensland) and Mitchell (Queensland) water planning processes.

In New South Wales, 2012 planning controls for riparian land have been found to be not predicated on scientific evidence, and to be likely to compromise the environmental health of rivers and riparian systems (Ives et al. 2013). Water management issues have, however, been included in the management strategies of other sectors, such as the horticultural sector (Horticulture Australia 2006).

Argent RM (2016). Inland water: Water management in Australia. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/inland-water/topic/2016/water-management-australia, DOI 10.4226/94/58b656cfc28d1