A decade of change


The past decade has been the most dynamic and significant in modern Australia’s water history. It has been a period of ambitious water policy reform at the same time as the worst and longest droughts Australia has ever seen. There have also been massive public and private investments in water infrastructure, significant new foundations for water knowledge at a national scale, and the widespread acceptance by the public and by governments that Australia’s climate has changed and will continue to change. The decade ended with widespread, unprecedented flooding. All these factors have had, and will continue to have, a profound effect on the state of our inland water environment.

In 2004, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to a policy blueprint to improve the way Australia manages its water resources—the National Water Initiative. All Australian states and territories joined the agreement by 2006. The overall objective of the initiative is a nationally compatible water market—a regulatory and planning-based system of managing surface water and groundwater resources for rural and urban use that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes. Key environmental elements are:

  • statutory provision for environmental and other public-benefit outcomes, and improved environmental water management practices
  • completion of the return of all currently overallocated or overused water systems to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction
  • inclusion of Indigenous representation in water planning; incorporation of Indigenous social, spiritual and customary objectives and strategies; and taking account of the possible existence of native title rights to water.

The National Water Commission established a national benchmark for Australia’s water resources, Australian Water Resources 2005,a and has since assessed Australia’s performance against the objectives of the National Water Initiative; the assessment is a key input into this State of the Environment (SoE) report.

New arrangements for the management of the Murray–Darling Basin were put in place by the Australian Government through the Water Act 2007, which:

  • established the Murray–Darling Basin Authority with functions and powers, including enforcement powers, to ensure that Basin water resources are managed in an integrated and sustainable way; and to prepare the Basin Plan—a strategic plan for the integrated and sustainable management of water resources in the Murray–Darling Basin
  • established a Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to manage the Australian Government’s environmental water, including protecting and restoring the environmental assets of the Murray–Darling Basin, and outside the Basin where the government owns water
  • gave the Bureau of Meteorology water information functions in addition to its existing functions under the Meteorology Act 1955 (see Box 4.1).

In March 2008, the Australian Government announced Water for the Future, a $12.9-billon program to secure long-term water supplies for the nation and to better balance the water needs of communities, farmers and the environment. The initiative contains a suite of urban and rural policies and programs, including significant funding for water purchasing, modernisation of irrigation, desalination, recycling and stormwater capture. The initiative’s greatest focus is on the Murray–Darling Basin—it aims to increase the confidence of farmers and communities to plan for a future with less water, to put water use on a sustainable footing, to improve irrigation productivity, and to improve the health of rivers and wetlands.

Most states and territories have water strategies that include measures to manage and protect their inland water environments, and all major water utilities have programs to reduce demand for water and to minimise environmental impacts of supply.

Box 4.1 Improving water information

Water for the Future included the $450-million Improving Water Information Program administered by the Bureau of Meteorology and backed by theWater Act 2007 and key stakeholders. Under the program, the bureau has responsibility for compiling and disseminating comprehensive water information, currently collected by more than 200 organisations for their own business needs. Water data for all states and territories will be available from the bureau and presented in a common way and location, helping water users and water managers to make better decisions about water. When the information system is fully implemented, Australians will more readily get answers to questions such as:

  • How much water is available in different parts of Australia, and how does this compare with the past?
  • Who is entitled to use water, and how much are they using?
  • How much water is allocated, and how is entitlement security changing?
  • How much water is the environment getting?
  • How is the quality of water in rivers and aquifers changing?

The bureau is currently working with researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation on the science and technology to improve water information through the Water Information Research and Development Alliance and the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research. The first National Water Account was released on 3 November 2011 and focused on eight key water management regions. By the time of the next State of the Environment report (2016), the water information system should be fully operational.

(2011). Inland water: A decade of change. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/inland-water/topic/decade-change, DOI 10.4226/94/58b656cfc28d1