Using water from our environment is fundamental to our sustainability as a society. We have had an ambitious decade of water policy reform with all states and territories committing to the principles of the National Water Initiative. This initiative is designed around a market, regulatory and planning-based system to manage surface water and groundwater resources for rural and urban use in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes. This commitment includes provision of adequate water for sustaining the environment.
Most of the current impacts on Australia's inland water environments result from our historical legacy of land-use change, pest and weed introductions, and water resource development. Although there is only limited capacity to reverse many historical impacts, there is reason to believe that projected population and economic growth can be significantly decoupled from future pressures on our inland water ecosystems: Australia is using less water, and while Australia's rising population will increase demand for urban water, this is likely to be met without taking proportionately more fresh water out of the environment.
During the past decade (longer in some areas), the southern half of the continent experienced a drought of unprecedented duration and extent. This dramatically changed the character of inland water environments. Except for the south-west corner of the continent, the drought ended in late 2010 with widespread flooding. The recovery of river and wetlands ecosystems following these floods will provide crucial insights into how inherently resilient these systems are—if this recovery is appropriately monitored.
With some additional management intervention and investment, the inland water environment is likely to remain in generally good condition in northern Australia, and poor but potentially improving condition across much of the south, with only limited regions with continuing serious deterioration. The principal risk to inland environmental health that remains poorly mitigated is the likelihood of a drying climate for our southern catchments; current water allocation rules tend to favour water entitlement holders over environmental flows in dry times.