Environmental issues on the Central Coast
  • Legislation.
  • What is the National Water Initiative?
  • Macro Water Sharing Plans.
  • The pricing of Water.
  • Opinion on Recycled Water Prices.
  • Opinion - John Asquith



Water Act (1912) 

The Water Act (1912) was established to provide a mechanism for government reqgulation of water extraction, structures and flows. It provided for licencing of activities associated with water in streams, rivers and ground water. The legislation was directed at managing the use of water as a natural resource. Ownership of all water was vested in the rlevant Minister on behalf of the Crown.

In 1994, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) responded to growing concern about the alarming state of many Australian river systems and relaized that the solution was an establishment of new policies and some institutional changes. The result was a national policy for the efficient and sustaiable reform of Australia's rural and urban water industries was developed by the COAG called the COAG Water Reform Framework. As the COAG agreements began to be implemented, significant changes needed to be made to water management legislation in each state. 

National Water Initiative

The National Water Initiative (NWI) is an agreement between the commonwealth, state and territory governments, which provides a blueprint for how Australia manages its water resources. The NWI addresses fundamental areas such as water entitlements, water planning and environmental flows. it also sets out the establishment of water markets, accounting standards, and provides information on how much water is being used and/or what purpose. An overview of the NWI can be found at: http://www.nwc.gov.au/

The National Water Commission oversees the implementation of the NWI and monitors its implementation in each state.

Macro Water Sharing Plans

Macro Water Sharing Plans are legal frameworks to improve sharing water between water users and the environment. There are already local water sharing plans implemented for areas with a risk of over-extraction. These macro plans are on a macro not local scale and therefore determined by developing desktop models rather than being developed by water management committees. The Department of Primary Industries (DPI) is involved in the development of this plans and currently negotiates with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about the process of developing aquifer interference licences especially for high risk mining activities. The Catchment Management Authorities (CMA) are involved in the consultation process. The DNR is also developing a Groundwater dependent Ecosystem manual for the assessment , registration and scheduling of 'high priority' groundwater dependent ecosystems. 

One shortcoming of this macro plan is the lack of adequate recharge and discharge data that is available as a base for long-term prognosis on large scale areas. Monitoring the health of natural systems is nearly impossible without adequate baseline data. There is a lot of focus on surface water but not enough on groundwater use. Since both systems are interconnected emphasis should be placed on a balanced approach, including the 'precautionary principle' to prevent potential impacts in anticipation. 'Significant impacts' are not just short term impacts on specific extraction sites, they are also accumulative, long term impacts which are much harder to predict. Enormous areas are encompassed in macro plans not taking small scale (local) variation in soil structure, population growth and rainfall patterns into account, making local creeks and vegetation vulnerable to potential over exploitation. Instead, the macro plan uses long term extraction and highly unpredictable model-based rainfall averages as a baseline for it's guidelines. Cumulative impacts are not yet part of the plan. Water quality and flow regime guidelines for the macro plan are yet to be developed.

Please click on the National Conservation Council's (NCC) link for a brochure about the Macro water sharing plan: http://www.nccnsw.org.au/

Recycled water prices by Dr. Glenn Albrecht

albrecht_glenn.jpgDr Glen Albrecht Senior lecturer in Environmental Studies, School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle.

The system of private property rights (individualism) for land is deeply implicated in the historical failure to protect ecosystems and their services (clean air, water and productive soil). The exercise of private property rights has resulted in excessive land clearing, urban sprawl, industrial sites, over-stocking and cropping and mismanagement that has rendered (much) of the privately owned land in Australia ecologically distressed. The mere possession of a right does not make for sustainability. This should not surprise us since the concept of property 'rights' evolved within the historical context of the exploitation of natural resources for profit in a secular, individualistic, competitive and manipulative private enterprise system. Such a context is inconsistent with the interdependencies and symbiotic relationships that exist within ecosystems. 

Similarly, the idea of water rights does not make sense on simple ecological and economic grounds. Water is embedded within a natural water cycle where it flows, evaporates, forms clouds, falls as rain, forms lakes, floods, flows underground, is constitutive of organic bodies and ecosystems etc., and is not something that can be privately 'owned' according to classical economic theory. All water is recycled ... some is recycled more than others (eg water from the colorado with all the jokes about how many sets of kidneys a molecule of water passes through before it gets to LA.)

Water is a common pool natural resource that simply cannot be totally contained and made the exclusive property for the use of a single private owner. Even where water 'appears' to be contained in dams and apparently available for exclusive use, there are major implications for human and non-human downstream users. There is inherent uncertainty over water property rights because water is a non-excludable component of the total living (organisms and ecosystems) and non-living environment (the earth) and cannot ultimately be regulated by exclusive rights or other market instruments. 

Therefore, standard conceptions of pricing water forces it into the private ownership box where it does not belong and this is a source of continued non-sustainable practices with respect to water.

A possible way of creating an economy for water would be to charge not for the water used but for the degree of exclusivity present (an economic factor that can be accurately measured). The more a user prevents spontaneous recycling from occurring thus taking away otherwise free ecosystem services for others and/or polluting water so that it is no longer potable or available for reuse without 'artificial cleansing' (rendering such water highly exclusive), the higher the charge should be. The more clean, fresh, water is 'free' to reenter the water cycle, the cheaper it should be. If we engineer the pollution of water, as with the big pipes storm water system currently in use, we should pay a lot more than having storm water reenter the water cycle via water sensitive urban design (wetlands, swales etc etc). 

All this is the same as the idea of forcing the least sustainable water use to support the most sustainable. Water that is naturally recycled and is 'clean' should be 'free'. Recycled water that is polluted and needs to be 'cleansed' should be the base rate for a pollution charge. Highly polluted 'exclusive' water that needs to be artificially purified should obviously face a higher still pollution charge.

The polluter pays ... not for the water, but for the cost of transforming dirty water into clean water and returning it to the water cycle. Therefore, in principle, huge users of water who take clean water in and put clean water back out should not face any charge for the use of that water (eg Hydro electricity producers). In this system the degree of sustainability will correlate with the quality of the water and its price. The more sustainable the system, the cleaner the water and the cheaper the price and vice versa. 

John Asquith Opinions

john_asquith-1.jpgJohn Asquith, board member of the Hunter Rivers Catchment Authority and Chairman of the Community Environment Network and member of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW. 

Water Management Act Amendments

The Water Management Act 2000 provides the basis for the sustainable management of water in NSW. The Act was amended in 2004 for the National Water Initiative and now in 2005. Farmers, irrigators and environment groups were not consulted before the Government has pushed through amendments last week. The amendments were through parliament in a little over a week, even though they involve some significant changes. 

The changes were also designed to cut off a court case by NCC in the High Court testing the validity of water sharing plans. In particular, the case could have resulted in a greater allocation of environmental water. However, the government faced the prospect of most water sharing plans being invalidated if the case was successful.

On top of this, initiatives at both the Commonwealth and the State level such as the National Water Initiative, water savings and recovery projects, cold water pollution mitigation measures, the statutory water sharing plans and enhanced water trading opportunities required some amendments to the Act.

However, some aspects of the changes to the Act are alarming. For example, the use retrospective legislation, which has happened on at least 10 occasions when environment groups have made court challenges. The changes will validate any action by government likely to be contrary to the Water Management Act.

The key changes to the Act include: 

Compensation is payable if water allocations are reduced by Government action. Hence, he changes require that any reduction in the available water is clearly identified and documented. However, in regard to water management plans the Government has moved to protect itself from compensation. Under Section 87AB Compensation is not payable in relation to certain conduct including “(a) any act or omission, whether unconscionable, misleading, deceptive or otherwise, (b) a representation of any kind, whether made verbally or in writing and whether negligent, false, misleading or otherwise.” This provision sets an extremely worrying precedent that enables governments to act with impunity and without accountability in the conduct of their business. 

Some proposed provisions would have allowed water utilities to increase their extraction without requiring them to purchase the water off other users. The impact of this would have been to reduce environmental flows or to reduce the water available to extractors. The Government decided to withdraw these amendments under pressure from irrigators and environmental groups. Some rural communities would not be able to afford to buy water on the market. So the impact of these further negotiations will be much wider than just the price of water or compensation.

Cold water pollution from major dams requirements are modified to encourage utilities to reduce the temperature variation of discharges below 2 degrees. The regulation of this activity now comes under the water access licence. 

Floodplain harvesting are to be regulated by an attachment to water sharing plans and are not eligible for compensation.

No mention of groundwater impacts from quarrying or large scale excavation, these were included in the original act. However, policies adopted earlier this year for state significant development have exempted these activities from the act. This creates the absurd situation where the only activities likely to cause a significant impact on the water resources and the environment are exempted from needing a licence or interference approval. 

Environment groups were concerned that the changes would lead to reduced environmental flows and the health of rivers being given a lower priority. This would have been a major reversal of the adopted position that the health of rivers and their long term sustainability was fundamental to the water reforms. 

However, the Government is courting the groups in the run up to the next state election. Last week the Premier gave a polished speech to a gathering of major groups in Sydney. He promised a ‘Riverbank Fund’ of $105 million to buy water for the environment. This water will be allocated to key rivers and wetlands including the Gwydir Wetlands, Lowbidgee Flood Plain and Macquarie Marshes. 

The health of our rivers and wetlands will be the ultimate test of the National Water Initiative. The privatisation of water came into being last year. It created a National Water market for trading water.

Finally, markets are great servants but terrible masters. There is a need to remember that water is life and communities need good healthy water to survive. Markets are only a tool, they need to monitored and managed to achieve healthy rivers. 




Contact details

CALL 02 4349 4756

PO Box 149 Ourimbah NSW 2258

FM Building, Central Coast Campus,
University of Newcastle,
Loop Road, Ourimbah,
NSW, 2258


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