Review of Australian Water Law
Although traditionally known as the ‘dry continent’, Australia’s environment is intricately linked to water and water systems. The mix of competing demands on Australia’s water from industrial, environmental and individual users means that controlled uses and responsive regulation of water is critical for its ongoing sustainable economic allocation. The Victorian and Federal Governments are currently undertaking separate reviews of State and Commonwealth water law.
In Victoria, a panel of water law experts is currently in the final stages of reviewing submissions and drafting alterations to the Water Bill Exposure Draft. Water Law Reform, initiated by the Victorian Liberal government, is expected to present a live political issue in the forthcoming state election. The Napthine government intends to move the Bill through Parliament later this year. The Shadow Minister for Water, Arts and Youth Affairs, Martin Foley, has expressed the State Labour Party’s intention to ensure that changes to the Water Bill are in the public interest. Mr Foley queries the forecast cuts and efficiency measures proposed for water authorities and questions the values of the Draft Bill, particularly in delivering effective water stewardship and efficient and productive water management across the range of industry sectors.
At the Federal level, the Abbott Government recently announced a review of the Water Act 2007 (Cth). The review forms part of the Government’s ‘deregulation agenda’, which seeks to minimize red and green tape and reduce regulatory burden. Although the Commonwealth review is poised to examine the objectives of the Water Act 2007 (Cth) (‘the Act’), its focus is limited to a review of the extent to which the objectives and outcomes of the Basin Plan and related reforms are being met.
The Federal Review, as required by s253 of the Act, will examine and report on the effectiveness of the Act in achieving its objects, which are limited to Basin water and resources managed by the Basin states . The Terms of Reference as provided by the Act require assessment of Basin management objectives, sustainable diversion limits, Basin Plan targets, water trading and other key elements of the Basin Plan. They also require an assessment of the level of consistency amongst water charging regimes and their contribution to water charging objectives. Finally, Terms of Reference as provided by the Act require an assessment of the extent of water use by higher value uses and of the progress of improved water information systems, including the National Water Account.
Both State and Federal reform are important to Victorian landholders and water users. Potential changes to water law regulation could either directly or indirectly affect any water entitlements, water share holdings or water licences of both surface and groundwater. These Reviews have the capacity to play a crucial role in access by Australians to first class water supplies into the future.
However, in allocating time and money to fine-tuning legislative schema, the warning by the Victorian Auditor-General in 2010 still resonates:
“The Department of Sustainability and Environment and water corporations do not know whether groundwater use is sustainable. While a robust planning framework and planning tools have been developed, their effectiveness is undermined by inadequate groundwater data and monitoring, and delayed development and implementation of management tools.
Licencing, metering and compliance monitoring activities are not rigorous enough to assure DSE or water corporations about who extracts groundwater and how much they extract. There is also insufficient data about groundwater reserves and sustainable extraction rates.”
It is important to consider whether reviews of legislation might be better allocated to scientific data collection upon which robust assessments can be made with far greater certainty rather than a review who’s main focus is on deregulation.
18 June 2014
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 As discussed in Kellehers Australia’s 2014 article: http://www.kellehers.com.au/latest-news/new-water-law-bill-for-victoria/.
 See Inquiry into streamlining environmental regulation, ‘green tape’, and one stop shops, Law Council of Australia, Submission to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment, 29 April 2014.
 Terms of Reference, 2014 Review of the Water Act 2007, Australian Government Department of the Environment, 2014.
 http://www.environment.gov.au/water/legislation/water-act-review, accessed 16 June 2014.
 s3, Water Act 2007 (Cth).
 The National Water Account is a comprehensive water information report prepared by the Bureau of
 Sustainable Management of Victoria’s Groundwater Resources, Auditor General’s Report (pub. October 2010) pp. vii