Delivering water for the environment

Posted 19 March 2009

Mr Ken Matthews

Over-allocation of water resources remains a serious impediment to sustainable water use. The environmental health of too many of our river systems is under stress and the contest for access to water is increasing.

In most areas of Australia, climate change looks set to intensify the problem, especially in the southern Murray-Darling Basin.

Striking a balance between water for consumptive and environmental uses - so that environmental, social and economic outcomes are optimised - is integral to the National Water Initiative (NWI) Agreement.

Water planning is the fundamental means for achieving this balance. Over-allocated water systems need to be restored to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction and, in other systems, crucial environmental assets and ecosystem services need to be protected.

Environmental water management under the National Water Initiative

In signing the NWI, all governments agreed to identify the environmental and other public benefit outcomes being sought for water systems and to develop and implement management practices and institutional arrangements that will achieve those outcomes.

To achieve these outcomes, the NWI calls for:

  • environmental water to enjoy the same security as water for consumptive uses;
  • environmental water managers to be established and equipped with the necessary authority and resources;
  • water market and trading arrangements to protect the needs of the environment;
  • environmental water to be included in water accounts and audited; and
  • periodic assessments of river and wetland health to be conducted so that adaptive management can be undertaken on an evidence basis.

In particular, environmental water managers were expected to provide sufficient water at the right times and places to achieve desired environmental outcomes and deliver environmental water across state boundaries where required.

It was also expected that they would recover and trade water for environmental purposes; make special provisions for high-conservation-value rivers, reaches and groundwater areas; and manage the environmental aspects of interconnected groundwater and surface-water systems. Environmental water managers were to be fully accountable, with independent and publicly reported audits envisaged.

Progress on environmental water management

As the National Water Commission reported in its biennial assessment on water reform progress, while all governments have management and institutional arrangements in place to achieve environmental outcomes, the outcomes of these arrangements do not necessarily deliver the original intent of the NWI.

Arrangements vary depending on the broader nature of the water-management regime in those states. Several states have established management arrangements that rely on complex interactions between multiple entities. The clear accountability of these entities to deliver environmental outcomes, as envisaged by the NWI, is therefore being compromised.

Recognising that improved environmental water governance is essential, the National Water Commission has recently commissioned a report to explore current governance arrangements for environmental water for each jurisdiction.

This report suggests eight core principles of good governance: legitimacy, transparency, accountability, inclusiveness, fairness, integration, capability and adaptability.

In its reporting on water reform progress, the Commission has also emphasised that environmental outcomes must be specified rigorously. This will require sustained effort to underpin water plans with the best available science, as well as more systematic monitoring and measurement of river health outcomes to provide a firm basis for adaptive management decision-making.

To advance the purchase or other means of recovery of water for the environment, environmental managers need flexibility to trade their water or adjust environmental flow rules. Various management and institutional arrangements are in place and a range of mechanisms are being used to recover water, including investment in water-use efficiencies and direct purchase of water entitlements.

The Murray-Darling Basin has been a major focus of water-recovery measures to date, under The Living Murray Initiative and, more recently, with the establishment of a Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder with statutory responsibility to procure and manage water for the purpose of protecting or restoring the environmental assets of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The commission recognises that selecting the most appropriate mechanisms for water recovery is a complex and challenging task with important economic and social dimensions in addition to the environmental requirements.

Future directions

The parties to the NWI - Australian, State and Territory governments - need to invest even more in supporting and enabling informed decisions to be made to recover and trade water for environmental purposes.

The National Water Commission has been promoting six priorities to guide future work involving the management of environmental water:

1. Help develop and implement national guidelines and procedures for determining environmentally sustainable levels of extraction of water

A nationally agreed method will expedite the formulation of water plans that protect water-dependent ecosystems and include a pathway to recover overallocated systems. The methods will include guidelines for establishing clear environmental outcomes.

2. Pursue an agreed national inventory of over-allocated water systems together with commitments by governments to return them to sustainable levels of extraction

Identifying over-allocated systems and recording agreed actions to recover the water needed to restore sustainability is central to achieving environmental outcomes contained in the NWI.

3. Improve the security of environmental water

In spite of the legislation now passed in all jurisdictions, environmental water allocations often lack specificity and there may be uncertainty around the status and security of environmental water holdings.

4. Support more effective management of environmental water

There are certain shortcomings in the governance and operations of environmental water managers. Statutory empowerment, funding, skills and access to science, data and best-practice guidelines all require urgent attention. The development of a national community of practice in environmental water management is an important initiative that will support these water managers.

5. Strengthen the role of adaptive management of environmental water

Recent work commissioned by the National Water Commission showed there is a deficiency in monitoring and reporting on plan implementation. This is a major weakness when coupled with gaps in ecological knowledge and the occurrence of climatic conditions outside the planned-for circumstances. More systematic monitoring and reporting is essential to enable the water management regime to be adapted intelligently in the light of experience.

6. Implement the Framework for the Assessment of River and Wetland Health

While the commission will continue to support the implementation of the Framework for the Assessment of River and Wetland Health, its successful adoption rests with the parties to the National Water Initiative Agreement. The Sustainable Rivers Audit will also provide scientific information to underpin improved management practices as well as provide a sound indication of river condition.

If the environmental outcomes specified in the National Water Initiative are to be realised, environmental water managers must be identifiable, respected and effective. As well as needing clear authority, autonomy and accountability, they require sufficient resources, access to the best available science and strong linkages into water planning processes.

Mr Ken Matthews AO is both Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the National Water Commission. He has an economics degree from the University of Sydney, and is a Fellow of the Institute of Public Administration and the Australian Institute of Management. Mr Matthews received a Centenary Medal for services to public administration in 2001, and was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia in 2005. Mr Matthews has held the positions of Secretary of the Department of Transport and Regional Services and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.


Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering ATSE Focus web site.

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