Crikey has picked out the highlights from the National Water Commission report.

Australian Water Reform Report

Water Planning

Under the National Water Initiative to which the Commonwealth, states and territories signed up in 2004, all parties were to develop and implement water plans for all systems subject to allocation.

The commission found that progress on statutory water plans was “critically inadequate”. Only 60% of plans had been developed and were in operation. No state has developed and started all of their plans.

Worse, the quality of water plans was very poor.

  • Most information in water plans is simply hydrological — they lack information on ecology, socio-economic data or indigenous water access, they are too vague, lack measurable objectives and a transparent process of assessment of whether the objectives that do exist are being met and have little provision for monitoring
  • Many plans are out of date and lack any recognition of climate-change impacts
  • The growing issue of water extraction and usage by mining and energy industries is still absent from most plans
  • No plans addressed extended periods of low inflow

The commission found there was no evidence that any state except SA had undertaken work to identify significant water interception activities.

The new Murray-Darling Basin Authority, established last year as part of the Commonwealth’s water initiatives, has had a “disappointingly slow start”, primarily due to inter-governmental delays.

Surface water and ground water connectivity

The commissions found there was growing recognition of the essential connectivity of ground and surface water, but the issue needed to be addressed more quickly. It recommended that jurisdictions assume that ground and surface water are connected, not the opposite, which currently applies.

Data on groundwater held by jurisdictions is poor.

The commission wants all extraction of water across Australia to be metered. It proposes jurisdictions progressively move to universal metering, concentrating on over-allocated system first where the benefits of metering will be greatest.

Water accounting

States remain unwilling or unable to share data across borders. There is no effective and co-ordinated approach to water accounting. The Bureau of Meteorology, which has been funded to assume a greater role in water accounting and assessment, should in the commission’s view play a more active role in co-ordination between states.

Environmental water accounting is virtually non-existent at state level, with no registers of environmental entitlements.

There was no standardised approach to metering across the states, with less-accurate meters still being used. Enforcement of licensing requirements is highly variable.

Environmental water

The commission found that environmental purchases by states is not informed by independent scientific assessment, and in any event the security of environmental was not assured due to ad hoc ministerial decisions about “critical human needs” that are not transparent.

The commission strongly supports Commonwealth water buybacks, and is deeply critical of state water trading limits.

Agencies charged with responsibility for environmental water management have confused responsibilities, and lack authority and influence. Monitoring and evaluation of environmental water programs is virtually nil. There is no co-ordination of environmental water programs between states and there is a pressing need for a national water science strategy.

Addressing over-allocation

There is no agreement between states on the meaning of critical terms such as  over-allocation, overuse and environmentally sustainable. Some states do not officially use the terms. COAG has been working since March 2008 on nationally agreed definitions without success.

Many water plans simply do not state whether a system is currently over-allocated. The commission believes over-allocation is severely under-reported by jurisdictions in water plans. Environmental purchases are occurring in systems where it is unknown whether over-allocation has occurred or not.

Worst of all, the commission reports no progress toward reducing the number of over-allocated water systems.

Water entitlements and trading

Some states’ annual allocation process are unclear and ad hoc, undermining confidence in the water market.

Water trading caps continue to harm communities.

The commission found that, despite progress, the unbundling of water from land by states was still not complete.

States have a range of impediments to water trading, including delays in processing transactions and actions which undermine confidence and reduce trading security.

The trade of water entitlements between states is still not happening

Infrastructure and urban water

Governments need to stop subsidising the cost of water to urban consumers and stop making grants for urban water infrastructure, so that appropriate price signals can be sent.

Governments need to make much greater use of pricing for urban water rather than relying on restrictions, which are inappropriate and harmful. Water charges also need to be extended to all users, including tenants.

NSW and Victoria have led the way, but policies on recycled and stormwater have been slow to develop. There is no consistency across states in how they undertake strategic water planning for major centres.

The provision of funding for irrigation infrastructure distorts investment decisions.