Managing environmental water

What is water for the environment?

Managing water for the environment is complex and requires environmental water managers and river operators to consider:

Availability of water

The availability of water for the environment varies from year to year and is dependent upon weather conditions, the volume of water in storages, river flows and catchment conditions and entitlement levels. This means the management of water for the environment needs to be flexible and adaptable. Planning for a range of conditions to use water as efficiently as possible is important.

For information about water allocations, current conditions, outlook and supplementary water availability visit Allocations & availability.

Environmental requirements

Each section of the river is unique and has different water requirements to keep the native plants and animals healthy. The timing, duration and amount of water required varies depending on the current condition of the landscape and the watering needs of the plants and animals.

Annual Watering Plans

The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment - Environment, Energy and Science (DPIE EES) develop Annual Watering Plans for the five catchments (Gwydir, Lachlan, Macquarie-Castlereagh, Murray and Lower Darling and Murrumbidgee) in which they actively manage water for the environment. These plans are based on advice received from Environmental Water Advisory Groups (EWAGs).

The plans outline the water for the environment priorities for the coming year, depending on climatic factors and water availability.

Long Term Environmental Water Plans

The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment - Environment, Energy and Science (DPIE EES) are also developing Long Term Environmental Water Plans to meet Murray–Darling Basin Plan requirements. These plans draw on local, traditional and scientific knowledge to guide the management of water for the environment over the longer term.

Nine plans are being developed for all NSW Murray-Darling Basin catchments and will set objectives for five, 10 and 20 year time frames.

The plans set objectives, targets and watering requirements for key plants, waterbirds, fish and system functions.

Delivery of environmental water

Over the past 100 years, we have changed the river systems to make water available for irrigation, industry and domestic purposes. This regulation of the river has disrupted the natural flow patterns and affected the environment. To improve and maintain the health of the environment, we must be able to deliver water to the environment when and where it needs it most.

Using water for the environment is most effective and efficient when it is used in response to natural cues such as rainfall and runoff. Because our rivers are highly regulated, particularly in the southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin, delivering water for the environment to coincide with natural flows is difficult, and often requires coordination across states.

Water delivery is also subject to timing and volume limits due to physical, operational and management constraints. It takes a lot of planning and coordination to ensure that the environment receives water where and when it needs it.

To find out more about delivering water for the environment including who the delivery agencies are and the structures used to deliver water by visiting the Murray–Darling Basin Authority website.

As part of the implementation of the Basin Plan, the MDBA has put forward a strategy to manage constraints. In the context of the Basin Plan, a constraint is any rule or structure which limits the volume or timing of the delivery of environmental water. Constraints can include physical structures, river management practices, and operational limits to river heights. Easing constraints contributes to greater efficiency in the use of environmental water. NSW is progressing projects in the southern Basin that manage physical constraints through supply measure projects and those that are rules based through implementation of prerequisite policy measures. In the northern Basin NSW is considering constraints management as part of the northern Basin toolkit and consideration for implementation of active management in some northern Basin unregulated rivers to achieve better management of environmental water commitments under the Water Reform Action Plan.

Rules and regulations

Water sharing plans

In NSW the water sharing plans set out planned environmental flow rules and other provisions for planned environmental water. These rules vary between valleys in the regulated and unregulated rivers and between groundwater sources, based on the most important objectives for water source.

The planned environmental flow rules in the water sharing plans are designed to:

  • limit extraction to protect the major share of water for the environment
  • replicate natural flow patterns or events to provide water when and where it will meet environmental needs.

The planned environmental flow rules are based on the broad river flow objectives. They set out 12 aspects of flow considered critical for the protection or restoration of river health, ecology and biodiversity.

Each water sharing plan also includes rules for licence holders that apply to all licence holders, including environmental water holders. This includes how allocations are made, extraction limits, water allocation account management rules (eg carryover and take limits), specific conditions for taking of water under access licences and trade rules. View more information on Water Sharing Plans.

Water management in the Murray–Darling Basin

The Murray–Darling Basin is the catchment for the Murray and Darling Rivers and all their tributaries, covering most of inland NSW and extending from Queensland to South Australia.

In an effort to improve the environmental outcomes of the Basin as a whole, the states agreed on the first Murray–Darling Basin Agreement – (schedule 1 of the Water Act) in 1987.

In 2012, the Murray–Darling Basin Plan (the Basin Plan) was developed to manage the Basin as a whole connected system for future generations. The Basin Plan determines the amount of water that can be extracted annually from the Murray–Darling Basin for consumptive uses, including urban, industrial, and agricultural uses. This volume is called the Sustainable Diversion Limit, and represents a volume that can be used while ensuring the environmental outcomes and functions of the rivers, waterways, groundwater, and wetlands of the Basin.

NSW is developing 20 water resource plans (WRPs). The water resource plans have a fundamental role in ensuring that sustainable diversion limits for our water resources set by the Basin Plan are implemented from 2019 onwards. The water resource plans set out arrangements for sharing water for consumptive use, establish rules to meet environmental and water quality objectives and take into account potential and emerging risks to water resources.

More information on water resource plans including access to fact sheets on:

  • Maintaining the protection of planned environmental water - surface water
  • Specifying planned environmental water
  • Compliance with sustainable diversion limits for groundwater
  • Sustainable diversion limit compliance for surface water
  • Active Management to share flows

Climate change

We know changes in global and regional climate patterns affect water availability for both communities and the environment across NSW. Many of the effects are uncertain and the timeframes are unclear.

Most projections suggest an increase in drought frequency and severity. At the same time, heavy rainfall is expected to increase.

NSW is planning for climate uncertainty and developing Regional  Water Strategies that bring together information to plan and manage a region's short and long-term water needs. Strategies look at how much water a region will need to meet future demand, and come up with ways to manage risks to water availability and security. Find out more about Regional Water Strategies being developed across NSW.

To find out more about climate change in NSW, including understanding and adapting to climate change impacts, visit Understanding and adapting to climate change impacts.

If you would like to explore Australia's projected climate and access model data and learn about observed climate change over Australia visit Climate change in Australia.