What is water for the environment?

What is water for the environment?

Water for the environment is water that is managed specifically to improve the health of rivers, wetlands and floodplains. It can be surface water or groundwater. Learn more about water for the environment.

Why do we need water for the environment?

We need it because it keeps our rivers, floodplains and wetlands healthy. This is essential for good water quality and the survival of native plants and animals. For further information view the Water for the environment fact sheet.

Rivers and wetlands have great cultural and spiritual significance to Aboriginal people. These landscapes provide a link to traditional storytelling, beliefs and practices. These rivers and wetlands provide food, medicine and materials for shelter, clothing and tools.

Healthy rivers support a range of industries, including agriculture, fishing and tourism and contribute to the social well-being of communities using them for recreational purposes.

Who decides where it goes?

The use of water for the environment is managed by annual and long-term water plans for each catchment prepared by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment–Environment, Energy and Science. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the department determine when and where their held environmental water and discretionary planned environmental water is used subject to the provisions of the water sharing plans and the availability of water in storage.

The Department of Planning and Environment–Environment and Heritage works with Environmental Water Advisory Groups (EWAGs) to deliver water for the environment across NSW.

The aim of each EWAG is to bring together a range of knowledge and experience to advise on both discretionary planned and held environmental water, and to help prepare annual environmental watering plans.

Members include water managers, recreational fishers, landholders, Aboriginal groups, independent scientists, local government representatives and a variety of partner agencies.

The groups meet regularly to discuss proposed or upcoming watering events, any issues or concerns, the results of watering events and future opportunities.

For further information on who decides where environmental water is used visit What is water for the environment?.

Who else is involved?

Commonwealth Environmental Water Office — The Commonwealth Government established the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office (CEWO) to purchase and manage water acquired by the Australian Government for the environment.

CEWO holds the largest portfolio of water for the environment on behalf of the Australian Government. It holds a range of entitlements of different categories across all catchments in NSW and works with the Department of Planning and Environment–Environment, Energy and Science and their EWAGs to plan the most effective use of water for the environment. You can find information about the Commonwealth’s holdings in each catchment. You can also find information about water for the environment actions, portfolio and planning and monitoring in each catchment at Water use in catchments.

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) assists with environmental watering at a whole-of-basin scale and is responsible for the development of a long term strategy for water for the environment across the basin.

Department of Planning and Environment–Water is the NSW Government agency that makes the water management rules across the state. It determines the volume of water available for allocation to towns, water users and the environment each year, and the water sharing rules between the environment and users and between different water users. It determines the State's water policy, including policies for water trading. The department also has a role in monitoring ecosystem health as well as monitoring and reporting on the environmental outcomes that occur from planned environmental water.

WaterNSW is a state-owned corporation that manages the state’s surface and groundwater resources to maximise reliability for users. It is responsible for the operation of the state’s river systems and bulk water supply systems (in the River Murray system this is done in collaboration with the MDBA). WaterNSW also provides services to its customers for water licensing and approvals, water trades, billing and provides water information services for surface and groundwater quantity and quality.

Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) is an independent regulator established under the Natural Resources Access Regulator Act 2017. NRAR enforces the water management rules across the state. While its  focus is water regulation, it also enforces compliance, provides compliance education and issues licences and approvals to certain entities.

Department of Primary Industry–Fisheries manage and protect native fish populations in NSW. They also have a research, policy implementation, education and compliance role.

Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) is a confederation of sovereign First Nations from the Southern part of the Murray–Darling Basin. MLDRIN is focused on caring for our rivers and achieving water rights for Aboriginal people. It also works with different levels of government to influence decisions on natural resource management. The group includes delegates from 25 First Nations, from as far north as the Macquarie River, in Wiradjuri Country, to the Coorong and Lower Lakes on Ngarrindjeri Country in South Australia.

Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations (NBAN) represents 22 Sovereign First Nations in the Northern Murray–Darling Basin in natural resource and water management. They also provide advice and contributed to the development of the draft Murray–Darling Basin Plan and helped design the Indigenous consultation strategy on the draft Basin Plan.

Download a flyer demonstrating the role of agencies who manage water for the environment is also available.

How is it managed?

The NSW Government is committed to managing water resources in a way that protects the environment and the communities and industries that depend on secure water access.

The management of water that is allocated specifically to improve the health of the environment must be effective. The NSW Government aims to provide the right amount of water where and when it is needed to support healthy rivers for the benefit of plants, animals and people.

The Department of Planning and Environment–Environment and Heritage is the NSW Government agency which manages water for the environment. View how water for the environment is managed in NSW.

The department holds a range of water entitlements across NSW that are used for environmental benefit. View information about current water holdings. We identify priority watering sites using the best available science, advice from their Environmental Water Advisory Groups (EWAGs) and water managers and local knowledge. Water managers aim to provide water for the environment to support the health and function of river and wetland habitats for the benefit of plants, animals and people.

We prepare an Annual Environmental Water Plan for the five catchments (Gwydir, Lachlan, Macquarie-Castlereagh, Murray and Lower Darling and Murrumbidgee) where they actively manage water for the environment. These plans are based on advice received from their Environmental Water Advisory Groups (EWAGs).

Water managers and river operators coordinate the delivery of water for the environment from dams. The best outcomes are realised when water for the environment passes through rivers and wetlands in ways that mimic natural conditions and build on natural flows.

The Managing water for the environment fact sheet released February 2019 provides a summary of NSW Government policies for reporting on, managing, and recovering water for the environment and the government's commitment to improve the way we manage environmental water.

Types of water for the environment?

There are generally two types of water for the environmental. These are Planned Environmental Water (PEW) and Held Environmental Water (HEW). For further information on the types of environmental water view the water for the environment fact sheet.

Planned Environmental Water—is water committed for ecosystem health or other environmental purposes and managed through rules in water sharing plans established under the Water Management Act 2000 (WMA 2000). Environmental water rules are established for both surface water and groundwater sources. This water is also known as 'rules based' environmental water and can be ‘discretionary’ (which means it can be ordered for use by environmental water managers) or 'non-discretionary' (which means it is automatically scheduled for release from a water storage, or protected from extraction, when the WSP rules are met).

Held or Licensed Environmental Water—is water allocated to water access licences held for environmental use. Both the NSW and Commonwealth governments have acquired water licences for environmental purposes in regulated, unregulated and groundwater sources.

Surface water

Water sharing plans for regulated rivers can include:

  • environmental water rules on the timing of releases from storages, the portion of dam inflows to be released, or the flow rates required at specific sites.
  • rules for establishing and operating environmental water accounts (often referred to as environmental water allowances) including when and how much water is credited to accounts and what allowances can be used for.

Water sharing plans for unregulated rivers typically have cease-to-pump rules (to protect very low flows) and may have commence-to-pump rules where extraction is not permitted until flows return to a specified level.

Water sharing plans for regulated and unregulated rivers set a limit on the long-term average annual volume of water that can be extracted, protecting the remaining water for the environment and other downstream uses.

A summary of the types of planned environmental flow rules in rivers is also available.


Groundwater may contribute to ecosystems such as wetlands, springs, caves, terrestrial vegetation and coastal sand dune systems and provide important base flows to rivers and tidal creeks. Groundwater water sharing plans set long-term average annual limits on extractions to protect ecosystems that depend on groundwater.

The groundwater plans include rules that:

  • reserve a proportion of the storage component of the aquifer
  • protect a proportion of the natural recharge – that is, the volume of water added to a groundwater system naturally, usually by infiltration from rainfall and river flows
  • set distance limits between any new bores and groundwater dependent ecosystems.

Register of environmental water licences

We keep a register of environmental water licences in NSW.

This register includes water defined under legislation (the Water Management Act 2000), as well as water that is covered by an agreement to classify it as environmental.

Water is allocated to environmental water licences according to the available water determinations under each water sharing plan in the same way water is allocated to other licences.

Further information about environmental water licences is available, including: