Better management of water for the environment

Under the Water Reform Action Plan (WRAP), the NSW Government committed to a program that worked towards the better management of water for the environment. The WRAP outlined three key actions that would provide the roadmap for reform of environmental water management:

  • Establish an Interagency Working Group (IWG) to develop solutions to improve the management of environmental water
  • Have the IWG present interim solutions within 90 days of commencement
  • Publish explanatory materials on the department’s website so everyone has access to information on the WRAP, its progress and products.

Interagency Working Group and the Interim Solutions Package

An Interagency Working Group (IWG) with New South Wales and Commonwealth agency representation was established in February 2018 to develop options on how the NSW Government can better manage environmental water. The IWG work collaboratively with the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment–Water to guide the delivery of the better management of environmental water program.

The IWG presented the NSW Government with an Interim Solutions Package for better managing environmental water within 90 days of its commencement.

The initial solutions put forward by the IWG were taken to consultation in March 2018, with the department asking for public feedback on broad approaches, outcomes and measures to improve management of environmental water in unregulated rivers. Based on the outcomes of public consultation, in June 2018 the NSW Government released and committed to the Better management of environmental water Interim solutions package, which included:

  • interim solutions, including trials for better managing environmental water and establishing the legislative framework for enduring solutions
  • ‘roadmap’ to deliver the interim solutions and progress enduring solutions
  • governance arrangements and reporting, including a continuing role for the IWG until the water resource plans commence
  • consultation approaches, including using the existing Basin Plan water resource planning consultation process, to progress these reforms.

The IWG's Terms of Reference were reviewed in June 2019. Amendments were made to reflect the expanded membership of the group, and its shift in focus to providing advice on enduring solutions following release of the interim solutions package in June 2018.

Reporting on progress

A summary snapshot of the proposed solutions, progress to date and key deliverables for this work program were set out in the:

The Water Renewal Taskforce regularly reported on WRAP deliverables and the progress of the environmental water work plan. A final progress report (PDF 490.0 KB) was  released in June 2020 to mark the close of the Taskforce and the handover of work to partner agencies for incorporation into their business as usual activities.

The Final Report (PDF 7.9 MB) (released in July 2020) summarises the outcomes of this significant work program, celebrates the progress towards improving NSW environmental water management practices and acknowledges the contribution and dedication of our partner agencies.

Interim solutions to better manage environmental water

By 2018, the northern Murray-Darling Basin had been experiencing prolonged dry conditions for more than a year. To rapidly counter the deteriorating conditions interim solutions proposed by the IWG were implemented. The power to make a temporary water restriction under section 324 of the Water Management Act 2000 was amended to make it clear that ‘managing water for environmental purposes’ is within the scope of the existing public interest test when making temporary water restriction orders.

This change was made to make it beyond doubt that the management of water for environmental purposes is in the public interest. It does not provide a new power under the Act, instead it merely clarifies an existing one.

A series of section 324 orders were used throughout 2018 and 2019 to address immediate issues with managing water for the environment while the enduring solution framework was established under revised water sharing plan legislation. These temporary water restriction orders protected three flow events in the Barwon-Darling River. Find out more about temporary water restrictions including restrictions currently in place or recently repealed. For more information on these events visit our Working together to achieve positive outcomes page.

Environmental water reforms

The enduring solutions for better management of environmental water were designed to meet the objects, principles and vision of the NSW Water Management Act 2000. The enduring solutions were also designed to provide for healthy and enhanced water sources and water-dependent ecosystems and for equitable water sharing among users in these water sources.

The Water Management Act 2000 was amended in 2018 to allow the revision of water sharing plans and the inclusion of new rules for managing water for the environment. Incorporating these reforms into water sharing plans ensures they are enduring and certain. The enduring package of solutions includes:

  • actively managing environmental water in the Barwon-Darling, Macquarie-Bogan and Gwydir unregulated rivers.
  • managing resumption of flows after extended dry periods in the Barwon-Darling River.
  • limiting daily water take in the Barwon-Darling through Individual Daily Extraction Components (IDECs).

Implementation of water sharing plan changes will occur in July and December 2020, subject to NSW approval of the amendments for the Barwon-Darling, Macquarie-Bogan and Gwydir unregulated water sharing plans.

For more information about these reforms, including details for water users in these areas, visit Information for licence holders.

Active Management

We are progressing the development of a new policy measure, called active management, to protect held environmental water (HEW). This measure aims to protect HEW from extraction when it flows into and along downstream unregulated water sources. This HEW may have been released from upstream regulated river storages or originated from an unregulated HEW licence within the downstream unregulated water source. Under the current regulatory framework this water may be legally extracted in the downstream unregulated water source, if the flow is sufficient to trigger access conditions for licensed extraction.

We have introduced rules to actively manage held environmental water in the Barwon-Darling and some unregulated sections of the Gwydir and Macquarie-Bogan water sources so that it can remain in-stream to be used for its intended environmental purpose.  Active management also aims to provide more certainty about how flows are managed and make it clear when water can and cannot be taken. It will be in place by December 2020.

The final active management policy will be published in June 2020. By the end of 2020, we will also publish procedure manuals for the Barwon-Darling, Macquarie-Bogan and Gwydir. The procedure manuals are required under water sharing plans and define rules and parameters to guide river operators in implementing active management.

Managing resumption of flows

The first flow of water after a dry period can have significant social, cultural and environmental outcomes. These flows maintain and connect vital refuge pools for water dependent biota, improve water quality and replenish town water supplies. By wetting the river channel with the first flows, it also assists with reducing water losses from any subsequent flows.

Previous water sharing plan rules did not protect these flows once commence-to-pump thresholds were met. This water was available for extraction and in some cases its removal from the system prevented flows from passing downstream to replenish the lower reaches of the river and towns such as Wilcannia.

The NSW Government has investigated if the resumption of flows can be better managed and has put rules in place in the Barwon-Darling water sharing plan to improve connectivity along the entire system. The rule is triggered when a flow event occurs after a continuous period of dry or low flow conditions and prevents water users from accessing the first flow for a period of time. Normal access conditions then apply after the flow has reached the required target flows. Target flows must be reached along the length of the river before access resumes. The resumption of flow rule applies in four rivers sections measured at Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke and Wilcannia.

The resumption of flow rule was designed to improve watering of the environment at very low flows without compromising the environmental benefits of higher flows. Modelling and analysis, including economic and ecological analysis, has allowed the NSW Government to better understand how the system responds to this rule and to identify potential impacts and benefits.

Limiting daily water take

Previously in the Barwon-Darling licence holders could extract their entire annual volume as rapidly as their pumping infrastructure allowed. This caused localised impacts along the river, particularly during peak irrigation season when operators were able to strongly affect readings on the river gauges responsible for commence-to-pump thresholds.

Under section 71Q of the Water Management Act 2000 an Individual Daily Extraction Component (IDEC) will be specified on 1 July 2020 on all unregulated river A, B and C Class licences in the water source. IDECs restrict licences to a daily volume of water that can be extracted after commence-to-pump thresholds have been reached.

Establishing IDECs will reflect the important social and cultural values of non-extractive water use by limiting the daily volume of extraction, contributing to improving local and downstream flows. Hydrologic modelling shows that implementation of IDECs will provide environmental, social and cultural benefits.