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

The active management policy measures protect held environmental water (HEW) from extraction when it flows through unregulated water sources. HEW may originate from upstream regulated water sources, or unregulated HEW licences within the unregulated water source. Until active management, this water may have been legally extracted in unregulated water source, preventing it from reaching intended targets.

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 provides more certainty to licence holders and other stakeholders about how flows are managed and makes it clear when water can and cannot be taken.

The active management policy (PDF 494.5 KB) provides greater detail on the scope of active management and how it works. To implement active management, WaterNSW will work with license holders to follow the processes in the active management procedure manuals:

We will monitor, report on and review active management mechanisms regularly, with input from operators, licence holders and other interested stakeholders. We may implement active management in other unregulated water sources over time.

For more information please see the active management information for licence holders or visit the WaterNSW.

Managing resumption of flows

The first flow of water after a period of low or no flows has important social, cultural and environmental outcomes. The Resumption of Flows rule in the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan reflects the need to protect these first flows after an extended dry period.

The Barwon-Darling River is unregulated by large dams and the first flows after a dry period are particularly important. Protecting the first flows provide benefits to the communities of the Barwon-Darling region, including cultural benefits to Aboriginal communities who have a long association with the river. These include mental and general wellbeing from simply viewing the flowing river and being able to engage in recreational activities such as swimming, boating and fishing.

Low flow periods can stress aquatic plants and animals that survive in refuges such as pools behind weirs and natural pools. Pools are often disconnected from each other during dry periods. Water quality in these pools degrades during no flow periods, typically putting the animals that rely on the river under significant stress. Protecting the first flow after a dry period will help maintain water in vital refuge pools for dependent biota in dry times and may help maintain water quality. Finally, by wetting the river channel with the first flows, we can reduce water losses from any larger flows that follow, benefiting irrigators and downstream communities.

The resumption of flows rule is established under clause 50 of the Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling Unregulated River Water Source 2012 (Barwon-Darling WSP).

Previously, the water sharing plan mainly used commence-to-pump and cease-to-pump thresholds to protect low flows. These thresholds don't directly provide for the first flows after an extended dry period to pass downstream without extraction and reach towns on the lower reaches of the river such as Wilcannia.

The aim of the resumption of flows rule is to protect the critical first flows after an extended dry or low flow period. 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. Normal access conditions then apply after the flow has reached the required target flows.

The Resumption of flows fact sheet (PDF 392.4 KB) contains more detailed information on how the rule was developed, how it works, and help for water users on how to comply.

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.