Environmental water reforms

The Water Reform Action Plan outlined enduring solutions for better management of environmental water that were designed to meet the objectives, principles and vision of the NSW Water Management Act 2000. They provide for fair water sharing between users and the environment in these water sources. The changes are the result of over two years of consultation with environmental groups, licence holders and government agencies, to make sure we had the best available information and workable, practical solutions to protect water for the environment.

Find more information on this process in the below policy and public consultation reports:

Implementation of water sharing plan changes occurred in July and December 2020 for the Barwon-Darling, Macquarie Bogan and Gwydir unregulated water sharing plans.

Watch this webinar to learn what rules changed through the Water Reform Action Plan to better manage water for the environment, and how they work to protect environmental water.

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 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).

More information

For more information about these reforms, including details for water users in these areas and more system specific fact sheets, visit information for licence holders.

Implementation and review

You can now track the newly implemented environmental rules through the WaterNSW WaterInsights portal. The portal shows when the rules described on this page are active each day – see the access announcements for the Barwon-Darling, Lower Macquarie and unregulated Gwydir water sources, Gingham and Mehi.

An annual review process, described in the active management procedures manuals for each water source, ensures that the rules are assessed and improvements can be made. The first water year that active management was operational ended on the 30 June 2021. The annual review process is underway, with a final report due to be published in the first half of 2022.

Independent review into implementation of new rules in the Barwon–Darling

In response to the first activation of the new ‘resumption of flows’ rule in the Barwon-Darling, stakeholders asked for an examination of the implementation of the rule, and also IDECs and active management. The department commissioned an independent review into how well the new rules were implemented and what improvements can be made in the future.

WaterNSW also published a report of the event which activated the ‘resumption of flows’ rule in the Barwon-Darling on their website.

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 from unregulated water sources, preventing it from reaching intended targets.

The NSW Government has 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 follows 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 active management information for licence holders or visit 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 benefits 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 animals relying on the river under significant stress. Protecting the first flow after a dry period helps maintain water in vital refuge pools for dependent biota during 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.

A key aim of the resumption of flows rule is to protect the critical first flows after an extended low flow or dry 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, 392.42 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) was 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 reflects the important social and cultural values of non-extractive water use by limiting the daily volume of extraction and contributing to improving local and downstream flows. Hydrologic modelling shows implementation of IDECs provides environmental, social and cultural benefits.

View a fact sheet on IDECs and Daily Extraction Limits PDF, 187.59 KB in the Barwon Darling.