Frequently asked questions

Below are some frequently asked questions and answers regarding the increase to harvestable rights in coastal-draining catchments.

Why is the limit on harvestable rights being increased in coastal-draining areas?

The changes follow a comprehensive consultation process and will improve water storage capacity for landholders to help with drought resilience as dry periods become more frequent and extreme.

The changes will reduce the likelihood of landholders having to:

  • buy in water for domestic use
  • buy in stock feed, and/or
  • destock a farm during extended dry periods.

When can I build a bigger harvestable right dam?

Once the new Harvestable Rights Order (the relevant legal instrument under NSW water legislation) commences, AND you have obtained any applicable approvals required under other legislation (for example, a development approval may be required under your local environment plan), you will legally be able to enlarge or build new harvestable right dams to the new harvestable right limit.

We expect the new Order to commence in early 2022.

You may want to consider whether to immediately invest in a new or enlarged storage or wait until the additional assessment has been completed in your area as this will confirm what the harvestable right limit will be. This may remain at 30% or it may be decreased or increased based on the assessment. Also see the question “If I increase my dam size, then the harvestable right is later decreased or low flow bypasses are required, will I need to modify my dam/s?” below.

What size dam/dams can I build under the new 30% harvestable right limit?

The maximum harvestable right dam capacity calculator on WaterNSW’s website will be upgraded to provide the maximum dam capacity permitted under the existing 10% right and the new 30% right for coastal-draining catchments.

The updated calculator will be available once the new Order takes effect.

Will my new dam capacity be 3 times as big as my current maximum dam size based on a 10% harvestable right?   

Not quite. The relationship between runoff volume, water use and dam capacity is not linear. This means that a doubling or tripling of the harvestable rights percentage does not equal a doubling or tripling of your current harvestable rights dam capacity.

The original maximum harvestable rights dam capacity calculations took account of factors like rainfall volumes and patterns, evaporation, regional runoff volumes and time between replenishment. The department will engage a technical consultant to develop a multiplier that can be applied to each landholder’s existing maximum harvestable rights dam capacity to provide a new maximum dam capacity at 30% of average regional rainfall runoff.

What can I use the additional stored harvestable right water for? 

You will continue to be able to use your existing 10% harvestable right for any purpose, including for intensive agriculture.

Water stored in excess of the existing 10% harvestable right may be used only for permitted purposes as set out on the increase in harvestable rights for landholders in coastal-draining catchments webpage. These purposes will also be specified in the new Harvestable Rights Order. It will include use for domestic and stock and extensive agriculture purposes.

Do I need any approvals from WaterNSW or NRAR before I enlarge or build a new harvestable right dam?

You do not need a water access licence, water supply works approval, water use approval, or controlled activity approval under the Water Management Act 2000 to build a harvestable rights dam, provided you meet the requirements set out in the relevant Harvestable Rights Order.

You may, however, need approvals under other legislation before you can build dams to the new harvestable right limit. We advise you to check approval requirements under your Local Environment Plan that may apply to dams.

What do I have to do to access the larger harvestable right? 

  1. Ensure your property is in the area to which the new Order that will provide for a 30% harvestable right applies. The area will initially cover all coastal-draining catchments but may be adjusted over time.
  2. Check if you need approvals under other legislation and obtain them – for example, ask your local council if you need Development Approval.
  3. Upon completion of the new (or enlarged) dam above the current 10% Maximum Harvestable Right Dam Capacity, submit a notification form to the department. This is not an approval but is required to help to monitor growth in farm dam development and inform future water resource management and planning. It will also help NRAR to respond to any inquires or complaints they may receive about new dams being built. The notification form will be available online when the new rules commence.
  4. Construct your dam/dams in accordance with the new Harvestable Rights Order and any Development Approval conditions that apply.
  5. Use water from the larger harvestable right dam(s) consistently with the permitted uses.

Will the changes affect the environment and downstream water users?

The potential effects on downstream flows that are important for the environment and water users were assessed in some case study catchments through a hydrological modelling study as part of the review of coastal harvestable rights. These effects were detailed in the discussion paper we published for community consultation. The effects varied between catchments.

More detailed assessments will be undertaken for each catchment to confirm the appropriateness of the 30% limit at a local level. In the meantime, some important mitigation measures will be in place:

  • harvestable rights dams will continue to be limited to first- and second-order streams, hillsides and gullies to manage the effect on baseflows
  • limits on use for domestic, stock and extensive agriculture purposes to limit demand on water and overall volume taken in harvestable right dams
  • ensuring landholders who can already take more rainfall runoff than their current maximum harvestable right dam capacity under regulatory exemptions can’t benefit from the change over-and-above other landholders
  • requiring landholders to notify the department of the construction of any larger dams so growth in farm dam development can be monitored and factored into future water planning processes.

Who will be eligible for the increase in harvestable rights? 

All landholders in the area covered by the new harvestable right order (when commenced) will be able to build bigger harvestable rights dams provided they meet the location and size requirements of the Harvestable Rights Order. The area is broadly described as coastal-draining catchments and will be those areas subject to the Coastal Harvestable Rights Review as shown in the hatched area in the figure below.

Map of NSW land divisions and Coastal Harvestable Rights Review area.

Important: While you may be able to build a larger dam, the purpose for which additional water is used will be limited.

Why is the limit being set at 30%? 

An increase to 30% is an interim arrangement and, in combination with mitigation measures and catchment-based assessments, aims to balance improved water security that is so strongly sought, and needed, by landholders in a changing climate, and the needs of the environment and downstream users.

It is also the amount that was supported by the majority of stakeholders who supported an increase in the harvestable right limit, with the next highest support being for 50%. It is too risky to jump straight to 50% without a more thorough assessment of what that would mean for each catchment.

Why can’t I use the increase for any purpose like I can under the current harvestable right limit?

The limits on the use of additional harvestable rights water will minimise total water demand and volume of water taken from harvestable rights dams, mitigating the potential effects on river flows, downstream environments and water users.

The taking of water for intensive agricultural purposes is provided for by the water licensing system and through the rules set out in relevant water sharing plans.

Why aren’t harvestable rights being extended to third-order streams?

Third-order streams are generally larger streams that are more likely to provide permanent flows to rivers. Modelling of case study catchments indicated that allowing harvestable rights dams on third-order streams would have a greater effect on downstream flows than dams on minor streams.

Some water sharing plans already allow for dams on third-order streams subject to approvals and/or licences that enable dam specific assessments and conditions to manage the higher risks associated with dams in these locations.

Were communities consulted on the changes?

The department ran a public consultation process to discuss a range of issues and options around increasing harvestable rights to different runoff percentages and/or allowing dams on larger, third-order streams.

In formulating its response, the government considered the feedback and comments provided by stakeholders along with the results of hydrological modelling and other investigations undertaken as part of the review.

Read the What we Heard report (PDF, 5477.92 KB) to learn more about the key themes from community consultation and the government’s response to feedback.

More information on past consultation can be found on the Coastal Harvestable Rights Review page

Has the review on coastal harvestable rights now concluded?

Yes, however further important work is needed to refine and implement the changes made by the Minister.

What are the benefits of increasing the limit to 30%? 

  • Increased on-farm water storage capacity for landholders
  • Improved water security for domestic, stock and extensive agriculture
  • Greater fire protection and defence capability for landholders

Why is the government implementing the increase across all catchments instead of using a catchment-based approach?

An increase across all catchments is an interim arrangement that will be in place while catchment-based assessments are done to confirm the appropriate limit at a local level. The assessments will provide an opportunity to consider catchment specific characteristics and apply further mitigation measures if required to reduce the cumulative effects on downstream flows.

Will the 30% limit be amended or reduced in the future? 

The catchment-based assessments will confirm the appropriateness of the 30% limit at the local level. Using the best scientific data, we may increase or decrease rights based on what the evidence tells us, to make sure we are balancing these rights allowing larger farm dams, with downstream environments and communities.

If I increase my dam size or build a new dam, then the harvestable right limit is later decreased or low flow bypasses or other mitigation measure are required, will I need to modify my dam? 

If you choose to build a larger dam before the conclusion of the catchment-based assessments you do so at your own risk. That is, if the allowable run-off percentage is later reduced, or additional mitigation measures are required, you will need to ensure the dam capacity and mitigations comply with the revised limits and associated arrangements when brought in. This would be at your cost.

Will people who were subject to compliance action for exceeding the existing limits - but will now comply with the new limits - have that action dropped?  

No, the changes only apply to new or larger dams built from the time the new harvestable rights order commences. Landholders who built and/or used structures exceeding their harvestable right historically did so unlawfully and will still be subject to any compliance action.

Note that any landholder in this category has been able to benefit from the additional water taken and used from unlawful structures between the time they were constructed and the time the compliance action occurred.

It would be inequitable for landholders who have done the right thing if the department were to adopt any other approach.

Will harvestable rights limits be increased in inland areas too?   

No. Inland areas are subject to sustainable diversion limits under the Murray Darling Basin Plan, so any increase in harvestable rights limits in that area would need to be directly offset by reductions in other forms of water take, like licensed water use.

What type of agriculture is excluded from the definition of 'extensive agriculture'?

Extensive agriculture excludes aquaculture, intensive livestock agriculture and intensive plant agriculture, which have the same definition as they do in the Standard Instrument—Principal Local Environmental Plan, being:

aquaculture has the same meaning as in the Fisheries Management Act 1994. It includes oyster aquaculture, pond-based aquaculture and tank-based aquaculture.

intensive livestock agriculture means the keeping or breeding, for commercial purposes, of cattle, poultry, pigs, goats, horses, sheep or other livestock, and includes any of the following—

(a) dairies (restricted),

(b feedlots,

(c) pig farms,

(d) poultry farms,

but does not include extensive agriculture, aquaculture or the operation of facilities for drought or similar emergency relief

intensive plant agriculture means any of the following—

(a) the cultivation of irrigated crops for commercial purposes (other than irrigated pasture or fodder crops),

(b) horticulture,

(c) turf farming,

(d) viticulture.

How is water taken through harvestable rights measured?

While harvestable rights water use is not measured, there are maximum size limits that apply to a property’s harvestable right dams that limit the overall volume of runoff water that can be legally captured and used.

The uptake of harvestable rights dams that can take more than the current 10% limit will be monitored through the requirement for landholders to notify the department when they are built and high-resolution satellite imagery available for all coastal-draining catchment areas.

Can I build a leaky weir instead of a dam to collect my harvestable rights water?

No - harvestable rights orders permit only dams to be constructed to capture harvestable rights water. No other type of water supply work or structure may be used to capture harvestable rights water.

I have a mixed farming enterprise with both extensive and intensive agricultural activities - how can I show I am using only the current (10%) limit for my intensive agriculture and water used above the current limit for the permitted purposes only?

The department is working with the Natural Resource Access Regulator* to ensure the new orders and educational material provide clear direction on options to help landholders show they are complying with the uses permitted for water taken in harvestable rights dams that are above the existing 10% limit (but within the new 30% limit).

*NRAR is the independent agency responsible for the enforcement of water laws in NSW through licensing, monitoring compliance, and education.

How big can I build a dam without needing planning consent (development approval) from my local council?

The requirement to obtain planning consent for dams – classed as a ‘water storage facility’ – differs by local government area according to rules in the respective local environment plan (LEP). In some areas, even if development consent for water storage facilities is required, some types of dams don’t need development approval if they are classed as ‘exempt development’.

The criteria councils put in place for when a dam is considered ‘exempt development’ (not needing a development approval) varies. Criteria may not be based solely on volume but the height and thickness of the dam wall to ensure dam safety.

Contact your local council or refer to the relevant LEP to find out what rules apply in your area.

How big will dams be under the new 30% limit?

The maximum size of harvestable right dams is based on the size and location of a property. A multiplier factor (being a ‘megalitres per hectare’ value) is used to provide a maximum dam capacity, which varies from region to region as rainfall volume, runoff, evaporation and rainfall patterns vary across regions.

The maximum harvestable right dam capacity (MHRDC) calculator on WaterNSW’s website currently calculates your MHRDC under the current 10% limit and the water from existing harvestable rights dams may be used for any purpose.

The calculator will be adjusted before the new rules commence, to provide landholders in coastal-draining catchments with an MHRDC under the new 30% limit.

When will the catchment based-assessment be undertaken to confirm the appropriateness of the 30% limit in my catchment?

Catchment based assessments will be undertaken throughout 2022. The approach and priority areas for assessment are in development and further information will be posted when it becomes available.

Does this mean I can collect 40% of runoff from my property? That is, a dam/s to capture 10% that I can use for any purpose and another dam/s to capture 30% that I can use for domestic, stock and extensive agriculture?

No. The announced changes are intended to allow you to capture a total of 30% of average annual regional rainfall runoff in harvestable rights dams across your property.

As outlined in above Q&As, the new orders and educational material will provide clear direction on options to help landholders show they are complying with the uses permitted for water taken in harvestable rights dams that are above the existing 10% limit (but within the new 30% limit).

Will there be a graded matrix of allowable harvesting depending on whether a property is upriver or down?

The department will be undertaking catchment-based assessments over the next year to confirm whether the 30% limit should remain in place, be increased or decreased in a catchment, but it is unlikely to result in a graded matrix from the top of the catchment to the bottom. Rather, any differences in harvestable rights limits going forward are likely to apply at the Extraction Management Unit* scale.

* These are a group of water sources for the purpose of managing annual average water extraction.

How do I find out if I have a permitted location for a harvestable right dam on my property?

The new orders will allow harvestable right dams to be constructed on ‘minor streams’ (non-permanent first- and second-order streams determined using the Strahler stream ordering system – see picture below), hillsides and gullies.

The department is currently investigating the best way to help landholders identify where they may and may not build harvestable rights dams without having to refer to hardcopy topographic maps.

The Strahler stream ordering system

The Strahler system considers the following in determining the stream order of a watercourse:

  • Any watercourse that has no other watercourses flowing into it is a first-order stream.
  • If two first-order streams join, the stream becomes a second-order stream.
  • If a first-order stream joins a second-order stream, it remains a second-order stream.
  • if two second-order streams join, they form a third-order stream.
  • If a first- or second-order stream joins a third-order stream, it remains a third-order stream.
  • If two third-order steams join, they form a fourth-order stream.

This pattern continues to form higher order streams.

Will I have to build separate dams for my existing 10% harvestable right and for the increase above 10% to 30%?

No decisions have been made on whether separate dams will be required for the existing versus the increased right. The new orders will outline any requirements in this regard.

What crops can I irrigate with the 30% right?

Only pasture and fodder crops may be irrigated with water captured in excess of the existing 10% limit and up to the 30% limit. The department will publish guidance on what ‘fodder crops’ are for the purposes of the harvestable rights order prior to the order coming into effect.

If I have a few chickens or pigs in addition to my extensive agriculture enterprise, am I still able to use the increased right to provide them with drinking water?

Yes. Drinking water for a small number of poultry and pigs is a permitted use for the increased right as it falls under the ‘stock watering’ component of the permitted ‘domestic and stock use’, provided they are not ‘raised on an intensive commercial basis… housed or kept in feedlots or buildings for all (or a substantial part) of the period during which they are being raised’. Refer to permitted uses on the department’s website.

Drinking water for a small number of poultry and pigs is also likely to be catered for under the initial existing 10% right, which can be used for any purpose.