Frequently asked questions

This section will answer frequently asked questions about the Healthy Floodplains Project and floodplain harvesting.

Floodplain harvesting reform

What is the definition of floodplain harvesting?

Floodplain harvesting is defined in the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy PDF, 410.45 KB. Under the policy, floodplain harvesting is the collection, extraction or impoundment of any water flowing across a designated floodplain. This includes both overbank flow and rainfall runoff. Changes to this definition would require the endorsement of the NSW Government.

Why is the floodplain harvesting reform important and what does the NSW Government hope to achieve?

The floodplain harvesting reform aims to protect the environment and water users from the impact of unconstrained growth in the activity. The majority of the growth in floodplain harvesting in the northern Basin is historic, with more than 80% of the growth in on-farm storage volumes since 1994 occurring prior to 2008.

Growth in floodplain harvesting has the potential to adversely affect water users and the environment in the floodplain areas where it occurs. Growth in this form of take has occurred over time due to changes in legislation without a successful transition to meet the legislation’s requirements. The NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy PDF, 410.45 KB was introduced in 2013 to meet the requirements of the Water Management Act 2000.

It is important that this reform proceeds and the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy is fully implemented in order to provide an enforceable legal framework that:

  • reduces take where it has caused an exceedance of the legal limits, and
  • prevents further growth.

This will be achieved through the issuing of licences with entitlements and works approvals and through the enforcement of measurement and reporting requirements.

Had the floodplain harvesting regulations not been disallowed by the NSW Legislative Council on 6 May 2021, then the following controls would now be in place:

  • accurate, reliable and tamper-proof measurement equipment required to be installed on all on-farm water storages greater than 1000ML used for floodplain harvesting, supplying data on water take in near real time
  • licences and water sharing rules that deliver significant reductions in floodplain harvesting across the northern Basin, requiring for example more than a 30% decrease in floodplain harvesting in the Gwydir valley
  • licences and water sharing rules that deliver significant environmental benefits, for example improvements of around 140% in outcomes for waterbirds in the Ramsar-listed Gwydir Wetlands
  • water sharing rules that manage floodplain harvesting such that supplementary water allocations do not need to be reduced, for example, a 50% reduction in allocations for supplementary access licences in the Gwydir is currently required to ensure that total diversions comply with legal limits.

Regulation will also:

  • improve connection with surrounding areas through more regular inundation,
  • improve cultural outcomes,
  • improved environmental outcomes across a range of metrics (i.e. waterbirds, native vegetation, native fish and water volumes),
  • increase flows to downstream communities,
  • provide clarity for all water users and the regulator concerning compliance with floodplain harvesting rules,
  • enable compliance through accurate measurement,
  • deliver near-real time information via telemetry,
  • provide a foundation for adaptive management.

Why do we need to amend the Water Management (General) Regulation 2018?

The key reasons why legislative amendments are required is to give legal effect to the policies and to provide legal clarity.

The disallowed amendments to the Regulation would have allowed licences to be issued, measurement requirements to be enforced and a state-wide exemption for tailwater drains to be established. They are designed to promote confidence in the process of regulating floodplain harvesting by improving transparency.

Is floodplain harvesting legal?

The legality of floodplain harvesting is uncertain because it was considered lawful under the Water Act 1912 but has not yet been fully transitioned into the current regulatory framework under the Water Management Act 2000.

Section 57A of the Water Management Act 2000, which was inserted into that Act in 2014, enables the making of transitional licensing arrangements for floodplain harvesting. Such arrangements have not been made because the enabling regulations intended to give them effect were disallowed on 6 May 2021The intent and the effect of these transitional provisions is to convert volumes of water taken as floodplain harvesting into licenced entitlements which limit take to within the legal limits established by NSW water sharing plans, the Water Act 2007 (Cwth) and the Basin Plan 2012.

Importantly, the water source legal limits set for each valley reflect the volumes of water taken by floodplain harvesting at a time when it was managed under the Water Act 1912. As it currently stands, the transition process is only partially complete. Specifically, historic floodplain harvesting has already been reflected in legal limits, but there are no licences and approvals in place to manage it, nor is there a licensing exemption.

This incomplete legislative framework is difficult to enforce and has resulted in uncertain obligations and outcomes for all stakeholders. Until there is a clear licensing, measurement and enforcement framework, the current situation will likely persist, although this is contingent on water user behaviour and the actions of the independent Natural Resources Access Regulator. For clarity, the current situation means that the management and measurement of floodplain harvesting will not improve, and reduced allocations to supplementary licences will continue to be used to offset growth in floodplain harvesting that has resulted in overall extraction from a water source now being above legal limits.

How will the NSW Government deal with illegal flood works?

Restoring flood flow connections that are impeded by unapproved works is a high priority for the Natural Resources Access Regulator.

The NSW Government is currently working with the Commonwealth Government to secure $10.2 million in funding to help deliver an accelerated compliance program for unapproved flood works in high priority areas in the northern Basin.

The program will focus on the acceleration of activities by government and landholders to remove or modify unapproved floodplain structures so that they are compliant with floodplain management plans and approval conditions. The aim is to improve hydraulic connectivity to flood-dependent environmental and cultural assets. The major benefits of the project will be environmental and cultural, in the form of improvements to the health of these flood dependent assets.

If funding is received, the NSW Government will be able to commence this accelerated program in late 2021 during the public inquiry into floodplain harvesting. Irrespective of Commonwealth funding, bringing unapproved flood works into compliance will continue to be high priority for the Natural Resources Access Regulator.

How much volume is taken by floodplain harvesting?

The department estimates that for the Border Rivers, Gwydir and Macquarie valleys floodplain harvesting amounts to 25% of total surface take within the relevant water source legal limits.

Further modelling is being undertaken for the Namoi and Barwon-Darling valleys, and the information for these valleys should be available in early 2022.

The department’s modelling estimates the following average annual floodplain harvesting usage under the conditions that describe the legal limits for these three valleys as:

  • Border Rivers: 43.6GL
  • Gwydir: 137.7GL
  • Macquarie: 39.3GL

These figures do not include rain-water runoff collected in tailwater return systems as the department proposes to establish an exemption for this form of take.

Why are there so many on-farm storages in northern valleys?

The hydrology and flows in northern valleys are highly variable and characterised by periods of higher-than-average flows followed by extended periods of lower-than-average flows. In response to this, landholders have built on-farm storages which provide for greater flexibility to extract and store water so that it is available for use during drier periods. On farm storages are typically used for multiple purposes including storing water taken pursuant to regulated, unregulated, supplementary and groundwater access licences; recycling of used irrigation water, transferring irrigation water around farms, as well as storing floodplain water that is opportunistically harvested during wet periods.

A floodplain harvesting opportunity doesn't occur every year. Therefore, when considering development changes in the northern Basin, 1 megalitre of increased storage does not equal 1 megalitre of additional floodplain harvesting. Diversions are a function of water sharing rules, water user behaviour and changes in development. All changes in development conditions and resulting changes in diversions are shown transparently in our model reports on the website.

Is floodplain harvesting constrained to the northern Basin valleys of NSW?

No. Floodplain harvesting occurs in all designated floodplains across NSW without regulation. There are six designated floodplains in the north of the state and ten in the south. We have prioritised implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy in the northern Basin because increases in floodplain harvesting in this area have pushed total diversions over the water source legal limits, taking water away from other water users and the environment. Although floodplain harvesting also occurs in the south without regulation, it is unlikely at this stage to have increased enough to cause an exceedance of the legal limits.

What happens long-term if floodplain harvesting is never licensed or exempt?

If floodplain harvesting is never licensed or exempt, then the volume of water historically taken from floodplains could potentially be taken from rivers and creeks instead. This would come at a very significant cost to all water users in the Basin as it would significantly diminish river flows. It is in the best interests of all stakeholders that historically legitimate floodplain harvesting be licensed, measured and managed within legal limits.

Is water captured in a tailwater return drain considered a harvestable right?

No, harvestable rights are limited to rainfall run-off collected in a dam located on a minor stream. Water taken through any other work (including a tailwater drain) requires a licence and approval, unless an exemption is in place. To remove doubt, this includes any water transferred to a harvestable rights dam. The harvestable rights areas and the rules for capturing rainfall run-off in those areas are specified in Harvestable Rights Orders.

Legal limits and floodplain harvesting

What are the different legal limits?

The Cap on surface water diversions (the Cap) is set out in the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement. For NSW, it is based on the amount of water that could have been taken over the long term with the development and management conditions in place as at 1993/94. It will remain in force until it is repealed by the Australian Ministerial Council.

Long-term average annual extraction limits (LTAAELs) are set out in NSW water sharing plans (WSPs). In most surface water WSPs within the Basin, the LTAAELs are the lesser of: 1) the Cap, or 2) the amount of water that could have been taken over the long term under the WSP rules with the infrastructure that was in place in 1999/2000.

Sustainable diversion limits (SDLs) are described in Schedule 2 of the Basin Plan and are linked to baseline diversion limits (BDLs) such that SDL = BDL minus water recovery plus the SDL adjustment amount. Schedule 3 of the Basin Plan states, for surface water regulated river and floodplain harvesting take, the BDL is generally the state water management law in mid-2009. In NSW, state water management law in mid-2009 were LTAAELs in NSW water sharing plans .and are linked to baseline diversion limits (BDLs) such that SDL = BDL minus water recovery plus the SDL adjustment amount. Schedule 3 of the Basin Plan states, for surface water regulated river and floodplain harvesting take, the BDL is generally the state water management law in mid-2009. In NSW, state water management law in mid-2009 were LTAAELs in NSW water sharing plans.

See our online fact sheet – An overview of legal limits PDF, 1161.84 KB.

For more information about floodplain harvesting see our online fact sheets and infographics.

What is the volumetric estimate of the limit for floodplain harvesting?

A commonly quoted estimate of 210 gigalitres per year for floodplain harvesting was made in the 2012 Basin Plan and applies to the entire northern Basin, the QLD portion being 160.4 Gigalitres/year and the NSW portion being 46.2 Gigalitres/year. The information that this estimate relied on at that time was poor as in NSW it used the existing regulated river system models that were not built for the purpose of accurately estimating floodplain harvesting. Additionally, the 2012 estimates for NSW excluded the rainfall runoff harvesting being estimated by the models whereas our more recent estimates include the majority of this as floodplain harvesting.

Accordingly, the NSW Government expects that these estimates will change significantly to reflect more accurate information and definitions. For NSW, valley-specific, peer-reviewed technical reports which describe the modelling process and the data relied upon to re-estimate these legal limits, are being published for transparency. For example, see the Border Rivers valley reports: the river system model build report PDF, 8082.61 KB and the model scenarios report PDF, 707.75 KB.

Why do the estimates of extraction limits change over time?

All extraction limits, whether set for regulated rivers or unregulated rivers are based on a set of development and legislative conditions at a reference date. They are not set as a specific volume but are volumetrically estimated using models configured with best available information. If better information is obtained about these conditions over time, estimates can be updated. This means that the output of a model at a certain time, which is the volumetric estimate of the limit, can change if better information is used. It doesn’t mean the extraction limit changes. It instead means that the volumetric estimate of the extraction limit changes.

The ability to re-estimate volumetric representations of the extraction limits is not unique to NSW or to the floodplain harvesting reform. This is allowed under both NSW and Commonwealth legislation, meaning that every Basin state has undertaken this process as part of water resource plan accreditation. See the MDBA website for more information: Changing limits and Current limits.

Do legal limits specify volumes that are not subject to revisions?

No, legal limits in both water sharing plans and the Basin Plan are defined as long-term volumes under a certain set of development and management conditions. These limits are described as definitions and are estimated using models. Volumetric estimates of these legal limits reflect best available information at the time of estimation. Volumetric estimates can be updated through formal approval processes when there is better information about the development and management conditions that they reflect.

A commonly quoted 210 GL/yr estimate of floodplain harvesting was an estimate across the northern Basin (both QLD and NSW) made in 2012. The information that this estimate relied on at that time was poor, as it was made using river system models that were not built for this purpose.

Accordingly, the NSW Government expects that this estimate will change significantly to reflect better information and the use of better modelling tools. For NSW, valley-specific, peer-reviewed technical reports which describe the modelling process and the data relied upon to re-estimate these legal limits, are being published for transparency. The first of these reports, for the Border Rivers valley is now available on the website.

Why has floodplain harvesting been allowed to cause an exceedance of the legal limits?

Legal limits for water take are set out in NSW water sharing plans (long term average annual extraction limits), the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement (the Cap on surface water diversions) and the Basin Plan (baseline diversion limits and sustainable diversion limits). The limits apply to an entire water source, rather than an individual form of take such as floodplain harvesting. As such, there is not a floodplain harvesting limit that has been exceeded, but growth in floodplain harvesting, when combined with other forms of water take, has caused overall limits to be exceeded in some valleys.

The limits have been exceeded because floodplain harvesting is currently not licensed, measured or monitored. This regulation will be achieved through implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy. It has taken the NSW Government eight years and $17million to assess the growth in floodplain harvesting and to work towards its reduction.

How is floodplain harvesting brought within legal limits?

Floodplain harvesting is a historically legitimate practice that has not been fully transitioned into the licensing framework provided by the Water Management Act 2000. The majority of the growth in floodplain harvesting in the northern Basin is historic, with more than 80% of the growth in on-farm storage volumes since 1994 occurring prior to 2008.

To address growth in floodplain harvesting that has already occurred and has caused legal limits to be exceeded, implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy PDF, 410.45 KB will include an assessment of this growth for each valley. The determination of licensed entitlement and account management rules will then work together to reduce take back to legal limits. The methods for determining the entitlement volumes associated with licences are set out in the Guideline for the Implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy PDF, 434.91 KB. It states that “the total take of water will be within the relevant extraction limit and that any effects are distributed as equitably as possible among eligible floodplain harvesting properties.” The methods for determining account management rules for each valley are set out in reports to assist community consultation. For example, see Gwydir: Floodplain harvesting in water sharing plans – Report to assist community consultation.

Once floodplain harvesting is brought into the regulatory framework and measurement is undertaken, rules specific to floodplain harvesting licences can be included in relevant water sharing plans. In all water sharing plans, there are a suite of rules that relate to legal limits including how to assess growth and respond to any exceedance. Currently, any growth above legal limits is managed through reduced allocations to supplementary water access licences. When floodplain harvesting licences are issued, a rule will be included in relevant water sharing plans that allows for the assessment of growth in floodplain harvesting and application of reduced allocations to floodplain harvesting licences if there is an exceedance of the legal limit caused by growth in floodplain harvesting.

Rules for water sharing plans

Why is the NSW Government proposing 5-year account management rules?

Floodplain harvesting is highly variable in nature as access is dependent on flooding. The NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy requires that account management rules be developed on a valley-by-valley basis in conjunction with entitlements. Account management rules aim to ensure floodplain harvesting take does not exceed legal limits and to equitably distribute impacts across individuals when reductions are required to comply with the legal limits.

The size of modelled entitlements for floodplain harvesting access licences is directly linked to the length of the accounting period. An annual accounting framework with no ability to carry over water between years will result in three times larger entitlements than annual accounting. Five year accounting rules allows water to be carried forward from years with no access to years with access reflecting the episodic nature of the practice and significantly reducing the risk of future growth in use.

There has been a common, yet inaccurate, statement that implies 5-year account management will allow floodplain harvesters to take 500% of their entitlement. The proposed account management rule is an account limit of 500% or 5 ML per unit share. In order to reach this limit, and subsequently take this amount, no water can be taken for 4 years prior. Simply, this situation could only occur once every 5 years if no water was taken in between.

Will the new floodplain harvesting rules in water sharing plans adhere to the priorities set out in the Water Management Act 2000?

Water sharing rules have been developed in accordance with the water management principles contained in the Water Management Act 2000 (the Act). These environmental, social and economic priorities are nested such that take of water by licence holders can be optimised, providing this does not prejudice the social and environmental benefits derived from our water sources. In turn, the protection of water dependent social values, such as basic rights, cannot come at the expense of the relevant water sources and dependent ecosystems.

The Act ensures that the precautionary principle, the principles of inter-generational equity and conservation of biodiversity and ecological integrity are followed.

More information about our approach to addressing these principles can be found:

This topic was also explored in a public webinar held on 11 February 2021. Watch the video.

How are licensed entitlements determined for each valley to ensure floodplain harvesting is within the legal limits?

For those properties associated with a regulated river1, modelling is used to determine entitlements in a way that ensures overall water take for the water source does not exceed the legal limits. This requires the department to simulate several scenarios with different levels of development. The process involves three steps, as set out in the Guideline for the Implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy PDF, 434.91 KB:

  1. A determination of the volumetric estimate of the legal limits based on legislation.
  2. An estimation of the volume being taken under current levels of development. Where current take exceeds legal limits, floodplain harvesting entitlements are calculated to reduce this component to within the legal limits.
  3. A determination of the share of the total floodplain harvesting take for each eligible property using an 2008/09 scenario based on eligible development. The number of entitlements for each property, combined with certain accounting rules is then determined with the model. This is further described at Modelling and data collection for implementing floodplain harvesting.

Details on how the models were developed and the results of the three scenarios are provided in two modelling reports for each regulated river system. These reports have been independently peer reviewed. The reports for the NSW Border Rivers valley, as an example, can be found at:

1 Regulated rivers in the five northern valleys are those that receive the benefit of flows that are sourced from public storages constructed upstream of the Border Rivers, Gwydir, Namoi and Macquarie floodplains. Principally, the affected rivers will be the regulated sections of the MacIntyre, Gwydir, Namoi and Macquarie Rivers. However, there are a number of effluent streams that will also be affected, such as the Mehi River in the Gwydir valley and Pian Creek in the Namoi valley. The relevant water sharing plans prescribe those rivers and streams that are considered to be regulated rivers.

Why are share components for floodplain harvesting licences larger than the plan limit component for floodplain harvesting?

Share components will generally be greater than the plan limit component because access to flood flows does not occur every year. In fact, over time, allocations will be forfeited because of the account management rules and a lack of opportunity to take water. Hence the share components are intended to allow the long-term average take to reach the component of the legal limit. For example, 100 share components may equate to a long-term average of 80 ML/year.

This is a concept that is common to all water sharing frameworks across the Basin.

Environmental and downstream outcomes

What are the predicted environmental outcomes following implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy?

The predicted environmental outcomes of licensing floodplain harvesting are directly related to how much growth in extraction there has been above legal limits. Where growth has occurred, the licensing process will result in water returning to the environment by reducing the amount that can be taken through floodplain harvesting. The benefits to downstream users and the environment are detailed in various resources available online. See the summary PDF, 195.54 KB and video on predicted environmental outcomes of implementation of the policy. Specific environmental outcomes as a result of implementing the policy are modelled for each valley. The reports available include Environmental Outcomes for Border Rivers valleyGwydir valley and Macquarie valley.

How will we know if licensing of floodplain harvesting is having the desired environmental outcomes?

The department is developing a comprehensive environmental monitoring evaluation and reporting (MER) plan for the five northern Murray-Darling Basin valleys. The plan includes actions that will allow us to monitor the environmental and downstream impacts of implementing the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy. The plan will use information collected before and after implementation of the policy, including satellite imagery which can be used to track the changes on the floodplain. This provides us with a longer period to assess how the floodplain has changed and if management is achieving the desired outcomes set out in the legislation. MER will provide information for statutory 5-year and 10-year review and amendment of relevant water sharing plans and evaluation of the policy.

How do floodplain harvesting events in the northern Basin and cease-to-flow events in the Barwon-Darling River correlate?

It has been suggested that floodplain harvesting diversions cause, or at least contribute to, cease-to-flow events in the Barwon-Darling River. The department has analysed modelled daily floodplain harvesting diversions across the NSW Border Rivers, Gwydir and Namoi valleys from the last 30 years and compared these to observed flows at Walgett over the same period. These modelled diversions assume that no licensing framework is in place and there are no other floodplain harvesting restrictions.

The analysis shows that there is no evidence to support a proposition that floodplain harvesting is occurring during cease-to-flow events and could be considered to be contributing to either starting the cease-to-flow period sooner or extending the event in a meaningful way. See the Floodplain harvesting and cease-to flow events in the Barwon–Darling fact sheet for more information on this analysis.

Does growth in floodplain harvesting have a significant impact on River Murray flows and allocations?

No, inflows from the Lower Darling River represent, on average, 14% of the total inflows into the River Murray. This means that major changes to inflows from the northern Basin have only minor impacts on total River Murray inflows. For example, a 10% reduction in inflows from the Lower Darling would result in only a 1.4% reduction in total inflows to the River Murray.

Some stakeholders have quoted that the Lower Darling system contributes 39% of flows to South Australia. This statistic assumes that Lower Darling inflows are always used first to meet the South Australian entitlement flows, but this is not the way the NSW Murray system is managed in practice. Best available information is in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority technical report 2010/20, which suggests that under baseline diversion limit conditions, the Lower Darling system would have contributed 14% of the total inflows to the River Murray over the climatic period from 1895 to 2009.

A report outlining the cumulative downstream benefits that result from returning floodplain harvesting to legal limits was published in early 2021. It found that reducing floodplain harvesting back to legal limits in the northern Basin is expected to result in undetectable improvements in River Murray allocations because the reductions are not significant in the context of the River Murray inflows and because a large proportion of these additional flood flows will support natural processes as they pass down through the northern Basin.

The department is undertaking a work program to improve understanding of how much water returns to rivers from foregone diversions on the floodplain. This will contribute to improved understanding of contributions to the River Murray system.

For more details, please refer to:

How much would River Murray flows increase if floodplain harvesting were to cease?

Licensing floodplain harvesting does not change the water source legal limits. This means if floodplain harvesting in the northern Basin were to cease, other forms of water take could increase to take its place without exceeding the overall water source legal limits.

In effect, this means that inflows to the River Murray over the long term would not change if floodplain harvesting in the northern Basin were to cease altogether.

However, even if we assume that this did not occur and 100% of the additional floodplain flows will contribute to Barwon-Darling inflows, then inflows from the Lower Darling will not increase by more than 8.7% on average meaning that total inflows to the NSW Murray will not increase by more than 1.2% on average i.e. 14% of 8.7% is 1.2%.

In reality, we expect that the maximum impact on the NSW Murray will be less than 1% as significant proportions of these floodplain flows will be consumed by natural processes, i.e. we expect that less than 100% of the additional floodplain flows will contribute to downstream flows. As an example, only 13% of the observed flood flows passing through St George in Queensland during the 2020 first flush event made it through the intersecting streams to join the Darling River at Bourke, despite all forms of take in NSW being restricted and water use in Queensland accounting for only 28% of this change.

As an example, only 13% of the observed flood flows entering from QLD during the first flush event in February 2020 made it through the intersecting streams to join the Darling River at Bourke, despite all forms of take being restricted. As an example, only 13% of the observed flood flows passing through St George in Queensland during the 2020 first flush event made it through the intersecting streams to join the Darling River at Bourke, despite all forms of take in NSW being restricted and water use in Queensland accounting for only 28% of this change.

How has the NSW Government considered connectivity when assessing and evaluating the volume of floodplain harvesting licences?

Under the NSW water sharing framework, connectivity between systems is managed through various mechanisms, but most significantly through extraction limits. These include the extraction limits set out in NSW water sharing plans and the Basin Plan. These limits cover all forms of take for the water resources, rather than limits on a certain form of take such as floodplain harvesting. In licensing floodplain harvesting we are considering the current entitlements and usage of other forms of take to ensure that the total limits are not exceeded. Further information on the downstream effects of implementing the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy, including the issuing of licences under a particular scenario, is in the Modelled downstream effects of licensing floodplain harvesting in the NSW Border Rivers  and Gwydir valleys report.

The department is also considering other mechanisms that could be used to potentially deliver connectivity improvements through the State Water Strategy and the Western Regional Water Strategy. The department is working with key northern and southern Basin stakeholders to discuss the issue of connectivity with a particular focus on connectivity during dry times when critical human and environmental needs are most at risk. These strategies will look at ways to ensure connectivity is suitable for the future needs of the State with the potential for a dryer climate. You can find more information about this on State Water Strategy and Regional Water Strategy webpages, as well as on the Connectivity Stakeholder Panel webpage.

Will licensing floodplain harvesting in the northern Basin contribute to more inflows to the south?

Growth in floodplain harvesting has the potential to adversely affect water users and the environment in the floodplain areas where it occurs. Despite this, evidence shows that negative impacts diminish significantly as flows move across vast floodplain areas and downstream. In fact, this evidence suggests that even completely removing floodplain harvesting from the northern Basin, would increase average annual water availability in the NSW Murray system by less than 1%.

In areas where there has been growth in floodplain harvesting causing an exceedance of the legal limits, such as the NSW Border Rivers and Gwydir valleys, licensing of floodplain harvesting will result in water being returned to floodplains, rivers and creeks.

Modelling indicates that licencing floodplain harvesting in the NSW Border Rivers and Gwydir valleys will return an average of 58.4 gigalitres per year to these floodplain areas. These floodplain flows are important to support groundwater recharge, wetlands, vegetation and other agricultural systems and only a proportion of this additional water will return back to rivers and creeks.

Unfortunately, being able to accurately assess the quantum and timing of these floodplain flows returning to rivers and creeks is beyond the capability of river system models worldwide. However, to inform the public debate the department has undertaken a sensitivity analysis to assess the range in possible benefit. Even if 100% of these additional floodplain flows returned to rivers and creeks, the improvements to Barwon-Darling flows and Menindee inflows as a result of reducing floodplain harvesting back to legal limits in the Border Rivers and Gwydir valleys will be modest and there will be no detectable change to Lower Darling or NSW Murray water allocations.

The most significant impacts on allocations in the Murray system result from changed inflows upstream of Albury, which have decreased by more than a third in the last 20 years relative to the past century. This is caused by a combination of factors including: low rainfall, high temperatures and catchment modification (including farm dams).

More information on the downstream effects of licensing floodplain harvesting in NSW Border Rivers and Gwydir valleys can be found at Modelled downstream effects of licensing floodplain harvesting.

Modelling for floodplain harvesting

How is existing floodplain harvesting accounted for in NSW Government's catchment scale water balance models?

The department has prepared detailed reports describing the approach to building its updated hydrological models, including information about the objectives, development process, data sources, results, and level of accuracy of modelling for each valley. Accounting for floodplain harvesting relies on water balance calculations at three different spatial scales: farm, river reach, and whole valley. An overview of this process is presented in Chapter 2 of the model build reports, with Chapters 4-7 going into more detail on components and processes. For more information, please refer to the model build reports for the Border RiversGwydir and Macquarie valleys which are published on our website.

Independent peer reviews

Can I be confident in the modelling, data and reports for the floodplain harvesting reform?

All modelling is independently peer reviewed and access to data, information and assessments relating to floodplain harvesting are made publicly available on the Healthy Floodplains Project webpages. This ensures complete transparency to increase public confidence.

The models use multiple lines of evidence to understand water flows, irrigation usage and water infrastructure in each valley, including user surveys, on ground inspections, river flow and metered diversions, remote sensing, flood studies and hydraulic models. Details on how the models are developed and the results of the modelling are provided for each valley. For example, see the modelling reports for the NSW Border Rivers valley.

These reports are peer-reviewed by Greg Claydon and Tony Weber who are independent experts in water industry reform, policy development and modelling. The peer reviews validate the technical information, allowing stakeholders to be confident that a rigorous process has been used in model development.

All models have uncertainty and one of the key sources of uncertainty is the lack of metering information for floodplain harvesting that could have otherwise formed an important line of evidence for model calibration. Improved metering and measurement of floodplain harvesting is a key outcome of the licensing process and will allow the department to refine the modelling over time with any improvements reconciled through the annual water allocation process.

The department is also validating the data used in the models and modelling results on a property-by-property basis. Each eligible landholder has been provided with data applicable to their property, eligible works and farm infrastructure. They are given 28 days to make a submission if they believe the data to be inaccurate. Submissions are reviewed and recommendations made by the Healthy Floodplains Review Committee according to the terms of reference. The committee is comprised of representatives from the NSW Farmers Association, NSW Irrigators Council, the Nature Conservation Council and has an independent chair. For more information, see the Guideline for the Implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy PDF, 434.91 KB.

Has the policy and modelling been reviewed by external experts? Who are the independent peer reviewers?

Yes. The primary objective of the independent peer reviews on floodplain harvesting is to provide transparency regarding technical information and provide stakeholders with confidence that technical rigour and supporting processes are suitable to support sound implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting policy PDF, 410.45 KB.

In 2018, the department, with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), commissioned an independent peer review of implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy in northern NSW. See the report at Independent review of NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy implementation. See the fact sheet at An independent review into floodplain harvesting fact sheet.

This review provided 16 key recommendations and 48 other recommendations. These were accepted in full and addressed in the Floodplain Harvesting Action Plan.

The department has engaged expert reviewers who are recognised nationally and internationally as experts in their respective fields. They were not involved in any activities regarding the modelling and/or implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy prior to their commencement of the review tasks. It therefore was a truly independent review without any preconceptions of departmental influences on the approach or considerations. The expert reviewers are Tony Weber and Greg Claydon. See information about the reviewers online.

Following their report on the policy, the reviewers have continued to work to review key modelling reports and other activities relating to the recommendations. They are reviewing the modelling reports for each of the five valleys as they become available. For example, see the review summary for the NSW Border Rivers Model Build, Scenarios and Environmental Outcomes reports PDF, 198.46 KB.

The model for the Namoi valley was rebuilt in the new eWater Source model platform and has not yet been subjected to as high a level of independent technical assessment and review as the department’s other floodplain harvesting models. The department has designed an enhanced stakeholder and peer review process for the Namoi model that will commence during October 2021. The process will provide key stakeholders the opportunity to be directly involved in reviewing the model, explain all aspects of the model in detail and increase transparency of modelling methods and water management decision-making. Existing expert reviewers, Tony Weber and Greg Claydon, will be involved in the process, as well as an additional expert, Drew Bewsher. Drew has completed numerous hydrologic reviews for state government agencies in NSW, Victoria, Queensland as well as the MDBA. This includes all Cap model reviews in the Murray-Darling Basin under Schedule E of the MDB Agreement.

In 2019, Maddocks Lawyers undertook a probity review PDF, 112.52 KB of certain elements relating to implementation of the policy. This probity review found that the processes under review were lawful and well-documented. This probity review is currently being extended to examine and cover the role of the review committee and its consideration of landholder submissions through the farm scale validation process. The findings of this extended probity review are expected to be published during the inquiry.

Floodplain harvesting measurement

What is the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Measurement Policy?

The NSW Government released the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Measurement Policy PDF, 2270.23 KB (the measurement policy) in July 2020.

The measurement policy sets out the objectives, methods and intended rules for ensuring that licensed floodplain harvesting in the northern Murray–Darling Basin is measured and accounted.

Importantly, amendments to the Water Management (General) Regulation 2018 are necessary to give legal effect to the measurement policy.

Why is the measurement policy needed?

Irrigation practices in the northern Murray–Darling Basin have historically seen landowners use significant volumes of water from the floodplain environment. Even though the water harvested is additional to water from other licensed extractions, floodplain harvesting practices are critical to business productivity and the region’s economic viability. The intermittent availability of water in the northern Basin has led to large-scale development of on-farm storages intended to improve the reliability of water supply for irrigated agriculture enterprises.

The job of the NSW Government is to regulate water take to ensure a fair share for all, including downstream users and the environment. To do this, we need to have accurate measurement systems for the take of floodplain water as specified in formal policy.

How was the measurement policy developed?

The department consulted a wide range of stakeholders during the development of the measurement policy. These consultations have included water users directly affected by the reforms in the northern Basin; First Nations Australians, downstream users and communities; and environmental groups. The measurement policy was also informed by technical input from experts in water measurement.

This collaborative approach means that the views of stakeholders have been actively canvassed throughout the development process. The department has worked to balance, as far as practical, the many competing stakeholder objectives.

The measurement policy is the first of its kind in Australia.

What does the measurement policy cover?

The measurement policy applies to all storages in the five northern NSW Murray–Darling Basin valleys that are used to take water under a floodplain harvesting access licence, Border Rivers, Gwydir, Namoi, Barwon–Darling and Macquarie valleys.

What do water users need to do to be measurement-ready?

Under the measurement policy, all storages used to take water under a floodplain harvesting water access licence will need to be fitted with:

  • An accurate storage meter, installed and validated by a certified storage meter installer,
  • A survey benchmark, against which the storage meter is calibrated, installed and validated by a registered surveyor or engineer
  • A local intelligence device that records and securely transmits water take information to the NSW Government, installed and validated by a certified storage meter installer

Storages will also need a secondary or backup device, such as an accurate gauge-board, if they are to be used to take water if the primary measurement device fails.

Under the measurement policy, a landholder must notify the Minister at the start and end of a flood event. It will be an offence for a landholder to commence harvesting without first notifying the Minister.

The amount of water floodplain harvested is determined by deducting the volume of water in storage at the start of the event from the volume of water in storage at the end of the event.

What has government already done to implement the measurement policy?

The measurement policy requires all eligible floodplain harvesting works to have an automated measurement device with near-real time telemetry connected to the NSW Government’s cloud-based platform. Measurement devices must be tamper-proof and be installed and certified by a duly qualified person. These devices support notifications and reporting requirements by automatically reporting water use against water allocations and assist water management by reporting take directly to the user. The department has made significant progress in implementing the measurement policy, including:

  • establishing, in partnership with Irrigation Australia Limited, a specific training and certification program for installers of floodplain harvesting measurement equipment. To date, 40 people, including staff from the Department, NRAR and WaterNSW, and around 27 private practitioners have obtained this certification
  • establishing a facility at Manly Hydraulics Laboratory to test devices used to measure floodplain harvesting
  • publishing information about suitable floodplain harvesting measurement devices and a process for manufacturers of devices to have their devices accredited as suitable for use
  • releasing technical guidelines for installers of floodplain harvesting measurement equipment.
  • developing ICT systems to allow floodplain harvesting measurement devices to be ordered, configured and associated with the relevant licensing information
  • upgrading its telemetry system to receive data from floodplain harvesting measurement devices.
  • supporting suppliers and installers by convening regular discussion forums

How can I become a duly qualified certified storage meter installer?

The department has established, in partnership with Irrigation Australia Limited, a specific training and certification program for installers of floodplain harvesting measurement equipment – certified storage meter installer and validator.

For more information about becoming a certified storage meter installer and validator, visit the  Irrigation Australia Limited website.

Amendments to water regulations for floodplain harvesting

Amendments that were disallowed on 6 May 2021

What was the consultation process on the proposed changes to the regulations?

The amendments made to the Water Management (General) Regulation 2018 (the Regulation) were informed by extensive consultation. Since 2008, there has been ongoing consultation with stakeholders and the wider community regarding the floodplain harvesting reform. Consultation and engagement has spanned all aspects of policy development and planning, with a broad spectrum of community and stakeholders who have an interest in the Murray-Darling Basin.

The government published four packages of proposed amendments to the Regulation on 23 November 2020 and invited public feedback through a formal submission process. The department accepted submissions from 23 November until 20 December 2020 and 236 submissions were received during this period. In early 2021, consultation outcomes reports (Licence determination and measurementTailwater drain exemptionTransitional exemption) were published for each of the proposed amendment packages.

Many of the submissions supported the new rules and focused on the improved clarity, certainty and transparency they would bring. Those that did not support the proposed changes disagreed with the existing policy or legislative settings. Making changes to these settings was clearly communicated as being outside the scope of the submission process. Another key theme from the consultation was a concern about how floodplain harvesting in the northern Murray-Darling Basin affects downstream systems which is a key consideration being addressed through consultation on the draft water sharing rules for floodplain harvesting licences.

What were the three packages of amendments to the Water Management (General) Regulation 2018? 

Following consultation in late 2020, the NSW Government made the decision to proceed with the making of three out of the four packages of amendments. Based on the submissions received and the limited period that it would apply, the NSW Government decided not to proceed with amendments that would provide a transitional exemption from the need to hold a licence and works approval.

The three packages of amendments were a significant step towards bringing floodplain harvesting into a clear and enforceable regulatory framework, ensuring that floodplain harvesting is within legal limits. They included:

  1. Licensing determination process: This amendment clearly set out the process used to determine eligibility for a floodplain harvesting access licence, the category of licence and share component. It was consistent with the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy PDF, 410.45 KB and Guideline for the Implementation of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy PDF, 434.91 KB. The objective of this amendment was to ensure the process is consistent for water users in each valley where licences are issued, now and into the future. It gave water users clarity about their eligibility for licenses and the determination process for licence categories and share components.
  2. Measurement requirements: All water taken under a floodplain harvesting licence will need to be measured. These amendments clearly set out the rules for measuring floodplain harvesting and required storages to be fitted with compliant and tamper-proof metering, data logging and telemetry equipment. Equipment must be installed and signed off by a duly qualified person. The deadline for installing compliant equipment will depend on the size of the storage and its frequency of use.
  3. Tailwater return drain exemption: This regulation provided an exemption from the need for a water supply work approval for the use of tailwater drain, and an exemption from the need for a water access licence for the collection of rainfall run-off in a tailwater drain during periods when it is the only structure collecting rainfall runoff. This amendment gave NSW water users clarity and certainty about what they need to measure and account for and when.

Amendments that were disallowed on 22 September 2020

What were the amendments to the regulation?

The amendments, made on 6 February 2020, provided an exemption from the requirement to hold a water access licence for the purpose of floodplain harvesting. This exemption was subject to the taking of water through an eligible work.

For the purpose of the regulation, an eligible work must be located on a floodplain and be constructed on or before 3 July 2008.

The regulation was disallowed by the Upper House on 22 September 2020.

Key issues raised during the Upper House debate included:

  1. Potential for the exemption to allow for the continued use of unauthorised works,
  2. No public consultation on the regulation prior to submitting,
  3. No sunset clause on the exemption,
  4. No limit on the amount of water that could be taken under the exemption, and
  5. No requirement for measurement of the volumes taken under the exemption.

The issues identified during the Upper House debate were addressed in the development and consultation of the subsequent floodplain harvesting regulations.

What happened to the Water Management (General) Amendment (Exemptions for Floodplain Harvesting) Regulation 2020?

The regulation was disallowed by the Upper House of the NSW Legislative Council on 22 September 2020.

What is the impact of the disallowance?

The disallowance reinstates the confusion that existed prior to the regulation about the legality of floodplain harvesting until it is licensed under the Water Management Act 2000. The fact that the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy has not been fully implemented creates inconsistency between the offence provisions in the Act and the historically legitimate take of water through floodplain harvesting. It has not yet been possible for any landholder to obtain the licences and approvals required for floodplain harvesting. Although there is a process underway to grant these licences and approvals in the Northern Basin since the disallowance the timeframe is now uncertain.

Community consultation

Where can I find more information on past and upcoming events?

You can find all the information on past and upcoming events by visiting stakeholder engagement.

What consultation has occurred during the project?

The department has also consulted on eligibility determination of individual properties, validation of on farm infrastructure, measurement requirements, draft licence entitlements, environmental and downstream outcomes, modelling, regulation amendments as well as proposed rules for floodplain harvesting licences. Consultation has been on-going with eligible landholders, the broader community and stakeholder groups, including dryland farmers, environmental groups, southern Basin groups, First Nations people and government agencies. Throughout the project there have been numerous public webinars, targeted sessions, face-to-face meetings, public exhibition and submission periods, site inspections and individually tailored meetings. Opportunities for  the community to submit feedback and attend online and face to face sessions were communicated through various channels including emails, newsletter articles, media releases, social media and over 100 print and radio public notices, with a reach of over 1.5 million people.

Consultation methods and totals for the draft water sharing plan rules across all three valleys (NSW Border Rivers, Gwydir, and Macquarie) included public exhibition (477 submissions), six targeted consultation sessions (221 participants), six public information sessions (120 participants), three webinars (198 participants) and ten First Nations consultation sessions. The ‘what we heard PDF, 414.8 KB’ report for the NSW Border Rivers valley summarises the feedback the NSW Government received during the public consultation sessions and from written submissions. On 6 May 2021, the Legislative Council disallowed the amendments made to the Water Management (General) Regulations 2018 associated with floodplain harvesting. The regulations are a key enabling instrument for bringing floodplain harvesting into an enforceable licensing and measurement framework. Due to uncertainty caused by the disallowance, the department has suspended remaining consultation on draft water sharing plan rules for floodplain harvesting in the Namoi and Barwon-Darling valleys.

How do the floodplain harvesting reforms benefit First Nations people?

A key outcome of implementing the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy will be to return floodplain harvesting to within the legal limits described by the Basin Plan and NSW water sharing plans. The process of establishing these limits involved significant consultation with all stakeholders including First Nations. We expect that there will be significant improvements for First National people associated with implementing the Policy from water remaining on the floodplain which can re-enter rivers supporting downstream flows. Returned water has the potential to improve water-dependent Aboriginal cultural assets and support important cultural practices, as well as improved environmental outcomes. The floodplain management planning process will result in improved protection of flood dependent cultural values and assets. The reform will also ensure accurate, reliable, tamper proof measurement of floodplain harvesting.

Healthy floodplains resources

Where can I find more information on the Healthy Floodplains Project?

You can find more information, publications and videos relating to the Healthy Floodplains Project in our library.