What happens now—finalising NSW Murray–Darling Basin WRPs and associated WSPs

Assessment of Water resource plans

NSW submitted its draft Water Resource Plans (WRPs) to the MBDA in the first half of 2020. This included 11 groundwater and 9 surface water plans. This was the first step of a three stage process to accredit the plans. The process is shown in the graphic below.

Water Resource Plan process

The next step is for the MDBA to assess each of the WRPs individually.

The requirements for each WRP are included in Chapter 10 of the Basin Plan. To assess each WRP, the MDBA will compare the WRP to these requirements. Each WRP includes a list which states which part of the WRP addresses each requirement, as is required by s. 10.04 of Chapter 10 of the Basin Plan.

As part of the assessment, the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations and Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations will review NSW’s engagement with the Aboriginal Nations when preparing the WRPs.

The requirements for WRPs are complicated and interlinked, so the MDBA has provided criteria to explain how they will assess each of the requirements in the each WRP.

When the MDBA has assessed each of the plans, they will advise the Commonwealth Minister responsible for water on their findings. They will also provide the Commonwealth Minister the advice of the Aboriginal peak bodies.

Progress as of August 2020

The MDBA has advised that is well progressed in its assessment of the groundwater WRPs, and has begun to assess the surface water WRPs. However, the review of the plans by the Aboriginal peak bodies has been delayed and complicated by COVID-19. MLDRIN and NBAN are working on a process to give their advice to the MDBA.

Once an assessment is complete, the MDBA will formally advise NSW of the results of the assessment. This advice will state if the MDBA recommends that the WRP should be accredited. If it does not, the MDBA will set out any areas which need to be addressed and seek a response from NSW within 14 days.

The MDBA has advised NSW that they intend to send their formal advice on WRPs as it becomes available between now and the end of 2020. We expect that NSW, and other Basin states, will need to withdraw and formally re-submit WRPs to make changes that the MDBA identifies as necessary for accreditation. This will most likely be completed within six months.

While the WRPs are being assessed, the MDBA is continuing to hold discussion with NSW on plan provisions.

Water sharing plans

Water Sharing Plans (WSPs) are one component of the WRPs. They are the key legal document for NSW water management, setting out water sharing arrangements between water users, including the environment. They are also a key mechanism to carry out the requirements of the WRPs.

State based components of the WRPs must be in place and commence before the WRP is accredited by the Commonwealth. This means that the NSW WSPs must commence before the NSW WRPs are accredited.

On 1 July 2020, NSW commenced eleven replacement groundwater sharing plans and twelve amended unregulated river water sharing plans. The unregulated river plans are those which were submitted as part of the surface water WRPs. The groundwater replacement plans have been slightly updated, which mean NSW must resubmit these plans to the MDBA.

NSW is also responsible for nine regulated river WSPs and their associated WRPs. These water sharing plans have not yet commenced. NSW is waiting until the MDBA has provided their assessment advice on these water sharing plans before commencing them.

Mandatory conditions from 1 July water sharing plans

Updates to mandatory conditions on access licences and approvals associated with WSPs for unregulated river and groundwater sources that commenced on July 1 will be notified this year.

Unregulated River and Belubula Regulated River Water Sharing Plan reviews

NSW water sharing plans are valid for 10 years from their start date, but the Minister can extend or replace them after the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) reviews them. The NRC’s formal review identifies ways to improve outcomes for all water users, including the environment. Each NRC review includes a public submission process.

If a plan is to be replaced, it can be extended by up to two years while the replacement is prepared. To date, NSW has replaced all its plans.

Six inland unregulated river water sharing plans are due for review by 2022. These are for the Intersecting Streams, Lower Murray Darling, Murray, Castlereagh, and NSW Border Rivers unregulated water sharing plans, and the NSW North West Unregulated and Fractured Rocks water sharing plan.

A further seven water sharing plan are to be reviewed by 2023. These are the unregulated river plans for the Barwon-Darling, Gwydir, Lachlan, Macquarie, Murrumbidgee, and Namoi/Peel, as well as the Belubula regulated river water sharing plan. The review of the Barwon-Darling plan will address any remaining recommendations from the 2019 NRC review.

The NRC is currently scheduling the 2022/2023 WSP reviews. The current plan is to complete the reviews for 2022 in two groups. The first will be completed by the end of 2021, and the second group by July 2022.

The department has begun planning work for the WSP reviews. This work will inform any proposed replacement of the plans. It will consider information from a range of sources, including the Status and Issues Papers prepared for the Water Resource Planning process.

Work on NRC recommendations for the Peel water sharing plan

We are working to address several recommendations from the recent NRC review of the Peel 2010 WSP. The 2010 plan included regulated, unregulated, alluvial and fractured rock water sources within the Peel plan area.

As of July 1, these areas are no longer captured by a single Peel WSP. The groundwater sources are now included in the 2020 Namoi Alluvial and NSW MDB Fractured Rock WSPs.  The Peel unregulated water sources have now been included in the Namoi unregulated WSP. The Peel regulated river remains as a stand-alone Peel Regulated River WSP, which was extended on July 1 for up to two years while we prepare a replacement plan.

The amended Peel Regulated River WSP addressed several recommendations from the NRC review. The department is working through all the recommendations and developing a plan on how they can be addressed.

Including floodplain management provisions in northern basin plans

As part of the NSW Floodplain Harvesting Policy, the department is working through a process to issue floodplain harvesting licences. Rules for these licences will be included in the relevant water sharing plans for the NSW Border Rivers, Gwydir, Namoi, Macquarie and Barwon Darling.

Broadly, the take of water from floodplain harvesting is already included in the relevant WSPs for the northern NSW basin. The long-term average annual extraction limits set in these WSPs include water taken through floodplain harvesting activities in the plan area.

Water sharing plans for these areas will also be amended to include more specific rules that will apply to floodplain harvesting access licences once they are issued. We expect this work will be carried out over the next months so that WSP amendments are in place at 1 July 2021. It will include public consultation on proposed changes by the end of 2020.

We are working with the MDBA on the best way to update the affected WRPs, as these have been submitted for accreditation. Depending on the timing, where the MDBA finds a WRP needs changes to be made, the floodplain harvesting amendments could be included as part of the re-submitted plan. Alternatively, the plan could be amended after it is accredited.

Work on groundwater provisions 

The department is working to implement provisions in several of the groundwater WSPs which have been replaced. These relate to:

  1. The Cockburn Cease to Pump provision in the Namoi Alluvial WSP

    We are studying how to set up a Cease to Pump rule for the Cockburn Alluvium water source, as provided for in the new Namoi Alluvial WSP. We have discussed the scope and outline of the work with the Cockburn water users. We will provide an update on findings in September 2020 and share all findings when the study is complete.

    We will then discuss new water access rules with licence holders and amend the plan to  include these.

  2. Compliance with Sustainable Diversion Limits/Long Term Annual Average Extraction Limits

Groundwater WSPs now include provisions that state how we will restrict water extraction, where a sustainable diversion limit or long-term average annual extraction limit has been exceeded. We will use one or both of the following methods to reduce extraction to the limit:

  • restrict the water allocations that can be taken, transferred under section 71T of the Water Management Act 2000, or otherwise withdrawn from a water allocation account in the following water year.
  • announce available water determinations of less than 100% (or 1 ML/unit share) for lower-priority access licences in the following year.

These provisions are in the WSPs for the Lachlan, Murrumbidgee, Murray, Namoi, Gwydir and Macquarie alluvial systems. They also apply to some water sources in the Great Artesian Basin WSP.

Stakeholders have asked which method would be used in which situation. We will consult on the options in potentially affected water sources in late 2020. This will mean we have clear operational instructions ahead of next year’s water allocation assessments and available water determinations. We will complete consultation in other areas in the longer term.