Finalising Water Resource Plans—What happens now

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 MDBA undertook their assessment of the WRPs between May 2020 and August 2021.

All twenty NSW WRPs were withdrawn following receipt of formal advice from the MDBA indicating the plans did not meet all accreditation requirements. The main reasons the plans did not meet the accreditation requirements were:

  • Issues around planned environmental water
  • Aboriginal consultation
  • Internal and other minor referencing issue

Withdrawal and resubmission of WRPs, once formal advice from the MDBA is received, is a normal process followed by all states with their Basin Plan commitments and the accreditation process.

NSW has worked with the MDBA to address the issues raised in the formal advice. The Border Rivers Alluvium plan was resubmitted in February 2022 and the Lachlan surface water plan was resubmitted in March 2022. NSW has been working with the MDBA to resubmit the remaining 18 water resource plans.

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.

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 will be undertaking WSP amendments to implement the floodplain harvesting rules and accounting measures. Individual valley information can be found at Water sharing plan rules for floodplain harvesting.

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. Investigating cease to pump rules for the Cockburn River alluvium

    The department is investigating options for setting a daily cease to pump rule for aquifer access licences in the Cockburn River Alluvium Management Zone in the Peel Alluvium Groundwater Source.

    The Water Sharing Plan for the Namoi Alluvial Groundwater Sources 2020 allows access rules to be established after 1 July 2022.

    To inform this work we commenced a study to investigate the relationship between groundwater extraction and surface water pools.

    The department will share findings with stakeholders when the study is complete.

    The department will consider the study findings when developing options for groundwater access rules before consulting with stakeholders on their views.

  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.