Key Points:

Amendments to Queensland's water resource management framework have whole-of-water-business implications for all stakeholders in the sector.

The Water Reform and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 was passed by Queensland Parliament on 26 November 2014 and makes significant amendments to the Water Act 2000. Consistent with the LNP Government's overarching policy agenda, the primary drivers for the review are modernising, streamlining and simplifying water regulation in the State with a view to growing agriculture as one of the four pillars of the economy. The provisions of the Act will commence on a day to be fixed by proclamation.

The Agriculture, Resources and Environment Committee delivered its report on the then Bill on 17 November 2014 and commented that the Bill appeared to have the broad support of most user groups across the State. The Committee recommended that the Bill be passed (with consideration of some additional recommendations).

In this article, we discuss some of the key aspects of the new water resource planning framework which has been described by the Committee as a "transparent, statutory-based water planning and allocation framework" which should improve water planning efficiency and reduce the time spent on planning activities. There's further information on the Bill's implications for the resources sector here.

New water plans

The Act provides for a new water planning framework structured around catchment-based statutory water plans, which will replace the 23 existing water resource plans in force in the State.

Where previously the process for making a water resource plan involved a number of quite detailed steps (including preparation by the Minister of a statement of proposals and overview report and numerous public notification requirements), the newly prescribed process for making water plans is considerably less prescriptive and the number of matters to which the Minister is required to have regard in preparing a draft water plan are significantly fewer. [1]

Operational matters to be dealt with through new protocols and manuals

Other new features of the framework include the replacement of resource operations plans with:

  • for unsupplemented water supply schemes – water management protocols; and
  • for supplemented water supply schemes – operations manuals.

A water management protocol may provide for water allocation dealing rules, water sharing rules, seasonal water assignment rules, any volumes of unallocated water reserved for particular purposes or stated locations, the criteria for deciding applications for water licences and anything else necessary for implementing the water plan. Water management protocols may be made and amended by the chief executive with adequate consultation with affected persons. There is no indication as to what will constitute adequate consultation in this context because it is expected that it will vary with the scope and intent of each water management protocol.

An operations manual may provide for matters such as operational rules, environmental flow release rules, water sharing rules or other arrangements relevant to the operation of the water supply scheme (including for example, monitoring and reporting arrangements). Operations manuals are to be developed by scheme operators and submitted to the chief executive for approval where it is a condition of a resource operations licence or distributions operations licence for the holder to have such a manual.

The fact that the scheme operator is charged with the preparation of an operations manual is seen to provide a flexible outcome-based regulatory arrangement as the scheme operators are best placed to decide how their water infrastructure should be operated. Again, the operations manual is to be developed with adequate consultation with persons affected by the manual as it relates to the resource operations licence or distribution operations licence.

Transitioning from the old to the new

The Act contains a detailed suite of transitional provisions to facilitate the shift from the current water planning framework to the new arrangements. For example, existing water resource plans are deemed to continue as water plans. [2] Further, there are provisions which effectively split the contents of existing resource operations plans across a number of new or amended instruments including a resource operations licence, an operations manual, a distribution operations licence, a water licence, a water plan or if not addressed in any of these instruments, a water management protocol. A provision of a resource operation plan not otherwise dealt with in one of these other instruments will cease to have effect.

Any references to a resource operations plan in an act or document are, if the context permits, taken to be a reference to another document (as relevant). For example, under certain provisions of the Act, where a resource operations licence includes a condition that the licence holder comply with the provisions of a resource operations plan, the reference in the condition to the resource operations plan is to be read as a reference to the operations manual.

Conclusion

The Committee has acknowledged that the framework established by the Act includes a number of new elements that may give rise to implementation issues. Accordingly, scheme operators, entitlement holders and other stakeholders will need to quickly familiarise themselves with the new framework with a view to managing potential business and regulatory impacts.