The National Water Commission (NWC) is an independent statutory authority established in 2004 to provide advice to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and the Australian Government on national water issues. The NWC has been instrumental in implementing the National Water Initiative (NWI) – a national blueprint for water reform in Australia.
In essence, the NWI represents a commitment shared by all governments to increase the efficiency of Australia’s water use through a more coherent national approach to the management, pricing and trading of our water resources. Under the NWI, governments agreed to:
- achieve sustainable water use in over-allocated or stressed water systems
- introduce registers of water rights and standards for water accounting
- expand trade in water rights
- improve pricing for water storage and delivery
- better manage urban water demands
Among other things, the NWC was responsible for monitoring the transition from existing water policy frameworks to the new regime set up under the NWI. In addition, the NWC established benchmarks to measure progress under the NWI by undertaking regular assessments of Australia’s water resources. Under the Water Act 2007, the NWC also had the role of auditing the effectiveness of the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and associated water resource plans.
Ten years on from the NWC’s establishment, the National Water Commission (Abolition) Bill has been introduced into Federal Parliament to abolish the Commission with effect from 1 January 2015. The explanation for its abolition is said to be because much of the NWC’s reform work has been done. In particular, the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill explains that, since its establishment in 2004, there has been considerable progress in enhancing security of irrigation water entitlements, enabling water markets and trade, strengthening Australia’s water resource information base and improving urban water security.
Under the Bill to abolish the NWC, the NWC’s oversight functions will be transferred to other existing Commonwealth agencies, including the Productivity Commission. The Productivity Commission will be responsible for assessments of progress in the implementation of the NWI and audits of the effectiveness of the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and associated Basin State water resource plans.
On 24 November 2014, the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee tabled its majority report on the Bill, recommending that the Bill be passed.
The conclusion of the NWC’s role in water reform in Australia coincides with the Australian Government’s clear commitment to investment in major water infrastructure. The ‘Water Infrastructure Options Paper’, which was released by the Government in October 2014, identifies a range of proposed projects by the Government to secure Australia’s water supplies. The Options Paper explains that the Government can play a leadership role in facilitating the development of major water infrastructure projects, by:
- supporting future planning
- continuing to promote national water management reform
- providing or assisting with scientific and economic advice and analysis
- efficiently administering national environmental legislation
- in some cases where there is a clear national case for assistance, providing direct financial investment for construction.
A total of 63 water infrastructure projects identified by the States and Territories are listed in the Options Paper. Of these, 27 projects across the country have been identified as potentially involving the Commonwealth in the future. These projects include the construction of new dams, pipelines and storage facilities.
The Options Paper heralds a new era in the management of Australia’s water resources involving investment in major water infrastructure. It is expected that this approach will generate a wide range of benefits:
“Water resources development can encourage regional development and contribute to regional and national economic and social benefits. Investment in water infrastructure can raise productivity and economic activity, meeting critical needs for all Australians, including safe drinking water, sanitation and provide for flood mitigation. Water infrastructure also supports expanding industries such as mining and irrigated agriculture, particularly in rural and regional areas. Given the nature of our dry continent, it is critical infrastructure.” ¹