The Queensland Government has substantially overhauled the State’s water resource legislation to drive growth in Queensland’s agriculture and resource  sectors by cutting red tape and delivering greater certainty to water users. The Water Reform and Other Legislation Amendment   Bill 2014 (Qld) (Water Reform Act) was  passed by parliament on 26 November 2014.

The amendments to the Water Act 2000 (Qld) are focused on providing greater opportunities to access water through increasing the ability to trade water in catchments.

The Water Reform Act achieves this by simplifying the process of converting a water licence to a water allocation. Rather than having to amend the relevant Water Resource Plan (WRP) or Resource Operations Plan (ROP), which is currently the process, the Department of Natural Resources and Mines will be able to issue a ‘Water Entitlement Notice’ to convert, grant, amend, or refuse entitlements. This will enable bulk conversions of water licenses to water allocations, and avoid the need for the significant consultation process involved in amending the WRP or ROP.

The current process is also dependent on comprehensive hydrological models, which are used to define the probability of being able to obtain water under each entitlement. In some situations, this is not feasible as many parts of Queensland lack the necessary data to support the timely development of these hydrogeological models, impeding the process of creating water allocations.

Water users affected by a Water Entitlement Notice will have an opportunity to make submissions on the notice before it is finalised.

Concerns have been raised by the Environmental Defenders Office that the changes could lead to an over-allocation of resources by putting too much power in the hands of corporate water users for the assessment and management of water impacts. To counterbalance these concerns a new power has been proposed. If the chief executive considers there is a shortage of water, it may publish a notice limiting the water that may be taken from that catchment either under an entitlement, permit or seasonal water assignment. This extends to water being taken by a constructing authority or water service provider, and even for domestic or stock purposes.

Streamlined application process and changes to metering

Another key objective of the Water Reform Act is to reduce the regulatory burden associated with water licensing. The reforms remove the requirement to obtain a licence where the amount of water to be taken or interfered with is below a ‘stated threshold’ in the relevant Water Plan.

‘Simple’ dealings with water entitlements – for example, dealings of administrative nature will no longer need to follow a lengthy application process (currently including public notification, submissions and assessment against stated decision criteria by the Department). Simple dealings such as transfers, reinstatements, subdivisions, amalgamations or replacing existing water licenses will be able to be registered without the need to go through this lengthy and costly process.

New licences and dealings with existing water licences that have the potential to impact on other water users or a water resource will remain subject to the existing application process. This change to the simple dealings process may save irrigators up to $1,500 for each application by removing the need to advertise the proposed ‘change’. It is estimated that 75% of the applications received each year will follow the new simple dealings process.

A recent policy change by the Queensland Government now allows customers to self manage their water use by submitting their own water readings. The Queensland Government has also ceased its direct involvement in the purchase, installation and maintenance of water meters.

It is estimated that these changes will save irrigators up to $60 per reading as the department no longer charges its customers call out fees for meter readings. However, concerns have been raised by the Queensland Farmers Federation and Cotton Australia that the self regulating aspects of the amendments could lead to the erosion of farmer’s property rights. They state that water users could exceed their allocations and misreport their meter readings and in doing so, reduce the amount of water available to other water entitlement holders in the catchment. Both of these groups have sought assurances that, in the absence of a credible umpire, the integrity of the self regulation process is guaranteed.

Make Good Arrangements

The make good regime already in place for the gas industry does not yet apply to mining companies. Rather, make good conditions have been imposed through the grant of the water licences, but with a less consistent application and no clear framework for the assessment of impacts and investigation processes.

The Water Reform Act proposes to impose a legislative obligation for mining lease holders and mineral development licence holders to conduct bore assessments, and enter into make good arrangements with landholders, where there is the potential for the mining operations to adversely affect the availability and supply of water available from the property bores.

Prior to taking ground water within a modelled impact zone, a mining company will be required to:

  • undertake an assessment of potential impacts, and
  • where a property bore is likely to be impaired due to mining activities, enter into make good agreements with the bore owner.

A make good agreement allows a mining company and bore owner to agree on measures for the impact to the bore to be ‘made good’, for example:

  • deepening of the bore or improving its pumping capacity
  • constructing a replacement bore for the landholder
  • providing a supply of an equivalent amount of water of a suitable quality by piping it from an alternative source, or
  • compensating the landholder for the impact or loss in value of their land as a result of the reduced supply

​Under Chapter 3 of the Water Act, where a landholder’s bores may be affected by two or more petroleum and gas tenures, a Cumulative Management Area (CMA) can be declared and within the CMA the Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment is to prepare one underground water impact report on behalf of the tenure holders within the area. The Water Reform Bill expands this process to include mining tenure holders where they are contributing to cumulative impacts on the area and mine operators will be required to proactively put make good arrangements in place before the impact occurs.

In summary this means for landowners:

  • if the water you are taking is below the threshold stated in a Water Plan you will no longer need a water licence to authorise the take
  • if your water licence is converted to an allocation, you will be able to trade your water entitlements more easily in the event of any surplus water; and
  • mining companies now have statutory obligations to enter into a make good agreement with landholders whose groundwater supply is impaired as a result of their operations. Legal advice should be sought if you are approached by a mining company to enter into a make good agreement.