Urban water reform is underway in a number of jurisdictions in Australia. This article, outlines some of the key aspects of proposals for reform in two States – Victoria and Queensland.
At present, Victoria has two main Acts that govern the management and use of water in the State – namely, the Water Act 1989 and the Water Industry Act 1994. A comprehensive review of these laws was undertaken by an expert Advisory Panel appointed by the Minister for Water. The main objective of the review was to deliver a streamlined and effective legislative framework for water management and use. The primary result of the review is a Water Bill (Vic Water Bill), which proposes to bring the Water Act 1989 and the Water Industry Act 1994 into a single, new streamlined Water Act.
Among other things, the Vic Water Bill will:
- replace the complex and at times, confusing water management arrangements under the existing regulatory regime with Water Resource Management Orders
- promote water cycle management by amending the objects of the Water Act to include promotion of whole of water cycle management and empowering the Minister to impose obligations on water authorities regarding the preparation of whole of water cycle management strategies and plans through Statements of Obligations
- clarify statutory rights regarding water in ‘stormwater works’ (public pipes and drains) by providing that all rights to water in these works will be vested in the Crown and statutory rights to take and use that water will be conferred on local councils and water corporations and extending the water licensing regime to include water contained in local council stormwater works within targeted areas
- replace the requirement for the Minister to produce regional sustainable water strategies with a new, more efficient process for identifying and managing long-term risks to water resources
- clarify and simplify processes for identifying and allocating water rights through water entitlements and licences
- enhance and modernise the compliance and enforcement regime by including more alternatives to court action and new penalties that are commensurate with the nature of the offence.
The Vic Water Bill was introduced into the Victorian Parliament some time ago. However, due to the intervention of the Victorian State election, the Bill has not yet been passed. It is possible that the Water Bill will have bipartisan support and will ultimately be passed. However, it is as yet, unclear, whether the Bill is a priority legislative area for the incoming Andrews’ Labor Government and when it will ultimately pass into law.
The main piece of legislation that regulates the way in which water is allocated, managed and used in Queensland is the Water Act 2000 (Qld Water Act).
A recent review of the Qld Water Act indicated that water management processes and technology have changed dramatically since introduction of the Act in 2000. In addition, the Act is seen as overly lengthy and at times, confusing for relevant stakeholders.
Proposed reform of the Qld Water Act is intended to remove redundant and lengthy processes to help make the delivery of water services quicker, easier and simpler. In addition, proposed changes to the legislative framework are aimed at ensuring that water resources are used responsibly and productively by establishing a framework that is based on best available science and strikes an appropriate balance between economic, social and environmental outcomes for a community.
Among other things, the Water Reform and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 (Qld Water Reform Bill), will:
- ensure Queensland’s water legislation keeps pace with current water management best practice, government service delivery and technology
- deliver on government commitment to ensure the state’s water resources are used responsibly and productively for the benefit of all Queenslanders, while retaining certainty and security of water entitlements
- establish an overarching purpose clause – to ensure balanced economic, social and environmental outcomes
- protect landholder entitlements by limiting the petroleum and gas companies’ right to take underground water
- fast track transition of water licences to tradeable water allocations
- facilitate increased access to water through expanded water markets and more flexible unallocated water release processes
- remove the need for a licence for low impact take of water.
The Qld Water Reform Bill was introduced to Queensland Parliament in early September 2014. It will now be considered by Parliament and, subject to members’ agreement, is anticipated to be in place by late 2014.
As urban water reform continues apace throughout Australia it is likely that we will increasingly see legislative intervention to promote and support sustainable use of water resources.