Regulatory framework for the Murray‑Darling Basin and water metering
The MDB has a complex history, with competing demands for water
resources from various stakeholders, such as Basin states, irrigators and other
agricultural groups, river communities, and environmental bodies. These
competing demands therefore make it challenging to manage the appropriate
allocation and use of water via legislation and other regulatory frameworks.
Historically, water management was controlled by the individual Basin
states. However, the Basin Plan, which came into effect in 2012, allowed the
Commonwealth to take a more prominent role in the management of the Basin's
This chapter details the various Commonwealth and state governance
arrangements and legislative frameworks that regulate water management,
compliance and enforcement across the MDB. The chapter also considers the
metering and monitoring regulations and systems in place, with some examination
of metering in both South Australia and NSW.
The MDB is governed by a complex arrangement of interacting legislation
at both the Commonwealth and state level.
It should be noted that it is the states that directly regulate water
usage in the Basin, with no direct involvement of the Commonwealth in state
matters such as licensing, regulation, and day‑to‑day water
Water Act 2007 (Commonwealth)
The Water Act 2007 (Water Act) commenced on 3 September 2007,
giving effect to the Government’s National Plan for Water Security. This Plan
provided an initial $10.05 billion for modernising Australia's irrigation infrastructure,
addressing over‑allocation of water in the Basin, reforming management of
the Basin and investing in water information.
The Water Act provides for a Basin-wide approach to setting supportable limits
on water that can be taken from the Basin, while sustainably managing water
The objects of the Act are to:
- enable the Commonwealth, in conjunction with the Basin states, to
manage Basin water resources;
- to give effect to relevant international agreements, to the
extent those agreements are relevant to the use and management of the Basin's
water resources, and provide special measures in accordance with those
agreements to address threats to the water resources of the Basin;
promote the use and management of Basin water resources 'in a way
that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes';
- without limiting the previous two points:
- ensure the return to environmentally sustainable levels of
extraction for water resources that are over‑allocated or overused,
- protect, restore and provide for the ecological values and
ecosystem services of the Basin,
- subject to the above two points, 'maximise the net economic
returns to the Australian community from the use and management' of Basin water
- improve water security for all users of Basin water resources;
- ensure the management of Basin water resources is in accordance
with the broader management of natural resources in the Basin;
- achieve 'efficient and cost effective water management and
administrative practices' for Basin water resources; and
provide for the 'collection, collation, analysis and dissemination'
of information on Australia's water resources and the use and management of
water in Australia.
Murray-Darling Basin Plan
The Basin Plan was adopted as a legislative instrument in November 2012
and provides for the integrated management of the water resources in the
Basin. The Plan limits the amount of water that can be extracted or taken
annually from the Basin for consumptive use, while leaving enough water for the
environment. This amount is called the Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL).
Sustainable Diversion Limits
SDLs have been determined for each catchment and aquifer in the Basin.
The Basin Plan 'determines the long term average amount of water that can be
extracted each year from the Basin for urban, industrial and agricultural use',
and this is reflected in the SDLs. DAWR advised the committee that:
The Basin-wide SDL for surface water is 10,783 gigalitres,
which represents a reduction of 2,750 gigalitres (GL) from pre‑existing
levels of diversion, with this SDL formally commencing from
1 July 2019.
This 2750GL reduction is referred to as the water recovery target. The Basin
Plan included a seven-year transition period to enable time for adjustment to
the Plan and SDLs across the Basin, with opportunities to review and improve
the Plan during this implementation phase. As of 1 July 2019, the SDLs will
come into effect.
Water Resource Plans
The SDL will be implemented through Basin state water resource plans (WRPs).
The WRPs are developed under the existing water planning frameworks in Basin
states, and are a key mechanism by which each state will implement the Basin
There are 36 WRP areas across the Basin, incorporating groundwater and
surface water areas. The WRPs outline how water resources will be managed to be
consistent with the Basin Plan, and help to align Basin‑wide and
state-based water resource management. The WRPs detail, among other things,
annual limits on water take, how water will be managed during extreme events,
environmental water, and strategies to achieve water quality standards.
WRPs must be submitted to the MDBA for assessment, which then evaluates
if the WRPs are consistent with the Basin Plan. The MDBA will then advise the
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources (Minister) if the WRP should be
accredited, with the Minister making the final determination on accreditation.
This process must be completed prior to 1 July 2019. Despite this deadline,
there is currently only one accredited WRP (for Warrego‑Paroo‑Nebine).
The MDBA has monitoring and compliance responsibilities for WRPs.
Roles and responsibilities
There are many different actors and legislative instruments involved in
the governance of the MDB. Each Basin state (Queensland, NSW, Victoria and
South Australia) and the ACT has its own water legislation, and the MDB as a whole is governed by the Water Act
and the Basin Plan. Compliance and enforcement activities are distributed
amongst various state and federal agencies.
The Water Act ascribed responsibilities to a number of Commonwealth
agencies in developing, implementing and enforcing the Basin Plan. Each Basin
state government also has a role to play in protecting state water resources
and enforcing state legislation. Below is an overview of the role and
responsibilities of the various governing bodies.
Murray-Darling Basin Authority
The MDBA was established under the Water Act as an independent statutory
authority. Its responsibilities include, among other things, to:
- prepare, implement and review the Basin Plan, including setting
and altering SDLs;
- work with Basin states to develop and accredit WRPs;
measure, monitor and record the quality and quantity of the
Basin's water resources;
- support and conduct research and investigations into the Basin's
water resources and dependent ecosystems;
- efficiently deliver water to users on behalf of partner
- support sub-committees (including the Basin Community Committee
and the Basin Plan Implementation Committee) and give effect to the decisions
of the Ministerial Council and the Basin Officials Committee in relation to the
Basin governments' joint programs.
With respect to compliance and enforcement of the Water Act and
the Basin Plan, the MDBA has a number of responsibilities. The Water Act
identifies the MDBA as the appropriate enforcement agency for a contravention
of the provisions of the Act relating to the management of Basin water resources,
including the Basin Plan and WRPs.
The compliance activity undertaken by the MDBA complements the
compliance activities of the Basin states. The powers of the MDBA in regard to
compliance and enforcement are detailed in Part 8 (Enforcement) and Part 10 (MDBA
special powers) of the Water Act.
Under Part 8, the MDBA enforcement powers include—but are not limited
to—the power to seek injunctions, declarations, court orders for pecuniary
penalties, issue enforcement notices and infringement notices, and enter into
enforceable undertakings. Under Part 10, the MDBA has special powers to
enforce contraventions, including the power to appoint authorised officers to
exercise relevant powers. Authorised officers have the power to enter land in
certain circumstances, including for compliance purposes.
Commonwealth Water Minister
In addition to making the final determination on the accreditation of
WRPs, the Minister approves program funding allocations, and, pursuant to the
Water Act, approves the Basin Plan. The Minister also evaluates the progress of
implementation of the Basin Plan, and chairs the Murray‑Darling Basin
The Minister has enforcement powers with respect to contraventions of a
provision of Part 7 of the Water Act, which relates to 'water information'
Department of Agriculture and Water
The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR) is responsible
for recovering water through on- and off-farm infrastructure investment and
water purchases (commonly referred to as 'buybacks'). It is also responsible
for funding projects through the SDL adjustment mechanism.
DAWR chairs the Basin Officials Committee (BOC). The BOC facilitates
cooperation and coordination between the Australian Government, the Basin
states and the MDBA in funding works and managing Basin water and other natural
resources. It is responsible for providing advice to the Ministerial Council.
The Intergovernmental Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the
Murray-Darling Basin (IGA) is an undertaking by the Commonwealth and Basin
states to ensure that the Basin Plan is implemented in a cost effective manner
to support the goals of the Plan. Under the IGA, it was agreed that the
Commonwealth would provide financial support to the Basin States via the
National Partnership Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the
Murray-Darling Basin (NPA). This NPA recognises the costs that states will
incur in the implementation of the Basin Plan, including through the
development of WRPs, implementation of new compliance and reporting
requirements, and amendment of water trading rules.
The NPA sets out milestones for implementation of reforms and each state
is required to report on their milestone progress through an annual statement
of assurance. DAWR is responsible for the assessment of the states' progress
against these milestones.
Commonwealth Environmental Water
The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH), established under
the Water Act, manages the Commonwealth's environmental water holdings to
'protect and restore environmental assets' of the MDB and manage water in
accordance with the Basin Plan.
The Basin Plan requires that the CEWH 'perform its functions and
exercise its powers in a way that is consistent with the Basin‑wide
environmental water strategy', while having regard to the 'Basin annual
environmental watering priorities'.
Commonwealth environmental water holdings are water acquired by the
Australian Government through a combination of investments in water-saving
infrastructure, water purchases (buybacks) and other water recovery programs.
The Commonwealth environmental water holdings are a mix of entitlement types,
including regulated, unregulated and groundwater licences with varying levels
of security. Commonwealth environmental water entitlements are subject to the
same allocation, carryover and other rules as equivalent entitlements held by
other water users. They are also subject to the same fixed and variable tariffs
as other equivalent entitlements across the Basin.
Each Basin state government is responsible for implementing the Basin
Plan within its jurisdiction, including through:
- developing projects for the SDL adjustment mechanism;
- implementing water trading rules;
- coordinating the delivery of environmental water;
- monitoring and reporting; and
- allocating water to licence holders.
Basin states must also set and enforce the rules for water take. The
most pressing issue for Basin states at the moment is the development of WRPs,
which must be accredited before 1 July 2019. The MDBA advised that:
Basin states prepare WRPs under their own legislation to be
accredited under the Basin Plan so that an accredited WRP will align with, and
give effect to, the requirements of the Water Act and the Basin Plan. Basin
states will continue to be responsible for ensuring compliance with their own
legislation—that is, states will continue to be responsible for preventing
illegal take. The MDBA’s role is principally to ensure compliance at the valley
(or SDL resource unit) scale, through a new SDL accounting framework supported
by an appropriate audit and assurance regime.
The MDBA confirmed during Senate Estimates in 2017 that it would
exercise its powers to not endorse a WRP, should the situation warrant it. The
MDBA noted that 'compliance is clearly an issue' and this will be considered
when WRPs were presented by the states for approval.
In confirming that compliance with Basin state water licences was a
matter for the relevant state government agency, the MDBA observed that the
allegations made by Four Corners were a matter for NSW, and that 'none of the
allegations relate to the actions of the MDBA'.
NSW Barwon‑Darling Water Sharing Plan
The Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling Unregulated and Alluvial
Water Sources 2012 (Barwon‑Darling WSP) was alluded to in the Four
Corners program, with the program alleging that the water available for extraction
by irrigators increased under that WSP. A number of submitters and witnesses to
the inquiry held strong views on the Barwon‑Darling WSP.
The Barwon‑Darling WSP commenced on 4 October 2012. The Barwon‑Darling
WSP covers the towns of Mungindi, Mogil Mogil, Collarenebri, Walgett,
Brewarrina, Bourke, Louth, Tilpa and Wilcannia.
In its submission to the committee, the MDBA provided comment on the
Barwon‑Darling WSP, and expressed concern that it could impact on
environmental flows, thus lending support to some of the claims made by Four
Corners and by others in evidence to the inquiry. The MDBA advised that this
commenced a month prior to the Basin Plan coming into effect
[in 2012]. Significant changes occurred between the draft plan and the final
plan being released, including a change to the sharing components that resulted
in fewer C Class (high flow) shares, and an increased number of A Class and B
Class (low and medium flow) shares. The net effect of this was to allow
extraction of water more often at the lower end of the flow regime. These and
other changes, such as allowing trade of A class water, removing pump intake
size limitations, and allowing storage of A class water, made by NSW to the WSP
have the potential to impact on the integrity of environmental flow events and
the magnitude of downstream flow.
Stakeholders have raised concerns about aspects of the
current Barwon‑Darling WSP and, in particular, whether it is consistent
with the Basin Plan and whether the MDBA has any role in compliance for this
WSP. Under the Water Act 2012 [sic] (Cth), the Barwon-Darling WSP is deemed to
be an ‘interim’ water resource plan because it was made under NSW law prior to
the Basin Plan being finalised. ‘Interim’ plans prevail over the Basin Plan to
the extent of any inconsistency between the two.
The MDBA stated that they were consulted by the NSW Government in 2011
in the preparation of the WSP but did not provide comment. As the Basin Plan
was not in effect at that time, the MDBA contended that there was no
legislative basis on which it could make comment. The MDBA were not consulted
over late changes made to the draft WSP.
The CEWH likewise made clear its significant concerns over the Barwon‑Darling
WSP, observing that changes to it allowed some irrigators to divert more water
from low flow events. Further, while Individual Daily Extraction Limits were provided for by the WSP,
NSW had not implemented these limits. The CEWH stated that 'some flow events
since 2012 have been significantly reduced by water extraction'. The CEWH noted
that the 'effective and efficient use of Commonwealth environmental water' is
dependent on the appropriateness of Basin state WRPs and other water use
Views on the Barwon‑Darling
A number of submitters suggested that the Barwon-Darling WSP did not
sufficiently protect environmental water, identifying pump sizes and extraction
limits as primary concerns.
These concerns were well summarised by Mr Lachlan Gall of PAWD, who argued
that excessive water extraction resulting from the Barwon‑Darling WSP had
a 'devastating impact on the reliability of the Darling River below Bourke'.
Mr Gall stated that:
The 2012 Barwon-Darling water sharing plan has failed to meet
its own objectives in terms of equitable resource sharing between all
stakeholders. Several operating rules were introduced that resulted in
significant windfalls for irrigators. The operating rules of particular concern
were the removal of pump-size limits, the approval to extract 300 per cent of
an entitlement per annum and the failure to implement daily extraction limits.
The association recommends that prompt action is taken to reverse these
provisions in the Barwon-Darling water sharing plan.
Cotton Australia, however, defended the Barwon‑Darling WSP, stating
that its rules of access had been developed with an acknowledgement that the
Barwon‑Darling was an unregulated river, and therefore was managed
differently to regulated systems. Cotton Australia argued that under the WSP
all licence holders had a volumetric limit on take which they could not exceed,
and viewed this volumetric limit as preserving environmental flows.
The NIC likewise suggested that the size or capacity of a pump did not
change the overall amount a licence holder was entitled to extract. The NIC was
of the view that the size of the pump was unlikely to make much difference to
overall take, concluding that 'it is the overall amount that should be
regulated not the equipment used to extract it'.
Sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism
The Basin Plan allows the SDL to be adjusted. This could occur if Basin
Plan environmental outcomes were reached with less water, resulting in more
water remaining in the system for other uses (such as irrigation). Likewise,
more efficient farming practices could result in more water being available for
the environment. The adjustment mechanism in the Basin Plan allows for the recovery target to be
amended up or down, prior to 2019, but by no more than five per cent.
Activities under the SDL adjustment mechanism fall into one of two
categories, being either a supply or an efficiency measure.
Supply measures are 'works, river operations or rule changes that enable
the use of less water but still achieve the Plan's environmental outcomes',
such as reconfiguring lakes or storage systems to reduce evaporation. Supply
measures would allow a reduction in the 2750GL recovery target, 'thereby
reducing the social and economic impact of water recovery to achieve the Basin
Efficiency measures recover and provide more water for the environment
but only if there are no negative social and economic impacts in doing so, and
the measures would allow for environmental water savings without adverse impact
on production. Efficiency measures, such as improvements to on‑farm
irrigation, would allow for the 2750GL recovery target to be increased without
reducing the Basin's productive capacity.
The adjustment mechanism is intended to provide greater flexibility in
setting the final water recovery figure. At the time of making its submission
to the committee, DAWR advised that some of the adjustment mechanisms included:
- reducing the Southern Basin water recovery target by up to 650GL
through supply measure offsets, such as environmental works on floodplains;
- allowing the recovery of an additional 450GL to achieve enhanced
environmental outcomes with neutral or improved socio‑economic outcomes
through efficiency measures; and
- constraints measures that support better environmental outcomes
by easing or removing constraints on the capacity to deliver environmental
Basin states have since been able to identify a number of projects that
would make the delivery of water 'more efficient and flexible', and the MDBA subsequently
determined that 605GL of water would be available for communities through the
SDL adjustment mechanism, if the projects were implemented.
Since DAWR providing its advice to the inquiry, the SDL adjustment
mechanism has been utilised to reduce some water recovery targets. In January
2018, the Basin‑wide water recovery target was formally reduced by 605GL.
In July 2018, and following from a review of the northern Basin, the recovery
target for the northern Basin was reduced from 390GL per year to 320GL per
year. The MDBA determined, via the Northern Basin Review, that the same environmental
benefits could be achieved without having to use as much water.
Some concerns were raised in evidence about the SDL adjustments, as they
relate to water theft. For example, Mr Grant Rigney of MLDRIN urged that SDL
adjustments not proceed until the extent of water theft was known, and all
inquiries and investigations into the allegations of water theft were
concluded. Mr Rigney argued that the level of alleged theft could have
ramifications for the 5 per cent up or down adjustment allowed to the SDL.
Water metering and monitoring
To implement effective water compliance and enforcement regimes, it is
vital that appropriate water metering and monitoring systems are in place. In
theory, such systems provide the water market with transparency and allow
breaches of the water rules to be addressed. Given the allegations of water
theft made throughout 2017, it is clear that improvements are needed in
metering and monitoring, particularly in NSW.
The National Water Initiative (NWI), agreed to by the Council of
Australian Governments (COAG) in 2004, was considered 'the national blueprint
for water reform', under which Basin states committed to—among other
things—introduce registers of water rights and standards for water accounting.
In the same year, the National Water Commission (NWC) was established, with
responsibility for monitoring, auditing and assessing the national progress of
the NWI; however, the NWC was abolished in 2014 and its functions transferred
to other agencies.
As part of the NWI, the Basin states agreed to develop a national meter
specification, and national standards for meter installation and the data
collection systems associated with those meters. Further, there was agreement
to apply national reporting guidelines on 'metered water use and associated
compliance and enforcement actions'. The NWI provided that:
The Parties agree that the outcome of water resource
accounting is to ensure that adequate measurement, monitoring and reporting
systems are in place in all jurisdictions, to support public and investor
confidence in the amount of water being traded, extracted for consumptive use,
and recovered and managed for environmental and other public benefit outcomes.
Further to the aims of the NWI, in 2010 the National Framework for Non‑Urban
Water Metering was established, to provide a nationally consistent basis for
water metering. The National Framework provided for meter construction,
installation and maintenance; the use of certified installers, maintainers and
validators, and the requirements for compliance, auditing and reporting. It
required all non-urban meters to comply with the national standards by 1 July
DAWR advised that the National Framework applies to meters owned by
entitlement holders, water service providers and jurisdictional governments,
and 'used for trade and/or related resource management activities'. Further,
compliance with agreed national standards was a responsibility for individual
jurisdictions. DAWR continued that:
Progress to date has included the development of new metering
standards, development of a certification course and the development of some
jurisdictional implementation plans. The Australian Government has also
supported the establishment, accreditation and upgrading of two meter testing
facilities in Australia, however meter suppliers and manufacturers have been
slow to present meters for testing due to lack demand in the field.
Despite compliance responsibility resting with individual jurisdictions,
some Commonwealth funding has been provided for water meter installation, where
water savings have been demonstrated.
The MDBA noted that it was important to make the distinction between
water meters—which measure the volume of flows—and telemetry, which transmits
metering data in real time to state regulatory authorities. The MDBA continued that
not all meters are fitted with telemetry, and those that are not must be
manually read on location. Information on whether individual entitlements are
metered or fitted with telemetry is held by the relevant state authorities. To
this end, the MDBA advised that:
The recent Basin-wide Compliance Review considered this issue
and included a recommendation for Basin states to require that all meters be
easily identifiable by a unique reference number, and that information about
entitlements, annual allocations, licence conditions, meter readings and
account balances be made publically accessible.
Jurisdictional approaches to
metering and compliance
The committee was interested to understand the differences in metering
and monitoring between Basin states. To that end, the committee was
particularly interested in the different approaches taken by South Australia
The committee was advised that in South Australia, all licensed water
extraction is metered and monitored, with some exemptions for areas such as
low-risk dams, and small extractions for stock and domestic use. Mr Mike Fuller, of DEWNR, advised that:
In South Australia the meter fleet is privately owned; it's
not government owned. So you get a variety of technologies of use. But,
essentially, they are all flow recording meters. Some of
them are electromagnetic and some of them are mechanical, but essentially all
of the major licensed extractions are metered, and we go through a process of
accounting water use against each licence each year. So there's a water account
for each property, if you like.
DEWNR supplied further information regarding the water reporting and metering
technology in place in that jurisdiction:
The Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources is
using online technology to allow water licence holders to submit an online
meter reading at any time. Should a customer submit a meter reading and provide
contact details, an automatic water usage advice statement is supplied (like a
bank statement for a water account). This functionality allows water users to
more closely monitor their water usage against the available allocation as well
as make business decisions more readily.
The Department is currently exploring the potential benefits
of utilising satellite technology (such as the internet of things or virtual
water meter technology) to enhance compliance monitoring programmes, as well as
gain insight into crop/industry based irrigation practices.
With regard to compliance, Mr Fuller advised that on the River Murray in
South Australia, meter readings are required quarterly, with any anomalies
followed up on by the department. However, as a condition of their licence,
licensees are required to immediately report broken meters. This can be
completed online 'fairly easily and fairly readily'. Mr Fuller stated
If we determine that somebody knew that they had a meter that
wasn't functioning and continued to take without reporting it, that would
become a compliance action.
...I've got a team of technical compliance [officers]. In this
state we have technical and compliance officers who administer the rules of
water allocation plans, but they're also out there actively monitoring
compliance activities. Then, if they find activities and it needs to be
escalated, we have a team of investigators within the organisation who
then...take the higher level investigations of these issues.
Compliance action in South Australia is funded partly by a levy, but
mostly through a state government appropriation.
The committee was advised of the various ways in which complaints could
be made in South Australia to DEWNR, regarding potential breaches of water use
rules and licences. Mr Fuller stated that complaints could be made through a
water compliance website (anonymously or otherwise), via interactions with
DEWNR water licensing and compliance staff, or through correspondence to the
department. Staff then follow up on these allegations within 24 to 48 hours.
How the department responds depends on the type of allegation:
If it is an allegation of illegal or unlicensed extraction,
an officer in most cases can go out and make a determination if there is
anything there that is not supposed to be there to take that water. It could be
a dam that has been illegally constructed, a pump that has been illegally put
in place, or some other diversion. That is fairly obvious and if we can get out
there soon enough we have normally been able to determine pretty quickly
whether that this fact or just innuendo.
Sometimes it may be around meter tampering, which can be a
little bit more difficult. That may be an activity that occurs and then is
taken away and it all looks normal when you arrive there. In those sorts of
cases there are other mechanisms we use to estimate the water use to see
whether what is recorded on the meter is reasonable. We have about four or five
other mechanisms that are actually gazetted mechanisms for estimating water
use. They are used on occasions where we have a suspicion about what is being
recorded on a water monitoring device and we may use those other mechanisms to
estimate whether we think that is real or is based on the type of crop for the
type of activity that is being undertaken on that property.
DEWNR undertakes random and scheduled compliance inspections on
licensees, while also conducting random audits across the state over a 12-month
period. These audits aim for a 10 per cent sample of meter reads, of
the 2000 to 3000 meters along the river.
With regard to transparency, DEWNR advised that it maintains a publicly
accessible Water Licence and Permit Register, allowing member of the public to
view information on a water licence, such as the water allocation and water
source. This Register does not include water usage information. DEWNR also
reports publicly each year on its compliance actions taken the year prior, and
its compliance focus during the current water year.
Ms Caren Martin of SAMI advised the committee that water theft by
irrigators in South Australia was rare, due to effectively developed compliance
and enforcement regimes. Ms Martin stated that in South Australia:
Our metering systems are more advanced. We've been investing
in them longer. Our irrigation systems are mostly pump and suction delivered,
so the gravity problems of metering are not the same. It comes through a pipe.
Yes, modern technology is definitely employed here by a vast majority—if not 90
per cent, 100 per cent of the irrigators. If not, they are brought to account
by the departments.
Mr Paul Shanks of SAMI provided further information on the irrigation
techniques being used in South Australia, including drip irrigation, soil
moisture measurement, the specific application of water for specific products,
the cultivation of dry-grown products and the use of water only in drought
years. Mr Shanks noted that these steps ensure that water is being surrendered
for the environment.
New South Wales
In 2010, the then NSW Office of Water put forward a business case titled
'NSW Sustaining the Basin Program: NSW Metering Project'. The project aimed to
improve the quality and coverage of the metering of rural water users in NSW.
The business case observed that in the regulated river systems of the NSW MDB,
there were 7500 pumps extracting water, and up to 4000 meters would be
installed in the area. In the unregulated systems, there were thought to be
5000 pumps, with only 300 equipped with meters. The project sought to install
up to 2500 meters on unregulated rivers.
The Commonwealth provided approximately $31.5 million in funding
for the NSW Southern Metering project, administered by the NSW Government
between 2012 and 2017. The project aimed to 'improve the quality and coverage
of the metering of rural water users in the NSW Murray-Darling Basin and
provide access to real data on water extraction'.
The committee was unable to determine whether the project put forward by
the 2010 business case, and the NSW Southern Metering project funded by the
Commonwealth, were the same programs. Despite this, during Senate Estimates in
October 2017, some concerns were raised that the Commonwealth funding which had
been provided to NSW for the installation of the water meters, was allocated for
the installation of meters in areas of the least water use, or focused on the
southern, rather than northern Basin.
In response to questions on notice, DAWR did confirm that as of July
2014, the NSW metering project 'had not met water, project delivery or
participation expectations'. As a result:
The department considered that the failure to deliver
milestone requirements was more than sufficient to invoke the project
termination process outlined in the NSW Water Management Partnership Agreement
and held discussions with NSW Department of Primary Industries – Water (DPI
Water) to consider ways to ensure the project would deliver contracted
obligations. NSW DPI Water advised that it should reduce the scope to focus
initially on rolling-out meters in southern valleys.
The project saw 710 meters installed and 10.65GL of surface and
groundwater recovered from the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Lower Darling
DAWR did note that the northern and southern Basins had very different
characteristics, with the northern Basin containing more flood plains, and the
southern Basin more 'highly modified and managed' in comparison.
Mr Paul Morris of DAWR acknowledged that the southern Basin was much
more regulated than the northern Basin, with the northern Basin going through a
'transition to becoming more regulated'. Mr Morris continued that:
the metering arrangements have been much more sophisticated
and well developed in the south, and that happens to be where probably there is
a larger predomination of the relatively smaller properties; and in the north,
where...there is quite a large number of large properties, that's the area that
in the past has been more unregulated.
DAWR provided further information on the progress of its water
monitoring programs. Ms Mary Colreavy of DAWR advised that:
some very significant programs that we've rolled out in the
southern connected basin, the Murray and Murrumbidgee valleys, have involved a
wide range of installations of both meters and other installation that is all
connected to telemetry. Coleambally is already fully automated. Murray will be
by the end of the current round of works that they're undertaking, which will
be in the next few months, and Murrumbidgee is also largely fully automated.
The committee notes that significant attention appears to have been
given to metering in the southern areas of the NSW MDB. There also appears to
be a stark contrast between the approaches of South Australia and NSW to water
metering and compliance.
Views on water metering in Basin
There was a wide range of views put forward throughout the inquiry as to
the effectiveness of the Basin Plan and the mechanisms put in place—via water
metering and monitoring—to determine compliance with the various agreements and
legislative frameworks administered by the Basin states.
The Wentworth Group made clear its concerns with metering and compliance
across the Basin, stating that it was 'inconceivable that we do not know how
much water is being extracted from surface and groundwater systems for
consumptive use', particularly given the technology available and the extent of
public investment. The Group was of the view that metering of all water
extractions was 'fundamental for equitable and sustainable management of water'
in the MDB.
The AFA likewise put forward its strong support for proper water
metering, arguing that it was:
unsound and negligent business practice to invest billions of
dollars of taxpayer funds in water management of the MDB and not have a system
in place to measure the time, place and amount of the extracted volume of the
The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) was of the view that water users
expect 'fair, responsive, strong, risk based and transparent' regulatory
approaches to water management. The NFF observed that it was an active
participant in the development of national metering standards, and that
Australian irrigators were using very technical and accurate meters in most
locations. However, the NFF did caution that meter technology used in the
southern Basin, may not be compatible with the conditions of the northern
BDW commented that the recent decline in the confidence of compliance
systems coincided with the reduction of meter readers in the field. Despite the
benefits of telemetry, BDW felt that 'nothing can replace boots and eyes on the
ground'. BDW noted that having meter readers in the field was a 'visible sign
of government presence, and represented a vital element of any quality
compliance system', being monitoring and surveillance.
The Mayor of Paroo Shire Council, Mr Lindsay Godfrey, argued that
current technology should enable an appropriate compliance regime that provides
confidence through the whole system. This would ensure that 'when you're buying
back water in a certain area and you're trying to rebuild the river, you know
that that water is actually going to get to where it's supposed to'. However,
Mr Godfrey was of the view that it would be difficult for irrigators to bear
the cost of any further compliance measures. He stated that:
To put an extra charge on the irrigators for the compliance
measures would be a very difficult bill, especially for a lot of the smaller
irrigators to carry. I think the cost of compliance would have to be borne
by the federal government because across the board state governments would have
different ideas on compliance and there wouldn't be a constant process that
would be transparent to everyone.
National Water Commission
The NWC, abolished in 2014, appeared to hold a number of oversight
responsibilities that may have gone some way to addressing—or indeed
stopping—the mismanagement of the Basin's water resources, and may have played
a role in monitoring and auditing water meter coverage. There were numerous
calls by submitters for the NWC, or a body similar to it, to be reinstated.
Dr Adam Loch and colleagues voiced their concerns over the abolishment
of the NWC, noting that the independent statutory body provided assurance,
monitoring and reporting on the progress of the NWI goals, and progressed
national approaches to managing, pricing and trading water. It was observed
that the NWC played an important role in the allocation of funding, with:
the capacity to recommend that a state not receive its annual
payments from the Commonwealth if they were found to be lagging or
non-compliant with water reform objectives. They were free to comment publicly
on these issues, and did so a number of times—although the Commonwealth
ultimately never withheld payments on the basis of an NWC finding. This ‘naming
and shaming’ earned the NWC plenty of political enemies across the national
landscape; but also earned them the respect of many in the wider water sector,
as well as international admiration for Australia’s strong and independent
water reform institutions.
Dr Loch and colleagues observed that the NWC was abolished on the basis
that doing so would save $20 million over the forward estimates at the
time, and that the objectives of the NWI had been achieved. However, as the
authors noted, 'given the recent accusations and identified problems in NSW
this claim seems premature at best, and political foolishness at worst'.
Additionally, the $20 million in savings 'may pale in comparison' to the
cost of the independent inquiries recently undertaken into water theft and
compliance, and the cost of implementing compliance frameworks in Basin states.
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) expressed its dismay over
the abolition of the NWC. The ACF was of the view that while the NWC did not
have strong compliance powers, its abolishment had contributed to a decline in
the audit and oversight of national water reform.
Mr Rigney of MLDRIN called for an independent federal body to undertake
annual audits of compliance processes in Basin states and as a means of doing
so, Mr Rigney suggested the reinvigoration of the NWC.
This view was also put forward by Ms Elizabeth Tregenza of the River
Lakes and Coorong Action Group Inc, who supported the establishment of an
independent compliance organisation, similar to the NWC.
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