Victoria’s new water laws downgrade the environment

This week the government will start a round of public briefing sessions on their brand new Water Bill. Just before Christmas, the Victorian Government released the Water Bill 2013 for public comment.

This week the government will start a round of public briefing sessions on their brand new Water Bill. Just before Christmas, the Victorian Government released the Water Bill 2013 for public comment. It is a complete re-write of Victoria’s water legislation. The main aim of the exercise was a (much needed) tidy up and simplification of the laws. However while many elements of the current system remain substantively unchanged, the review has resulted in some important changes, particularly for environmental water.

While there are some provisions that will likely benefit environmental management of water ecosystems, on balance the environment has been downgraded in priority.  Importantly the Government has missed opportunities to improve the way Victoria manages water in light of climate change and the growing pressures on water availability and water dependent ecosystems.

What’s changed?

The top three changes from an environment perspective are:

Amendments to the Water Act in 2005 established an ‘Environmental Water Reserve‘  which contained water set aside for the environment in various forms, and had an objective to preserve environmental values and health of water ecosystems. This concept has been abandoned in the Bill. As nebulous as it is, the bundling up entitlements and conditions into an ‘environmental water reserve’ and providing an objective for that water gives it a name and a focus for planning and decision making.  The move away from this is a potentially far reaching change. Under the Bill, while environmental water will still exists, it is more limited and there is no clear objective or requirement for environmental water. In fact the only real environmental requirement in the Bill is a direction to decision-makers to consider the need to preserve environmental values and health of water ecosystems when making certain decisons under the Bill. Caps on extraction that may be imposed in water systems don’t even have to be based on sustainability considerations (in most cases they will just reflect current levels of take, whether sustainable or not).

A new instrument called a Water Resource Management Order (WRMOs) will contain all the area-wide rules that currently exist in many hundreds of instruments, bulk entitlements, ministerial directions and regulations. These are things like caps on extraction, trading rules, planned environmental water and restrictions. Primarily this is the Government’s way of simplifying compliance with the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Although the Bill contains a good public process for the making a WRMO, it also contains a power for the Minister to suspend the WRMO without any public notification or consultation if there is a ‘water shortage’, which means caps and environmental flows can be suspended indefinitely.

The Sustainable Water Strategy process and long term water resource assessments have been removed. Ten years ago an obligation was included in the Water Act for the Minister to assess all water resources to see if there has been a long term decline in surface or groundwater and if so, whether it has fallen disproportionately on the environment or consumptive water.  Only after this review can water entitlements be permanently altered (if necessary). Importantly, it is mandatory for the Minister to do the assessment every 15 years (with the first due in 2018). This is a critical process for ensuring water allocations are appropriate and sustainable in light of climate change and increased pressures on water use. Under the Bill these processes will be replaced with a new three step process. Regional resource assessments will be an initial ‘health check’ of a system and are required every 15 years. This stage will just look at the state of the resource, not at options for improvement. If recommended by the Minister, a larger Strategic Review may then follow which will consider options for improvement. The third stage is a Targeted Review to look at long term decline in water resources, which will only occur if recommended in the Strategic Review. It is only after a targeted review that water entitlements can be adjusted permanently.  As the Strategic Review will be conducted mainly by affected water entitlement holders in the area, it is highly unlikely that there will ever be a recommendation for a targeted review – when the known outcome will be an adjustment to entitlements – and therefore highly unlikely that there will ever be a permanent adjustment to entitlements, regardless of how bad things get.  Again a subtle but important change.

The government is holding a series of public briefing session on the Bill around Victoria starting Wednesday 29 January.  Submissions are due 14 February 2014.

You can read our detailed comments and concerns in our submission here

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