Managing New South Wales water resources is a huge task, involving a range of legislation, initiatives and cooperative arrangements with the Commonwealth and other state government departments. The two key pieces of legislation for the management of water in NSW are the Water Management Act 2000 and the Water Act 1912.

Water Management Act 2000

The object of the Water Management Act 2000 is the sustainable and integrated management of the state's water for the benefit of both present and future generations.

After an extensive period of public consultation, the Water Management Act 2000 was passed by the NSW Parliament in December 2000, establishing a complete new statutory framework for managing water in NSW. For the first time, NSW had comprehensive water legislation to guide our water management activities.

The Water Management Act 2000 is based on the concept of ecologically sustainable development – development today that will not threaten the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The Act recognises that:

  • the fundamental health of our rivers and groundwater systems and associated wetlands, floodplains, estuaries has to be protected
  • the management of water must be integrated with other natural resources such as vegetation, soils and land
  • to be properly effective, water management must be a shared responsibility between the government and the community
  • water management decisions must involve consideration of environmental, social, economic, cultural and heritage aspects
  • social and economic benefits to the state will result from the sustainable and efficient use of water.

The Water Management Act 2000 was driven by the need for NSW to secure a sustainable basis for water management for several reasons:

  • NSW was at the limits of its available water resources – new licences for commercial purposes could no longer be issued across most of NSW and a limit had been placed on the total volume of water that can be extracted across the inland of NSW under the Murray–Darling Basin Cap
  • The decline in the health of our rivers, groundwater, floodplains and estuaries was being seen through increasing water quality problems, loss of species, wetland decline and habitat loss.

As a result the Water Management Act 2000 recognises the need to allocate and provide water for the environmental health of our rivers and groundwater systems, while also providing licence holders with more secure access to water and greater opportunities to trade water through the separation of water licences from land. The main tool the Act provides for managing the State's water resources are water sharing plans. These are used to set out the rules for the sharing of water in a particular water source between water users and the environment and rules for the trading of water in a particular water source.

Since the legislation was passed in 2000, some amendments have been necessary to better implement the new arrangements and also give effect to the National Water Initiative signed on 25 June 2004, including creation of perpetual or open-ended water licences. The Act was also amended in 2008 to strengthen compliance and enforcement powers in response to water theft. The latest copy of the Water Management Act 2000 is available from the NSW government legislation site.

Because of the major changes required by the legislation, the Act has been progressively implemented. Since 1 July 2004 the new licensing and approvals system has been in effect in those areas of NSW covered by operational water sharing plans – these areas cover most of the State's major regulated river systems and therefore the largest areas of water extraction. As water sharing plans are finalised and commenced for the rest of the state, the licensing provisions of the Act are introduced extending the benefits for the environment of defined environmental rules and for licence holders of perpetual water licences and greater opportunities for water trading.

For information about recent reforms to the Water Management Act 2000, including the Water Management Amendment Act 2010, go to Legal Reforms.

Regulations, proclamations and orders under the Water Management Act

To assist in implementing and defining the provisions of the Water Management Act 2000, regulations and proclamations and orders are also made.

Regulations

The Water Management (General) Regulation 2011 commenced on 1 September 2011.

The Water Management (General) Regulation 2011 supersedes two former Regulations with some amendments: the Water Management (General) Regulation 2004 and the Water Management (Water Supply Authorities) Regulation 2004.

For more information go to Legal Reforms.

Aquifer interference regulation

An aquifer interference regulation took effect in NSW on 30 June 2011. This regulation amended the Water Management (General) Regulation 2004 to require mining exploration and petroleum (including coal seam gas) exploration activities that take more than three megalitres of water per year to hold a water access licence. This reform is an important step towards ensuring equitable sharing of groundwater amongst all water users. The Water Management (General) Regulation 2004 has now been replaced by the Water Management (General) Regulation 2011.

The requirement for mining and petroleum exploration activities that take more than three megalitres of water per year to hold a water access licence remains in force - see clause 7 in Schedule 5 of the Water Management (General) Regulation 2011.

The NSW Aquifer Interference Policy was released in September 2012. It sets out the requirements for assessing the impacts of aquifer interference activities on water resources. Read the NSW Aquifer Interference Policy.

Proclamations and orders

On 30 June 2004 the Governor made a proclamation (PDF 56 KB) which commenced the access licence and works and use approvals provisions of the Water Management Act 2000 for the water sources covered by the first wave of water sharing plans to commence.

The Minister can publish orders to implement specific details of an Act. For the Water Management Act 2000 these include:

Rivers and foreshores

The following order was also made under the Rivers and Foreshores Improvement Act 1948:

The order (PDF 2 MB) dealing with the harvestable rights provisions of the Water Act 1912 was amended in March 2006 to support the provisions under the Water Management Act. This order establishes the definitions of a river, the stream ordering requirements of the harvestable rights (using the Strahler system) and identifies the topographical maps which may be used to determine the harvestable right for a landholding.

Water Act 1912

The Water Act 1912 came into force at the turn of the last century and represented a different era in water management in NSW. This Act is being progressively phased out and replaced by the Water Management Act 2000, but some provisions are still in force. A copy of the Water Act 1912 is available from the NSW's Government legislation website.