Law and policy
Managing New South Wales water resources relies on a range of legislation, initiatives and cooperative arrangements with the Commonwealth and other state governments. 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 completely 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:
- 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 limit 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 could 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 evident with 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.
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 all of the state's inland rivers and aquifers and the majority of coastal rivers and aquifers. 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.
Since the legislation was passed in 2000, some amendments have been undertaken to better implement the new arrangements and to also give effect to other interstate and federal agreements and legislation.
For information about recent reforms to the Water Management Act 2000, go to Legal Reforms.
Water Management Amendment Act 2014
The Water Management Amendment Act 2014 was passed by the NSW Parliament in late 2014. This Act changes some sections of the Water Management Act 2000 and adds some new sections.
The changes relate to a range of aspects of water management including planning, licensing and compliance.
Many of the provisions in the Act commenced on 1 January 2015. Some of the key changes are listed in the table below. Other provisions will be implemented later because further steps are required to implement them. For example, the commencement of some provisions requires new procedures or regulations.
An overview of the changes is provided in the media release of 11 September: NSW Government strengthens water rights across the state (PDF 144 KB).
Key changes which commenced on 1 January 2015
|Area of change||What changed?|
|Regulated river supplementary licences||The changes provide security for supplementary licence holders on regulated rivers as these licences are now perpetual and have compensation rights.|
The changes allow landholders more flexibility to construct and use a dam to store water in excess of their maximum harvestable right dam capacity (MHRDC) when the water is taken under different rights and licences. |
If a landholder previously wanted to construct a larger dam to store water taken under a harvestable right, as well as other types of water which exceeded the MHRDC, they needed to hold a water access licence for all of the water.
As a result of these changes, landholders will now only need to licence the volume of water which exceeds the MHRDC. They will also need to hold an approval if the dam exceeds the MHRDC.
Orders will be published to reflect these changes and will set rules about how water can be captured, taken, used and stored.
|New offences - taking of water||The changes improve offence provisions to help ensure water is shared fairly. It is now an offence to take more than the combined total of water in all water allocation accounts held by the water access licence holder. The requirement to prove which licence has been breached has been removed.|
|Licensing and trading processes||
A number of changes have been made to simplify processes for licence holders and applicants. As a result of these changes: |
Applicants can now amend or withdraw an application. These changes recognise if circumstances change or new information is identified, an applicant may want to amend or withdraw their application.
Approvals now take effect on the day the notice of decision to grant the approval is given to the applicant. This change reduces the risk of financial impacts or lost opportunities on landholders. Previously, when an approval was granted it did not take effect until the 28 day appeal period expired. This meant the approval holder had to wait 28 days until they could commence constructing or using the work or commencing the activity.
If action is taken to suspend or cancel part of an approval, the approval can now be amended to reflect the change. As approvals may authorise multiple works, this change reduces the regulatory burden on the approval holder. Previously, if a decision was taken to suspend or cancel an approval, the whole approval had to be suspended or cancelled.
|Granting combined approvals||The changes provide the Minister with greater flexibility to grant an approval which combines different types of approvals. This change does not affect the rights of the approval holder and reduces the number of individual approvals they need to hold.|
|Floodplain harvesting access licences||
The change facilitates the issuing of floodplain harvesting access licences, consistent with the Floodplain Harvesting Policy (PDF 164 KB). |
It enables regulations to be made to prescribe when existing floodplain harvesting activities will give rise to a licence and the terms and conditions of such licences, including their water share component.
More information will be provided with the publication of these regulations
Regulations, proclamations and orders under the Water Management Act
To assist in implementing and defining the provisions of the Water Management Act 2000, regulations, proclamations and orders are also made.
Regulations under the Water Management Act
|Title||Commencement date||What changed?||More information|
|An aquifer interference regulation took effect in NSW on 30 June 2011.||30 June 2011||The aquifer interference 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 was an important step towards ensuring equitable sharing of groundwater among all water users.||The NSW Aquifer Interference Policy (493 KB) was released in September 2012. It sets out the requirements for assessing the impacts of aquifer interference activities on water resources.|
|Water Management (General) Regulation 2011||1 September 2011||The Water Management (General) Regulation 2011 superseded two former Regulations with some amendments: the Water Management (General) Regulation 2004 and the Water Management (Water Supply Authorities) Regulation 2004. The aquifer interference regulation was carried forward as clause 7 in Schedule 5 of the Water Management (General) Regulation 2011.||Water Management (General) Regulation 2011, commencing 1 September 2011 - Summary of key changes (PDF 725 KB) |
Water Management (General) Regulation 2011: Regulatory Impact Statement (PDF I MB)
Media release 5 September 2011: New water management regulation commences (PDF 20 KB)
Proclamations under the Water Management Act
There have been a range of proclamations commencing the licence and approval sections for water sources.
The Minister can publish orders to implement specific details of an Act. Orders are published in the NSW Government Gazette on the NSW legislation website.
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.