New South Wales An Example of Integrating State and National Groundwater Policy

The total NSW groundwater resource is estimated at 5110 billion cubic metres, which is an enormous quantity of water, approximately 200 times the storage capacity of all dams in the state (DLWC, 2003). However, it has highly variable characteristics in terms of depth, yield, quality and spatial and temporal recharge. The sustainable yield is a tiny fraction of th is (0.12%) at 6.19 billion cubic metres, of which 15% is too saline to use for most purposes. It is however a large resource and has been thought of as an effective buffer in drought.

In 1990, there were 70,000 licensed bores operating in the state of NSW, extracting 530 million cubic metres per year for irrigation, 15 million cubic metres per year for industry, commerce, mining and recreation and 60 million cubic metres per year for rural towns. Through the 1990s there has been increasing emphasis on high-value agriculture, with vegetables and fruits (grapes) leading the value table, and attracting higher-technology irrigation inputs (micro-sprinkler and drip irrigation) and accounting for a significant proportion of groundwater use. There has also been rapid development of groundwater since the early 1980s for conjunctive use on cotton and other commercial crops in the northern part of the state. There are few large dams in the northern river valleys and river flows are directly diverted, or harvested and stored in large on-farm dams known as 'ring-tanks' or 'turkey's nests'. Although cotton prices fluctuate considerably, the values shown in Table 15.8 indicate the price drivers for higher-value and intensified agriculture and the corresponding irrigated areas for each major crop.

The NSW Water Administration Act (1986) gave the minister of water resources the right to control, manage and use groundwater via the Department of Land and Water Conservation (DLWC), principally through licensing of use. Land use planning has been seen as crucial to the maintenance of groundwater quality and has been administered by the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, working in cooperation with local government authorities under the remit of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act of 1979. The protection of surface and groundwaters is governed by the Clean Waters Act of 1970 and the Environmental Offences and Penalties Act of 1989, both of which are administered by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).

In 1997, the government of NSW released its State Groundwater Policy Framework (DLWC, 1997), which was then supported by three subsidiary policies on: (i) groundwater quality protection (1999); (ii) groundwater quantity management (2000); and (iii) groundwater-dependent ecosystems (2000). The guiding principles of the policy framework are given in Box 15.4.

In 1998, a risk assessment was conducted for 98 aquifers across the state by the DLWC and 36 were found to be at high levels of risk. Of these, 4 aquifers suffered from water quality degradation and 32 from overallocation, and consequently 14 were embargoed from further development. The remaining potential for further groundwater development was judged to be limited to aquifers in some of the smaller inland river tributaries and valleys, some of the coastal sand and alluvial aquifer systems and 'unincorporated areas' (those within a groundwater province, but outside a designated groundwater management unit).

Implementation was also to be guided by risk assessment, so that increased focus and levels of management would be applied to more stressed aquifers on a priority basis. The management tools envisaged in the framework document included (DLWC, 1997):

Table 15.8. Value of water use in agriculture in Australia. (From National Land and Water

Gross value Net water use Irrigated Value/ha Value/million m3 (million $) (million m3) Area (ha) ($/ha) (million $/million m3)

Livestock, pasture,

Gross value Net water use Irrigated Value/ha Value/million m3 (million $) (million m3) Area (ha) ($/ha) (million $/million m3)

Livestock, pasture,

grains, etc.













51 7

1 ,236





1 ,027






61 3






1 ,1 28

1 ,841





31 0

1 ,643








Box 15.4. Principles of the NSW Groundwater Policy Framework. (From DLWC, 1997.)

• An ethos for the sustainable management of groundwater resources should be encouraged in all agencies, communities and individuals who own, manage or use these resources, and its practical application facilitated.

• Non-sustainable resource uses should be phased out.

• Significant environmental and/or social values dependent on groundwater should be accorded special protection.

• Environmentally degrading processes and practices should be replaced with more efficient and ecologically sustainable alternatives.

• Where possible, environmentally degraded areas should be rehabilitated and their ecosystem support functions restored.

• Where appropriate, the management of surface and groundwater resources should be integrated.

• Groundwater management should be adaptive, to account for both increasing understanding of resource dynamics and changing community attitudes and needs.

• Groundwater management should be integrated with the wider environmental and resource management framework, and also with other policies dealing with human activities and land use, such as urban development, agriculture, industry, mining, energy, transport and tourism.

• groundwater management plans where necessary;

• supporting guidelines for local government and industry;

• creation of aquifer resources and vulnerability maps;

• an education strategy;

• legislative mechanisms for groundwater management;

• licensing tools and conditions for users that better reflect resource protection objectives;

• economic instruments applicable to groundwater management.

At the time the framework was released, there were already 13 groundwater management plans in existence, and a further 5 in preparation, and the experience gained thereby was effectively incorporated into the policy. Groundwater management plans are to be reviewed on a 5-year basis and reporting is undertaken by community-staffed Groundwater Management Committees, supported where necessary by state funds. Reporting is biennial, and requires comparison of measurable indicators against the plan's targets.

Much of the ensuing debate in NSW has hinged on the definition of sustainable yield, and within this, determination of volumes available for development. Statewide this has been defined as 100% of the long-term average recharge with further reductions advised to reserve water for groundwater-dependent ecosystems. A pilot process was undertaken in the Namoi Valley to reduce abstractions to sustainable levels - through consultative processes and committees - and defining sustainable yield was at the core of the negotiations.

Since different formulas are used in different states and territories, and in many the amount of data is increasing and the reliability of assessment is improving, there are some cases where the estimate of sustainable extraction has actually risen since 2000.

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