Australia is a democratic federation of six states and two territories, united by the Commonwealth government (federal government). Cohesion within this structure is cemented by centralization of income tax collection, the revenue of which is redistributed to the nine (central, state and territory) governments. There is a third layer of local government at the municipal (urban) and shire (country) levels. The state, territory and local governments can also contribute by raising some local revenue (e.g. states via petrol levies and local government via service levies).
Water is the responsibility of the state and territory governments (henceforth referred to as 'states' or jurisdictions) under the Australian Constitution, each having independent water laws and distinct policies. However, international issues, common jurisdictional concerns and Commonwealth leverage of Section 96 of the Australian Constitution (which allows the Commonwealth to grant financial assistance to any state on terms determined by the Commonwealth) have accelerated the development of a federal role in the national water policy (McKay, 2002).
Issues of national significance that concern the Commonwealth and all state governments are dealt with by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). The COAG deals with a wide raft of issues through a number of ministerial councils. These councils facilitate development and implementation of national plans and proposals that would otherwise be impinged by the division of constitutional powers between the federal and state governments.
The Natural Resources Management Ministerial Council (NRMMC) was formed in 2001 'to promote the conservation and sustainable use of Australia's natural resources'. All Australian and New Zealand government ministers responsible for natural resource management issues are members. Decisions of the Council require consensus of the members. The reorganization through which the NRMMC evolved saw this Council absorb roles and responsibilities previously held by the Agricultural Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ARMCANZ) and the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Committee (ANZECC). Many current national water policies were therefore developed through the ARMCANZ and ANZECC.
Within this structure, the National Groundwater Committee (NGC) is a senior intergovernmental network that shares information and provides insight into the national groundwater policies and resource management, research directions, priorities and programmes. It also provides advice on groundwater issues, including those pertaining to surface water-groundwater interactions. The subject of groundwater is dominated by two issues:
1. salinity management;
Salinity management is perhaps more important, given the significance of irrigation-induced salinity problems, particularly in the state of Victoria, and of the parallel but slower development of dryland salinity in the state of western
Australia. Irrigation-induced salinity largely occurs because of the rise in water table, due to progressive accessions from irrigated fields and water supply infrastructure, where the groundwater is naturally saline or intersects naturally saline soils and rock formations.
Dryland salinity is emerging as a widespread and serious problem in catchments that have been cleared for dryland agriculture and pasture (National Land and Water Audit (NLWA), 2001): shallow-rooted crops and grasses transpire less water each year than the native scrub and forest, resulting in small net annual accessions, which, over 50-100 years, have also contributed to the rise in water table and attendant local salinization, particularly near streams and inland water bodies. The most alarming estimates of potentially affected areas for 2030 run to approximately 20 million hectares.
Since the main focus of this chapter is on the use of groundwater in agriculture, with only a passing reference to other sectors, it is instructive to set the context of irrigation development and water resources management in Australia.
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