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Key activities: Water resources

National Water Initiative

We progressed work on renewing the Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Water Initiative. The work is addressing the key issues of climate change, Indigenous water interests, infrastructure and urban water.

Following consultation during 2020, the Productivity Commission delivered its final report on the 3-yearly review of water reform to the Treasurer. The commission’s findings and recommendations will inform the renewal of the National Water Initiative.

Murray–Darling Basin Plan

In September 2020 Minister Pitt announced the Murray–Darling Communities Investment Package. The package marks a new approach to implementing the Murray–Darling Basin Plan. It supports jobs and economic recovery in Basin communities. It will also ensure communities realise greater benefits.

The investment package includes 11 measures to end water buybacks and focus recovery on off-farm water efficiencies. It provides a program of work for our department. The Australian Government has committed to work with Basin governments to accelerate the planning and delivery of supply and constraints measures.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released the Murray–Darling Basin water markets inquiry – final report. The report makes recommendations to improve the way water markets operate to better deliver for water users, rural communities and the environment.

The ACCC’s recommendations are wide-ranging. Implementation needs careful consideration so reforms can be implemented with Basin governments, which are primarily responsible for water markets, and stakeholders. The 2021–22 Budget includes funding of $3.5 million to establish an independent expert panel to work with Basin governments and stakeholders to develop a roadmap for water market reform.

Delivering Commonwealth environmental water

In the northern Murray–Darling Basin, our Commonwealth Environmental Water Office delivered water to reconnect and improve water quality in refuge habitats. This is helping native plants and animals to recover from drought. Following good rainfall, Commonwealth environmental water contributed more than 100 GL to natural flows. This water replenished important refuge habitats across the Border rivers, the Gwydir, Macintyre, Warrego and Barwon–Darling.

In the Macquarie Marshes we delivered more than 140 GL to support recovery following extreme drought conditions. This water supported:

  • Murray cod nesting in the Macquarie River
  • wetland vegetation such as water couch, reeds and mixed marsh
  • breeding and recruitment of frogs
  • foraging and nesting habitat for a range of waterbird species, including Australasian bittern and Latham’s snipe
  • increased connectivity, refreshing and reconnecting refuges for native fish.

In the Central Basin, we used Commonwealth environmental water to maintain in-stream and off-channel refuge habitat and improve water quality in the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee river systems. The flow contributed to inundation of areas in the lower Lachlan floodplain, including the Great Cumbung Swamp. More than 200 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered to the lower Murrumbidgee floodplain and wetland sites across the Murrumbidgee catchment.

In the Southern Basin, the Southern Spring Flow delivered more than 360 GL. It achieved multiple ecological outcomes along more than 5,000 river kilometres, including:

  • providing movement and breeding opportunities for native fish such as Murray cod, silver and golden perch
  • supporting habitat and food for the endangered Murray hardyhead
  • supporting colonial waterbird nesting habitat in the Barmah and Millewa forests
  • improving food web health by flushing food and nutrients from the floodplain into the river.

Delivery of Commonwealth environmental water achieved multiple ecological outcomes in the Lower Lakes and Coorong. It maintained connectivity between the Murray River and its estuary to support the movement of migratory fish species. It also provided favourable conditions in the Coorong for estuarine fish spawning opportunities.

We estimate the use of Commonwealth environmental water from 2017 to 2020 has stopped about 5.5 million tonnes of salt entering the Coorong. This is preventing catastrophic impacts on native plants and wildlife.

50 years of the Ramsar Convention

This year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. We produced posters, postcards, maps and a factsheet to promote Australia’s precious wetlands. These went to wetland education centres, the states and territories, and Ramsar site managers. We also made the materials available to the public through our website. We worked with Australia Post to produce commemorative postage stamps.

To advance our management of wetlands, we developed the Australian Wetland Inventory. This provides a consistent way to identify and categorise our wetlands and their diverse ecosystems.

On-farm water infrastructure

Demand for the On-farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme surpassed expectations. The government committed an additional $50 million in 2020–21. This will be matched dollar-for-dollar by state and territory governments.

The scheme has been extended to 30 June 2022 to continue providing rebates for on-farm water infrastructure projects that reduce the impacts of drought and improve drought resilience.

Great Artesian Basin

Funding from the Improving Great Artesian Basin Drought Resilience Program continued to support water-saving projects in New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia. During the year 31 projects worth $2.82 million in Australian Government funding were completed. This saves about 2.6 GL of water per year.

These projects, combined with other management activities, are having a positive effect on increasing water pressure, leading to the re-emergence of springs in the Great Artesian Basin. This basin includes some of the most ecologically diverse and endangered groundwater-dependent ecosystems in Australia.

Lake Eyre Basin

In December 2020 the Lake Eyre Basin Ministerial Forum released its response to the Second Review of the Lake Eyre Basin Intergovernmental Agreement. The review found the purpose and objectives of the agreement have been achieved and remain relevant. It found that government activities adequately manage threats and pressures within the Lake Eyre Basin Agreement Area.

We are working collaboratively with the basin governments to address recommendations from the Lake Eyre Basin Ministerial Forum response. This includes development of a strategic plan for the Basin and revised options for governance.

The Lake Eyre Basin Ministerial Forum was disbanded in February 2021 following recommendations from Peter Conran AM’s Review of COAG councils and ministerial forums – Report to National Cabinet.

Water efficiency labelling and standards

In 2020–21 independent reviewers commenced the review of the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) scheme. The review is in 2 parts:

  • the third statutory review of the WELS scheme, examining its design, effectiveness and efficiency in helping Australians choose water-efficient washing machines, dishwashers, taps, toilets and showers
  • a review of the 2004 Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Water Initiative, which is the agreement that underpins the WELS scheme.

The review should be delivered in early 2021–22.