Australia faces major challenges in ensuring sustainable water supply in the face of climate variability, water scarcity and growing demand for water. While state and territory governments are responsible for managing their water resources, the Australian Government provides national leadership in water policy and law reform for all Australians.
We provide national coordination, leadership and support to drive reforms needed to manage our water resources sustainably and productively for future generations of Australians.
We also engage with other countries as a leader in water reform. We do this through our science driven laws and policy reform.
Water laws in Australia
Water laws we administer include the:
- Water Act 2007 (Cth) (the Water Act)
- Water Regulations 2008 (Cth)
- Water Charge Rules 2010 (Cth)
- Water Market Rules 2009 (Cth)
- Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Act 2005 (Cth)
The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s largest water resource and holds significant social, environmental, cultural and economic value. The Water Act provides the legal framework to manage the Basin in the national interest.
Basin states and territories (Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and South Australia) continue to manage the water resources within their jurisdictions.
Key features of the Water Act include:
- a national framework to manage Basin water resources
- the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA)
- the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder
- a Basin Plan prepared by MDBA
- provision for water charge and market rules
The Water Act seeks to:
- return to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction for Basin water resources
- give effect to relevant international agreements
- protect, restore and provide for the ecological values of the Basin
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is committed to delivering water reforms identified under the Water Act and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan 2012.
Review of the Water Act
An independent review of the Water Act was conducted in 2014. It was the first review of the Act since it began in 2008. A number of amendments of the Water Act have been made in response to reviews and emerging water management challenges.
Water Regulations 2008
The Water Regulations 2008 sit under the Water Act.
The regulations give effect to a range of matters provided in the Water Act.
Water charge and water market rules
The Water Act provides for Water Charge Rules 2010 and Water Market Rules 2009. The rules regulate the market and charges across the Murray-Darling Basin. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission monitors and enforces these rules.
Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Act 2005
The Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) Scheme helps us to save water by using more efficient water-using and water-saving products.
The Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Act 2005 provides the legal framework for the WELS scheme.
We work with Australian state and territory governments, communities and industry to protect Australia’s water quality. We do this through shared guidelines and strategies delivered under the National Water Quality Management Strategy.
Water reform policy
National Water Initiative
The National Water Initiative (NWI) is Australia’s national blueprint for water reform. The NWI provides the overarching framework and principles to increase the efficiency of Australia's water use, leading to greater certainty for investment and productivity, for rural and urban communities and for the environment. State and territory governments decide on the actions needed for their jurisdictions.
The Australian Government are working in close partnership with Basin states on a renewed NWI in response to the Productivity Commission’s 2020 review of the NWI.
Water Management Partnership Agreements
Each jurisdiction has a Water Management Partnership Agreement with the Commonwealth. The agreements set out specific water planning and market reform requirements.
Basin wide and regional water programs are funded under these agreements.
What drives water reform in Australia
Council of Australian Governments
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) was established in 1992 to manage matters of national significance. COAG played a significant role in initiating and shaping cooperative water reform in Australia.
COAG ceased in 2020 and formed the National Federation Reform Council (NFRC). The NFRC provides an opportunity for leaders and treasurers across the Commonwealth and states and territories to focus on priority national federation issues.
Water agencies and stakeholders
Agencies at all levels of government have a role in the management of our water resources.
Science and informed decision making
The Commonwealth Environmental Water Office is working in partnership with scientists, water managers and communities across the Murray-Darling Basin to understand and inform environmental water use so that it achieves the best outcomes for our rivers, wetlands and floodplains, as well as the animals, plants and people that depend on them. The work of the Flow-MER Program will support environmental water managers, demonstrate outcomes, inform adaptive management, and fulfil the legislative requirements associated with managing Commonwealth environmental water.
The Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) is responsible for compiling and delivering comprehensive information about water resources across Australia for use by the public and specialist users in policy, planning, engineering design and water management. BoM recently launched the Murray-Darling Basin Information Portal – in collaboration with the department, the MDBA and the Basin states – to provide a centralised point of information on storages, allocations and trading information for Basin catchments.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) conducts research to assess Australia’s water resources to help us better manage our river basins and groundwater resources.
The Advisory Committee on Social, Economic and Environmental Sciences provides independent and strategic advice to the MDBA on the implementation of the Basin Plan 2012.
The Water Act sets out how to manage water entitlements purchased by the Australian Government. Water entitlements are used to protect or restore environmental assets such as wetlands and streams. See the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office.
Councils and committees
A number of councils and committees work cooperatively to address water issues in Australia including the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, the Basin Officials Committee, the Basin Community Committee, the National Water Reform Committee and the Urban Water Reform Committee.
The Ministerial Council consists of a Minister from each of the Basin States and Territories and the Commonwealth. It has a policy, decision making and advisory role in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The National Water Reform Committee is an interjurisdictional committee that considers and progresses national water reforms of the National Water Initiative (NWI) and other national agreements. The work of the NWRC promotes sustainable water use across Australia to enhance social, human health, economic and environmental outcomes for current and future generations, and support sustainable water management through interjurisdictional development, oversight, coordination and implementation of water reform policy.
The Australian Government engages with community stakeholders through local, national, and international forums.
Individuals and interest groups can lodge a submission with a Parliamentary committee or write to members of the House of Representatives and the Senate
Committees also hold public inquiries to clarify evidence and examine points of view.
We are a recognised leader in sustainable water management.
Our experience and expertise are sought by other countries and regions. We engage overseas to share our knowledge and to learn from others through policy dialogues and technical exchanges with priority countries and international organisations.