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Water reform in Australia James Cameron

Over the past decade, Australia has committed to an ambitious and challenging water reform agenda driven by a prolonged drought, extreme climate variability, increasing demand for water for consumptive uses, environmental degradation and uncertainty around urban water security. Under Australia’s federated system of government, water management is primarily vested in the six state and two major territory governments. The need to move the management of Australia’s water resources to a more efficient and sustainable footing was first reflected at the national level in the 1994 Council of Australian Governments (COAG) water reform framework.

A blueprint for reform In 2004, recognising the need for a more integrated and coordinated national approach to water management, COAG signed off on the National Water Initiative (NWI). This policy blueprint represents a shared commitment by the Australian government and state and territory governments to increase the efficiency of Australia's water use, and to deliver greater certainty for investment and productivity, and for the environment. Under the NWI, governments made commitments to: • prepare water plans with provision for the environment • deal with over-allocated or stressed water systems • introduce registers of water rights and standards for water accounting • expand the trade in water • improve pricing for water storage and delivery • meet and manage urban water demands. The overall objective of the NWI is to achieve a nationally compatible market, and a regulatory and planning-based system of managing surface and groundwater resources for rural and urban use that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes. Following the finalisation of the NWI agreement, the National Water Commission was created

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with a mandate to independently and publicly assess and report on progress to the highest levels of government, and to assist the implementation of reform.

Improving water management Today, it is evident that the implementation of water reform in Australia is delivering real improvements in the management, use and understanding of water. Significant progress has been made across a broad range of areas. Many of these achievements can be attributed to the shared commitment by the federal, state and territory governments under the NWI. Water trading, within and between Australian states, is proving to be one of the NWI’s success stories and is delivering real benefits to irrigators, communities and the environment. The Commission’s “Australian Water Markets Report 2009–10” found that in the three years after 2007-08, entitlement trade grew by 112 per cent and allocation trade grew by 57 per cent. Although it is difficult to identify the effects of trade in an environment of drought, commodity market and rural adjustment, trade has clearly assisted existing industries to manage change, and has been critical to new, large-scale agricultural development. Without water trading, many existing enterprises would not have survived the recent drought. Significant progress also has been achieved in water accounting, meaning that Australians are now better informed about how much water is being delivered, traded, extracted for consumptive use, and managed for environmental and other public benefits. This is essential if water policymakers, planners and managers are to make sensible decisions about how to use water. It also supports public and investor confidence. In addition to the development of a national framework and standards for water accounting, the Bureau of Meteorology is now empowered to collect and publish high-quality water information.

Securing Australia's Water Future  

Securing water supplies has never been easy in Australia. Managing the nation’s rivers and water resources has been a learning experience, r...