Government Documents

Penny Wong has announced that the Federal Government will contribute half of the $60 million needed to fund a National Centre for Groundwater Research & Training, at Flinders University.   This is a wonderful initiative, as the govt. is acknowledging how little is known about groundwater, and is now intensifying research on it.   Here is a quote from their website:

“Groundwater is now recognised as a crucial asset that must be an integral part of Australia’s long-term water planning.  But to effectively manage this resource requires far more knowledge of sub-surface water systems than is currently available.

Because existing data is limited or non-existent, management decisions are being made using hydrogeologic conceptual models that can be grossly misleading.  Addressing these major inadequacies will be the focus of NCGRT’s research program Innovative Characterisation of Aquifers and Aquitards.

Groundwater is often called the forgotten resource.  Despite the fact that groundwater accounts for over 30 per cent of Australia’s water consumption, we simply do not know enough about this vital water resource, and how to manage it.

With severe droughts and climate change placing extreme pressure on existing water supplies, there is an urgent need to expand this knowledge base.”

Source :


Information copied from government documents:

“The NSW GAB water sources have been assessed as high risk particularly in relation to:  

the decline in artesian pressures due to over extraction and free-flowing discharge of the groundwater;  

stress to groundwater dependent ecosystems due to high levels of extraction; and  

threats to grazing industries in the catchment due to a reduction in access for both domestic and stock users and licensed users.  

The groundwater development that has supported the pastoral industry in the GAB over the past 120 years has come at some cost to the Basin. There have been substantial groundwater pressure losses and only half the GAB bores in NSW continue to flow. 

Water flow through the sandstone is extremely slow, ranging from 0.1m. to 5 metres per year.  Therefore it is estimated that the time taken for water to travel from the recharge areas to the western parts of the GAB can be up to two million years.

More than 80% of the NSW portion of the GAB has witnessed pressure losses.  The area of free flowing bores has continued to decrease in size since extraction began in the late 1800’s.  From 1920 to 1954 approximately 70,000 ha/year were lost, whilst from 1954 to 1995 the rate of loss was 47,000 ha/year.

Natural artesian springs in the GAB are probably among the rarest habitats in Australia, and are geologically, geomorphologically and biologically important.    The decline in artesian flows and pressures over the last century has led to a substantial reduction in these ecosystems, and only some 30 of these still have permanent seeps or retain slight flows.   Many of these springs are unique and endangered.  Their high biodiversity values are recognized through their listing under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC).  The artesian springs have also been listed as an Endangered Ecological Community under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (TSC).   A key feature of their recovery will be increased flows.

Any significant alteration to the quantity and / or quality of the discharging groundwater is likely to have a detrimental impact on the reliant ecosystems.

Groundwater extractions may cause problems in a localised area even though total extraction from the groundwater source is within the extractions limit.  For example, there may be impacts on groundwater dependent ecosystems, water levels, water quality, aquifer integrity or interference between groundwater users.  Many of these impacts may lead to permanent damage to the ecosystems or aquifers.

Research from other groundwater systems around the world and in Australia is providing important information about organisms living within aquifers. In some instances, organisms living between the particles of the aquifer actually play a role in maintaining porosity, which affects storage and through-flow of water. These organisms can also play a role in maintaining water quality, by removing sediment and organic matter from water recharging the aquifer, and by removing nutrients from base-flow entering streams.  

In other situations, organisms living in aquifers have been shown to have existed unchanged since before geological processes formed the separate continents of Australia, Antarctica and Africa. As our knowledge of the GAB is far from complete, management decisions must err on the side of caution until we can be sure of the consequences of any actions that may damage or destroy these aquifer ecosystems.

Flows from natural artesian springs have sustained important natural ecosystems in areas that are otherwise without any permanent water. These ecosystems include the unique mound springs, mud springs and soaks, and also the rejected recharge springs in the intake areas, which provide a component of base-flow in some streams. Any significant alteration to the quantity and/or quality of the discharging groundwater is likely to have a detrimental impact on the reliant ecosystems.

GAB groundwater has high levels of sodium (Na), which renders the water unusable for irrigation in most places. Water with a high percentage of sodium (expressed as the sodium absorption ratio – SAR) is chemically incompatible with clayey soils, destroying soil structure.

In the past two decades an irrigation industry reliant on GAB water has also developed in the Eastern and Southern Recharge Groundwater Sources, where water quality is suitable.  Irrigation entitlements in the Eastern Recharge Groundwater Source are in excess of the estimated sustainable yield, and in some areas water use is causing falling water levels.”

(Reference:  NSW D.W.E. – Water Sharing Plan – Background Document. January ‘09)


In the NSW State Groundwater Policy Framework Document, it clearly states:


“The precautionary principle states that where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.

This precautionary principle is particularly applicable to groundwater management in NSW.  There are often long time scales associated with shifts in the condition of many groundwater systems and our knowledge of groundwater is often poor.”


(Reference:  NSW State Groundwater Policy Framework Document.)


Water legislation and policies

Managing NSW’s water resources is a huge task, involving a range of legislation, initiatives and cooperative arrangements with the Commonwealth and other state government departments. The two key pieces of legislation for the management of water in NSW are the Water Management Act 2000 and the Water Act 1912.

The Water Management Act 2000

The object of the Water Management Act 2000 is the sustainable and integrated management of the State’s water for the benefit of both present and future generations.

After an extensive period of public consultation, the Water Management Act 2000 was passed by the NSW Parliament in December 2000 establishing a complete new statutory framework for managing water in NSW. For the first time, NSW had comprehensive water legislation to guide our water management activities.

The Act is based on the concept of ecologically sustainable development – development today that will not threaten the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The Act recognises that:

  • the fundamental health of our rivers and groundwater systems and associated wetlands, floodplains, estuaries has to be protected
  • the management of water must be integrated with other natural resources such as vegetation, soils and land
  • to be properly effective, water management must be a shared responsibility between the government and the community
  • water management decisions must involve consideration of environmental, social, economic, cultural and heritage aspects
  • social and economic benefits to the State will result from the sustainable and efficient use of water

The Water Management Act 2000 was driven by the need for NSW to secure a sustainable basis for water management for several reasons:

  • NSW was at the limits of its available water resources – new licences for commercial purposes could no longer be issued across most of NSW and a limit had been placed on the total volume of water that can be extracted across the inland of NSW under the Murray–Darling Basin Cap
  • The decline in the health of our rivers, groundwater, floodplains and estuaries was being seen through increasing water quality problems, loss of species, wetland decline and habitat loss.

As a result the Act recognises the need to allocate and provide water for the environmental health of our rivers and groundwater systems, while also providing licence holders with more secure access to water and greater opportunities to trade water in particular through the separation of water licences from land. The main tool the Act provides for managing the State’s water resources are water sharing plans. These are used to set out the rules for the sharing of water in a particular water source between water users and the environment and rules for the trading of water in a particular water source. Statutory water sharing plans are required which set out the rules for water users and the environment and for water trading. Since the legislation was passed in 2000 some amendments have been necessary to better implement the new arrangements and also give effect to the National Water Initiative signed on 25 June 2004, including creation of perpetual or open-ended water licences. The Act was also amended in 2008 to strengthen compliance and enforcement powers in response to water theft. The latest copy of the Water Management Act 2000 is available from the NSW government legislation site.

Because of the major changes required by the legislation, the Act has been progressively implemented. Since 1 July 2004 the new licensing and approvals system has been in effect in those areas of NSW covered by operational water sharing plans – these areas cover most of the State’s major regulated river systems and therefore the largest areas of water extraction. As water sharing plans are finalised and commenced for the rest of the state, the licensing provisions of the Act are introduced extending the benefits for the environment of defined environmental rules and for licence holders of perpetual water licences and greater opportunities for water trading.

Supporting statutes for the Water Management Act 2000

To assist in implementing and defining the provisions of the Act, regulations and proclamations and orders are also made.

The Regulation

The Water Management (General) Regulation 2004

  • contains various procedural matters
  • specifies exemptions from the need to hold an access licence or an approval in certain circumstances
  • specifies the changeover formulae applying to the new category of supplementary water access licences (formerly off–allocation water)
  • includes further minor amendments made to the regulation in April 2005.

Proclamations and Orders

On 30 June 2004 the Governor made a proclamation (PDF 56KB) which commenced the access licence and works and use approvals provisions of the Water Management Act 2000 for the water sources covered by the first wave of water sharing plans to commence.

The Minister can publish orders to implement specific details of an Act. For the Water Management Act 2000 these include:

The following order was also made under the Rivers and Foreshores Improvement Act 1948:

Harvestable Rights (PDF 9KB) – excludes harvestable rights dams, dams approved under the Water Management Act 2000, dams licensed under the Water Act and certain other dams for specific purposes such as soil erosion control, drainage and effluent control and approved environmental management purposes in rural areas from requiring a permit under the Rivers and Foreshores Improvement Act. Permits are still required in certain zoned urban areas.

The following order (PDF 79KB) dealing with the harvestable rights provisions of the Water Act 1912 was amended in March 2006 to support the provisions under the Water Management Act. This order establishes the definitions of a river, the stream ordering requirements of the harvestable rights (using the Strahler system) and identifies the topographical maps which may be used to determine the harvestable right for a landholding.

Water Act 1912: this Act came into force at the turn of the century and represented a different era in water management in NSW. This Act is being progressively phased out and replaced by the Water Management Act 2000 but some provisions are still in force. A copy of the Water Act 1912 is available from the NSW’s Government legislation website.