Prior to the election last year in Victoria, the former Victorian Government introduced into Parliament the Water Bill 2014 (Vic). The Bill never became law. With a new Victorian Government, it is not clear whether all or any of the reforms proposed by the Water Bill 2014 (Vic) will be pursued.
There is one area of reform that is overdue. This is to better align Victoria’s water laws with the needs of the Basin Plan under the Water Act 2007 (Cth). Compared with other Basin States, being New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Queensland and South Australia, Victoria is currently out of step.
By way of background, the Basin Plan was prepared under the Water Act 2007 (Cth) and adopted on 22 November 2012. The Basin Plan sets a basin-wide Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) for surface water of 10,873GL. This means that 2,750GL must be taken out of consumptive surface water entitlement use in the Murray Darling Basin for the benefit of the environment, from 1 July 2019 onwards.
The Basin Plan relies on Basin States preparing Water Resource Plans (WRPs) to achieve the basin-wide SDL specified in the Basin Plan, on a catchment- by-catchment basis. Basin State WRPs eventually need to be consistent with the Basin Plan, and accredited by the Federal Minister with assistance from the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
In contrast with other Basin States, Victoria does not currently have a single statutory instrument that would be defined as a WRP. This undermines the integration between Victorian legislation and the Basin Plan and it means that Victoria does not have one of the core mechanisms by which the SDL under the Basin Plan is intended to be achieved.
The point was made in the 2013 National Water Commission report card, which stated that “Victoria does not have a single statutory instrument that would be defined as a water plan under NWI criteria”. The 2013 report card concluded that “the Victorian planning framework is complex and progress in some areas of planning is very slow” and that “the role of planning instruments [in Victoria] in addressing sustainable water strategies is unclear”.
Following a review of Victoria’s water laws by the former Victorian Government, the Water Bill 2014 (Vic) was prepared and it proposed to introduce Water Resource Management Orders (WRMOs). It would appear that the intention of the WRMOs was that they could be utilised as WRPs for the purposes of the Basin Plan.
It was not proposed under the reforms that the WRMOs would define the consumptive pool only after the environmental needs of the catchment were met: a controversial policy for irrigators, but one arguably agreed to by Basin State Governments under the 2004 National Water Initiative.
Regardless of whether or not the WRMOs, or some other Victorian statutory catchment based instrument, should prioritise environmental needs, most stakeholders would agree that there is a need for reform so that Victoria has a WRP instrument to submit for federal accreditation under the Basin Plan, as is the case with other Basin States.
It is timely for the new Victorian Government to continue the law reform process to bring Victoria’s water laws into line with other Basin States.
Author: Joseph Monaghan
Ron Eames, Partner
T: +61 7 3135 0629
Joseph Monaghan, Special Counsel
T: +61 3 9321 9857
Alistair Salmon, Partner
T: +61 2 8083 0467
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