Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Water law changes in the pipeline

The Water Act 1989 (Vic), one of the longest Acts in the statute book, is under review.  Changes are not expected to significantly impact water users, however, it will change the way the Government manages water so it is important for government officers who work in areas affected by water law or the emergency services (as the review affects flood mitigation infrastructure) to keep abreast of the changes.

The Act provides the framework for allocating surface water and groundwater across Victoria.  It details the Crown’s entitlements to water and private entitlements to water from all rivers, streams and groundwater systems in Victoria, providing Water Authorities with bulk entitlements to water for urban supply or irrigation.  Authorities allocate a volumetric water entitlement to licenced individuals or companies for commercial or irrigation purposes.  It also gives individuals the right to take and use water for domestic and stock purposes.

The Act was developed over 20 years ago when the pressures on the State's water resources were very different.  Its predecessor was enacted in the 1800s to allow the development of irrigation in northern Victoria.  Environmental considerations are a much more recent addition.  In particular, in 2005, the Act pioneered the use of the environmental water reserve, which was designed ‘to set aside a share of water in rivers and aquifers across the State for the environment’. This was the first time that rivers and aquifers gained a legal right to a share of their own water.

The purpose of the review of the Act is to streamline the legislative framework for water management and use.  This includes considering whether changes are needed to implement the Commonwealth's Murray-Darling Basin Plan, released in November 2012.  The review will also implement new water policies adopted by the Government, including the Living Melbourne Living Victoria urban water plan and the land use change policy developed through the Western and Gippsland regional sustainable water strategies.

Currently, we are waiting with baited breath for the release of a discussion paper outlining proposed reforms to the Act and an exposure draft.  An expert panel established by the Minister is preparing this.  A six-week consultation process will occur following the release of the paper.

The discussion paper will consider the following issues:

  • Whether the way water resources are managed and allocated can be simplified, without having an adverse impact on entitlements.
  • Whether public dams that could present a hazard if they fail should be licensed in the same way as private dams.
  • Whether any further refinements to the water corporation governance reforms of 2012 are required.
  • Whether the current water service delivery functions and powers of water authorities can provide sustainable and integrated water services.  This includes ensuring the rights to alternative water sources are clear enough to enable greater use of recycled water and stormwater.
  • Whether the functions and powers that aim to protect and improve river health, floodplain management and regional drainage are sufficient.  This includes making legislative changes needed to implement the government's response to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee inquiry into floodplain mitigation infrastructure in Victoria, some of which are discussed in the recently released Government’s Response to this inquiry.

If you are in the Victorian Government and require advice about how the water law reforms could affect your area, please contact:

Eliza Bergin
Principal Solicitor
t 8684 0267

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