4 Inland water | Key findings

State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia state of the environment 2011.
Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.

4 Inland water

Key findings

The past decade has been Australia’s most ambitious period of water policy reform.

All states and territories have now committed to the principles of the National Water Initiative. This commitment includes providing secure water for sustaining the environment.

Withdrawing water for other uses changes our inland water ecosystems.

Almost every inland ecological system in Australia is either permanently or seasonally limited by a shortage of water. Permanently withdrawing (abstracting) water from these systems will inevitably change their character in some way and degree. Conversely, this same water-limited ecology and our highly variable climate make these systems relatively resilient to small or short–term reductions in water availability.

Pressures caused by past human activities continue to affect our inland waters, and climate change poses our largest future threat.

Most of the ongoing impacts on Australia’s inland water environments result from our historical legacy of land-use change, pest and weed introductions, and water resource development. The main risk to inland environmental health that remains poorly mitigated is the likelihood of a drying and warming climate in our southern catchments and warmer temperatures across Australia. Current water-sharing rules tend to favour water entitlement holders over environmental flows in dry times.

Recent droughts have had major effects on our southern inland water systems.

Over the past decade or more, the southern half of Australia experienced the longest and most severe drought in our recorded history. The drought dramatically changed the character of inland water environments and there is evidence that this drought partly reflects a changing climate resulting from human activity. Northern Australia’s inland water systems are largely in good condition.

Remediation of catchment water quality is not yet well managed.

While water abstraction pressures on inland water environments are increasingly better managed (and in places alleviated), there is less monitoring, coordination and effort applied to the remediation of catchment water quality. Planning and management of these two dimensions of catchment health are still largely separate.

Better understanding is needed about how well ecosystems can withstand changes in water regime.

Except for the south-west corner of the continent, the southern drought ended in late 2010 with widespread flooding. Monitoring of the recovery of river and wetland ecosystems following these floods will provide crucial insights into how inherently resilient these systems are. Managing for extreme conditions is emerging as a vital issue for environmental flows, as the implications of a changing climate become more certain.

Meeting our population’s need for water will be a critical challenge for Australia.

Using water from our environment is fundamental to our national wellbeing and sustainability. Each year, Australian industries add about $1.2 trillion of gross value for the water we use. Demands for urban water will increase as Australia’s population grows; these demands are likely to be met without taking much more fresh water out of the environment (but potentially with other environmental costs, including increased energy use associated with desalination or wastewater recycling).

Water prices have risen, but Australia is using less water.

The average price of water nearly doubled from $0.40 per kilolitre (kL) in 2004–05 to $0.78 per kL in 2008–09. There was large variation in the average price paid for water in 2008–09—households paid $1.93 per kL and agriculture $0.12 per kL. Urban water prices have continued to increase across Australia, reflecting significant state and territory investments in new water infrastructure. However, due to long-term drought conditions, Australia’s water consumption fell 25%, from 18 767 gigalitres in 2004–05 to 14 101 gigalitres in 2008–09.

Water reforms, via the water market, will help secure environmental flows and support ecosystem services.

The establishment of efficient and effective water markets requires multijurisdictional collaboration. This includes effective administrative and regulatory arrangements and adequate monitoring and enforcement. In the future, once an efficient and effective water market model has been implemented, price signals will reflect the scarcity of water in Australia. As a result, water should flow to the economic, social and environmental uses of highest value.