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AWA members call for national reform on water management

When it comes to the delivery of water and wastewater services, there are clear benefits to be gained from greater levels of national collaboration and consistency through an independent and statutory reform agency.

This was the message delivered by Australian Water Association (AWA) members during two consultation periods as part of the Association’s submission to the Productivity Commission’s National Water Initiative (NWI) inquiry.

In developing the submission, AWA CEO Corinne Cheeseman said achieving better outcomes for stakeholders and the economy will require a return to more comprehensive collaboration between jurisdictions.

“The successful national reforms of the past have involved strong leadership, coordination and facilitation and this is required once again for all jurisdictions to work together to deliver better outcomes for constituents as well as the national economy,” Cheeseman said.

The submission outlines four primary functions required of the proposed national reform agency:

  • the agency should be independent and statutory;
  • it should provide national leadership and direction to oversee a revised NWI, assess progress and shine a spotlight on reform deficiencies;
  • It should facilitate inter-jurisdictional collaboration in the development of nationally consistent regulatory frameworks, guidelines and governance arrangements; and
  • It should work to coordinate knowledge sharing across Australia’s water sector in overcoming barriers to reform.

The consultation with AWA members was organised under six key themes, which AWA President Carmel Krogh said reflected areas in which national leadership is required.

“With a focus on stronger national leadership, coordination and facilitation, jurisdictions will be encouraged to progress in the key reform areas of urban water, rural water, groundwater management, community engagement in water management and planning and research and development,” Krogh said.

Urban water

Urban water reform should focus on increasing water security standards cost-effectively, ensuring all options are assessed and used wherever possible.

“To establish reliable water security standards at the lowest expected cost across all urban water utilities, a diversity of supply and demand options is required with all options being on the table,” the submission states.

“The development of additional centralised and/or decentralised water supply options is warranted, including recycled water, desalination, rainwater tanks, stormwater harvesting and water wastage programs, where appropriate.”

The submission recommends greater investment in urban water supply system resilience, embedding sustainability principles within blue and green infrastructure projects, as well as a more collaborative approach to integrated water management and urban livability, and strengthening regional and remote water service providers.

“There is a need for increased investment for adaptive planning in the face of increased risks caused by greater extremes in drought, flood, fire and now the COVID-19 pandemic,” the submission states.

“Greater resilience needs to be built into urban water supply systems including the proactive management of water networks through replacement of ageing infrastructure, reducing water wastage and ensuring coastal water assets are resilient to sea level rises.”

Rural water

Rural water recommendations include increasing the transparency of monitoring, regulation, compliance and enforcement when it comes to water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

“Efforts to introduce real-time metering and measuring of the amount of water available and extracted across the Murray-Darling Basin has been slow and uneven. Therefore, transparent monitoring, regulation, compliance, and enforcement is needed,” the submission states.

The submission also outlines the need for further investment in monitoring technology, a more adaptive approach to climate change response, as well as strengthening statutory planning and water access entitlement frameworks.

Groundwater management

“The management and accounting of groundwater and surface water resources are not well detailed within individual jurisdiction frameworks,” the submission states.

Recommendations include establishing a monitoring system for the interaction between groundwater and surface water, as well as enabling sustainable groundwater extraction via managed aquifer recharge.

“There is a need for a system that allows for proper accounting of return flows and transfer of water volumes between different sources. Clearer details on groundwater provisions, allocations, entitlements and carryover is required also,” the submission states.

Community engagement in water management and planning

The submission says there is a need to integrate bottom-up and community-based adaptation into improved water governance arrangements, which should involve Indigenous communities.

“Incorporating community inputs into water governance arrangements and enhancing the level of communications with community representatives will provide the community with greater confidence in the sustainable management of water resources,” the submission states.

The submission also highlights the requirement of a First People’s Water Council to ensure genuine engagement with Indigenous communities in water planning across each jurisdiction.

“There is a need for objectives or outcomes related to Indigenous access to water and greater Indigenous engagement on sustainable water management,” the submission states.

“There has been no material increase in water allocation for Indigenous Peoples and their engagement in water planning over the past decade. All surface water and groundwater plans need to address environmental flows and cultural entitlements within their allocations.”

Furthermore, strengthening water literacy and education about water within communities is also recommended.

Research and development

Future water research and development needs to have a strong interdisciplinary focus in order to achieve innovative efficiencies.

“There is a need for sustained investment in research and development in multi-disciplinary areas of the water sector (policy, governance, social science, urban planning, rural development, water resources, health science, agriculture development and community engagement) to support greater innovation and efficiencies as well as adaptive responses to prevailing and emerging stresses,” the submission states.

The submission also recommends focusing on the research and development pipeline, to ensure that information and knowledge generated from research activities makes its way through to the implementation phase, including more investment in the retention of water industry talent.

“Future research programs should have a clear strategy for implementation to ensure that research is market ready,” it says.

“The pipeline is required to enable basic R&D within institutions to demonstration, application and then implementation of research with feedback provided from the end user through to the researcher.”

National reform agenda

Finally, the submission recommends a refreshed National Water Initiative that is capable of responding to new and emerging risks and opportunities, which should include the establishment of a national agency to oversee the implementation of reforms.

“The AWA calls on the Australian Government to take a renewed leadership role in water policy and provide a clear line of sight for state governments, industry, both public and private sectors, R&D institutions as well as the Indigenous community to identify the opportunities for progress and continue the drive for effective and efficient reform under a nationally coordinated framework,” the submission states.

The AWA calls on Australia’s state and territory governments to work together to deliver better outcomes for their constituents as well as the national economy and considers the reformation of a national reform agency an important step in this journey.”

Access the AWA’s submission on behalf of its members here.