The report ‘Sustainable Management of Victoria’s Groundwater Resources’ (tabled in Parliament last week) concludes that the Victorian government has not got enough information available to know if its management of groundwater is sustainable or not. If this were not enough, a second report also tabled last week, Restricting Environmental Flows during Water Shortage, shows that the government’s habit of redirecting environmental flows to meet human needs during dry periods can cause damage to river systems.
Taken together, the reports reveal significant deficiencies in the way water is managed, both above and below ground. They suggest that insufficient care has been taken to assess the environmental impacts of government decision making, and that the need to satisfy consumptive demand has priority over environmental protection.
The Groundwater report states that DSE needs much better information on the extent of groundwater resources and their interconnection to surface water, and the effects of climate change on rates of recharge, to inform its management planning. The Auditor General also recommends that DSE should obtain up to date information on the number of ground water bores, including stock and domestic bores, and on how much water theses bores are actually pumping. In other words, increased licensing, metering and monitoring of groundwater extraction – just what Environment Victoria has been calling for through the development of the Sustainable Water Strategies!
As our climate dries, groundwater will be in increasing demand as a reliable water source. At the same time our rivers and wetlands will become more dependent on groundwater to provide baseflows for survival. Implementing the Auditor General’s recommendations would be a great first step in moving towards sustainable management of groundwater. It’s pretty much common sense that you need information about the resource, how it behaves and how it is being used, before you can plan for a sustainable future.
In Restricting Environmental Flows during Water Shortage, the Auditor General recommends changes in the way decisions are made about redirecting environmental water to human needs during extended dry periods. The current framework does not take the possibility of environmental damage into adequate account. The AG recommends proper definitions of terms like ‘water shortage’, ‘critical needs’ and ‘temporary emergency’, and a clear and transparent decision making process with agreed criteria and planning for, monitoring and reporting of environmental outcomes.
You’ll have heard us talking about the reforms we are proposing – a ‘sustainable baseflow’ so that rivers get a fair share of water whatever the weather, and making sure that the Environmental Water Reserve actually has enough water in it to actually maintain and restore ecosystem health. We also think that during times of water shortage, the Minister for Water should prioritise critical human and environmental needs. Which brings us back to those definitions the Auditor General was talking about – the Water Act does not give the Minister any guidance on what a water shortage actually is!