The Victorian Water Act is one of the largest pieces of legislation in the book. (And that's saying something). First enacted in the 1880s, it's been revised many times to provide secure and adequate water supplies for towns, industry and agriculture across the state. And while it’s served these purposes well, it hasn’t been as successful in protecting our state’s stressed and degraded river systems.
A reform of the Water Act in 2005 set up the environmental water reserve (EWR). For the first time, rivers and aquifers were given a legal right to a share of their own water. But so far the amount of water in the EWR has not been enough in either volume or reliability to protect our freshwater systems (above or below ground). These are the very systems that we depend on for all of our water supply.
Over the last couple of years Environment Victoria has become increasingly concerned that the EWR wasn’t doing its job properly. We’ve also been concerned that the Water Act isn’t able to cope with the challenge of climate change. So we got together with the Environment Defenders Office and came up with some recommendations to improve the Act so that it provides greater protection for our river systems.
We think the Act needs at least two fundamental changes, and a series of supporting reforms. They can be implemented separately – but taken together, they’ll provide greater security and reliability for environmental water.
At the moment, the Act only requires the Minister for Water to maintain the EWR. It doesn’t require him/her to ensure that it actually has enough good quality and realiable water in it, to do it’s job properly. This is the first thing we recommend fixing.
We also recommend establishing a ‘sustainable baseflow’ for Victorian rivers. That’s fancy talk for a legally bound share of water that is set aside specifically to protect environmental values, before consumer demand is considered. It would vary from year to year, according to water flows into the ecosystems, but would be based on the ecological needs of each system.
And on the matter of the re-direction (persistent qualification) of environmental water, we think that the Act’s temporary qualification provision should be immediately changed to prioritise critical human and environmental needs over all other users. This way, our rivers won’t be giving up yet more and more of their water while they themselves run thirsty.
Taken together, the recommendations to improve the Act would give water managers the tools they need to respond and adapt to changing pressures on water resources, especially as a result of climate change. They would also give us a 21st century Water Act that sets up the framework to rescue our rivers and return them to health.
Reforming the Victorian Water Act
Bringing the Victorian Water Act into the 21st Century 2-pager fast facts
Read our media release on the launch of the report
Read our blog on the issue
The Victorian Water Act, in all its legal glory.