Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over
– Mark Twain

Water is mobile, unpredictable and valuable to a range of competing stakeholders. The management of water resources therefore requires an understanding of scientific and ecological issues that influence the quantity and quality of supply, coupled with equitable rules for sharing water resources and resolving disputes. EDO (Tas) and the Tasmanian Conservation Trust hosted Protecting Our Liquid Assets, a conference exploring options for the reform of water management law in Tasmania.


Speakers’ Presentations

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Water management in Tasmania

The conference was opened by Justice Alan Blow who put Tasmania’s current water regulation in a historical context.

Alan Harradine (General Manager, Water Resources Division) The legislative framework for water management in Tasmania, gave an overview of Tasmania’s Water Management Act 1999(the WMA). Mr Harradine identified key difficulties in formalising water allocations, particularly when Tasmania’s system has to cater for the largest volumetric range of entitlements in Australia – from Hydro Tasmania’s 13 million ML annual entitlement to a landholder who draws only 0.001 ML per day.
In accordance with COAG reforms, the WMA separates water entitlements from land titles, facilitates water trading, provides formal allocations for the environment and encourages community based planning and management. Alan Harradine identified the short-term challenges for improving the water management system as finalising water management plans for all catchments to guide allocation decisions, developing effective strategies for groundwater management and monitoring environmental flow requirements.

Craig Woodfield (Water Policy Officer, Tasmanian Conservation Trust) Plugging the holes: Tasmanian water issues, identified a number of weaknesses with the current water management system. In particular, Craig was critical of:

  • Emphasis on water allocation rather than water management
    In his opinion, the WMA fails to adequately address the needs of water dependent ecosystems, water efficiency, the implications of land uses and the effects of climate change.
  • Lack of integrated catchment management
  • Flawed dam application and assessment process
    Craig described the current dam assessment process as a “dam promotion service” and noted that the Assessment Committee for Dam Construction does not currently have any conservation representatives. He was also critical of the lack of incentives to build off-stream dams, despite the ecological impacts of in-stream structures.
  • Independent management of urban and rural water use
    The failure of many urban councils to introduce water meters is a significant impediment to achieving efficiency and full-cost recovery.
  • Inconsistent Government policy
    Craig noted the inherent inconsistencies in promoting increased agricultural production in Tasmania without addressing issues of salinity, water quality, biodiversity and environmental flows.

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The impact of land use changes

One session of the conference focussed on the impact of land use changes on water systems.

Material prepared by Rob Vertessy and Rodger Grayson (CRC for Catchment Hydrology) demonstrated the impact of vegetation clearance on water yield. Technical reports associated with the CSIRO presentation, are available at and other relevant publications can be found at the CSIRO Land and Water website – search for “water yield”.

Studies of mountain ash show the following general pattern where forests are cleared and converted to plantations:

  • run off is increased immediately following clearing (0-4 years);
  • run off significantly decreases as the new trees begin vigorous growth (10 – 14 years). Salt and nutrient concentrations are increased during this period as a consequence of lower dilution;
  • stream flow stabilises at pre-logging levels within 20-24 years.

The impact and duration of these changes varies depending on the type and age of the cleared forest, soil depth and average rainfall. In general, larger impacts are expected where old growth forest or forests in high rainfall areas are logged.
The consequences of afforestation are set out below. These points demonstrate that catchment management is complex and must involve a thorough, multi-objective analysis.

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  • Enhancement of rural economies
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Flood reduction
  • Decreased salinity / nutrient loads
  • Biodiversity gains
  • Yield losses
  • Environmental flow losses
  • Increased salt / nutrient concentration

Dr David Leaman (Geohydrologist, Leaman Geophysics) Landuse and Base FlowWater Use in TasmaniaPlantation Forestry also discussed the impact of forestry activities, using Tasmanian examples to demonstrate changed seasonal flow patterns, erosion, siltation and soil losses resulting from the cycle of clearing, burning and planting. Dr Leaman was very critical of current forest practices and noted that rotating plantations every 20 years keeps the entire hydrological system in a constant state of high water demand.

Dr Leaman stressed the importance of a transparent and inclusive allocation system and claimed that Tasmania’s water management regime is currently distorted by its exclusion of large water users such as forestry operators.

Dr Leaman emphasised the need to plan for the hydrological consequences of land use changes and recommended detailed research to better understand:

  • the impact of land use changes on flow regimes; and
  • the impacts of translocation of water (through pipelines, irrigation systems or cloud seeding).

An understanding of these impacts is essential to the equitable management of water allocations. Dr Leaman noted that an allocation system that fails to consider water losses can only lead to future difficulties.

Given the management complexities, both presentations indicated that forest planning should be undertaken at a catchment scale and must consider:

  • where rainfall occurs;
  • expected time scales for recovery (depending on plantations, rotation plans etc);
  • exacerbating or alleviating impacts (including climate change, afforestation and other clearing within the catchment); and
  • water quality impacts of reduced water yield / environmental flows

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Experiences in other jurisdictions

The legacy of water licensing regimes in the 20th century has been deteriorating water quality, loss of environmental flows, rising salinity and degradation of catchments.

Dr Lee Godden (Senior Lecturer in Water Resources Law, University of Melbourne) The National Water Initiative and Its Application to Tasmania discussed how the National Water Initiative, signed by all states except Tasmania and Western Australia in June 2004, addresses these issues.

Key elements of the National Water Initiative (NWI) include:

  • water access entitlements defined as perpetual access to a proportion of the available water resource (rather than a volumetric allocation);
  • statutory recognition of water for environmental flows;
  • returning over-allocated water systems to sustainable levels of use;
  • assignment of the risk of future reductions in water availability;
  • removal of institutional barriers to trade in water;
  • regional assessment of land use activities that intercept water;
  • full-cost recovery pricing for water;
  • actions to better manage the demand for water.

Dr Godden argued that the NWI focusses on ensuring the security of consumptive entitlements, rather than protecting the environment. The NWI provides discrete environmental entitlements, however the environment does not enjoy priority. Further, there is no certainty that the defined environmental reserve can achieve sustainable outcomes where existing allocations already exceed catchment capacity. Dr Godden also expressed concern about creating indefeasible titles to a public resource and questioned whether governments will have the capacity to buy back allocations if necessary.

Dr Godden discussed the benefits of the South African model for water management, in which “use” is defined to include all activities that reduce stream flow, impact on water resources or remove groundwater. This broad definition allows high demand activities such as forestry to be effectively regulated. The South African model also sets outs a wide range of matters to be considered in assessing allocations, including efficient and beneficial use of water in the public interest, socio-economic impacts and water quality.

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Professor Barry Hart (Director of Water Studies Centre, Monash University) presented an overview of the Victorian Catchment Management Framework, which aims to maintain and improve river health. He believes that this framework marks a shift of environmental policy from paternalistic government regulation to community driven, multi-disciplinary management focussed on stewardship and the triple bottom line. Within the framework, regional committees are responsible for developing and implementing action plans, providing advice to government on funding priorities and liaising with stakeholders.
Though acknowledging that significant gains are still to be made, Professor Hart considers the Victorian model a good framework that can evolve to meet the demands of catchment management. The Victorian experience demonstrates the importance of clear, stable funding, clear strategic directions and a clear framework for accountability.

Dr Gerry Bates emphasised the importance of developing management systems to reflect ecological realities. Dr Bates noted that our management of natural resources is often characterised by control – creating rights to resources without any related obligations or consideration of how natural systems actually behave. In the context of integrated catchment management and vegetation reforms in NSW, Dr Bates advocated the adoption of a more ‘whole of government’ approach towards management of natural resources.

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The way forward

The recurrent themes of the conference were:

  • The need for integrated catchment management in which water management decisions are part of a broader planning framework. Protection of water quality and quantity should not be separated from decisions about land use.
  • The importance of a consistent whole of government approach to resource management and the need for administrative structures to reflect ecological realities.
  • A transparent allocation system that accounts for all activities affecting water quality and quantity. It is critical that ‘intercepting’ land use changes are included in the water balance sheet.
  • The importance of demand management – adopting mechanisms to encourage efficient use of water.
  • Public involvement in the water management system, including consultation in water planning and third party appeal rights.

The following resolutions were adopted at the conclusion of the conference as steps to improve water management in Tasmania:

  1. Tasmania introduces catchment management legislation, covering all land use change (without exemption), salinity and other landscape processes, following established best practice model.
  2. The Water Management Act 1999 is amended to:
    • Expand membership of the ACDC to include a conservation member.
    • Expand scope to consider all water usage and efficiency issues e.g. recycling, interception
  3. Tasmania immediately resumes negotiations on the National Water Initiative.

The debate generated by Protecting Our Liquid Assets illustrates both the need to develop an effective and equitable system for the sustainable use of water resources and the complexity of the task. Water is for fighting over and the battle isn’t over yet!