AN independent review of the Water Act has focused on cutting red tape as well as improving Basin Plan performance and interstate program communication.
The review report, tabled on Friday, made 23 recommendations, including simplifying the processes for amending and accrediting State water resource plans.
The review – the first since the Act commenced in 2008 - by was announced by Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment Minister Senator Simon Birmingham in May. It was undertaken by a four-member expert panel that included National Irrigators Council chair Gavin McMahon.
The Act established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and a national framework to manage Basin water resources, including through the adoption of the Basin Plan and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH).
The report recommended providing the CEWH with greater flexibility in using the proceeds of water trade to deliver environmental outcomes. It also suggested the next scheduled review of the Water Act should occur in 2024 and the Basin Plan should be reviewed in 2026.
Senator Birmingham said extensive consultation was undertaken by the Panel in preparing the report, involving more than 70 submissions and meetings with more than 50 parties.
“The expert panel has made a number of findings and recommendations, all of which are designed to improve the operation of the Water Act and ensure that it delivers on its objects more effectively and efficiently,” he said.
“The panel has recognised the ongoing nature of the reforms that fall under the Water Act and are yet to be fully implemented – I am pleased to see that their recommendations take this matter into account.”
Senator Birmingham said the review looked at ways of cutting red tape, which meant recommendations 11 and 18 - which call for further work to streamline various Water Charge Rules and water information reporting requirements – would be implemented immediately.
“These matters have been a burden to industry for a number of years in relation to annual costs, and it’s important that we revise these requirements to ensure they are fair and reasonable,” he said.
“I have written to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and Bureau of Meteorology requesting that they commence work promptly.”
Senator Birmingham said the government would respond formally to all recommendations in the New Year.
The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) welcomed the review’s findings, and Water Taskforce chair Les Gordon said he was looking forward to reading through the detail of the findings and the expert panel’s recommendations.
“NFF is pleased to see that the government has taken immediate steps to consider the recommendations in detail, by commissioning more detailed reviews of water charge rules and the collection of water information,” he said.
“There is a real opportunity to streamline these provisions of the Act and reduce the costs and regulatory burdens on irrigation businesses."
The report said while significant progress has been made since the Basin Plan commenced, more remains to be done to successfully deliver the Plan in full by July 1, 2019 and ensure its “objectives and outcomes will be realised”.
“This involves a substantial implementation program as well as a sustained commitment from governments and their agencies, industries and communities to work together in partnership, respecting each others’ roles, responsibilities and expertise,” the report said.
“In particular, the Panel is of the view that Australian and Basin State governments and their agencies need to work together to clearly and transparently communicate how reforms are being implemented, including the different roles of governments, how local expertise will be taken into account and how activities will be co-ordinated.”
The Panel identified several crucial areas to ensure effective delivery of the Act’s objectives and the Basin Plan, including: The impacts of Basin Plan reforms - for the environment as well as for communities and industry - should be closely monitored and understood over time, with monitoring and evaluation based on rigorous and credible analysis and effectively coordinated to ensure that reform outcomes can be demonstrated The five-yearly audits of Basin Plan implementation should be maintained and performed by an independent expert body following the proposed closure of the National Water Commission by the end of 2014.
Australian Conservation Foundation healthy ecosystems program manager Jonathan La Nauze said the Water Act review raised similar concerns to ACF’s recent analysis of the Murray-Darling Basin, released late last month, that there remain serious risks to the full implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
“ACF welcomes the review panel’s recommendation not to change the objects of the Water Act and the acknowledgement that the Act’s existing framework already provides for the achievement of economic, social and environmental outcomes,” he said.
“However, the panel’s recommendations to sell environmental water in order to pay for essential environmental works should be rejected.
“If a public hospital can’t afford to pay its electricity bills, you don’t tell it to take the x-ray machine to the pawn shop, you increase its budget.
“Senator Birmingham must not take this penny-pinching attitude to the environment, particularly when he is spending billions subsidising the upgrade of privately owned irrigation infrastructure.”
Mr La Nauze said the ACF supported the recommendation that Basin States make sure the mining industry operates with the same rules as all other water users.
“Governments must stick to the Basin Plan’s agreed timelines and objectives if they want to make sure the plan prepares the river system – which is the lifeblood of the nation, sustaining and supporting millions of Australians – to cope with the next big drought,” he said.
Read the report here.