Water Reform and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014
Background to the issue:
The purpose of the Water Act 2000 was “to advance the sustainable management and efficient use of water and other resources by establishing a system for the planning, allocation and use of water.” (s10 (1) Water Act 2000)
The Water Act and its subordinate Water Resource Plans, set limits on the volume of water that could be taken from each river and groundwater system so that the take of water would be ecologically sustainable; and water dependent industries could rely on the availability of 'fit for purpose' water supplies in the long term.
In November 2014, the previous Queensland Government amended the Water Act 2000 through the Water Resources and Other Legislation Amendment Bill (WROLA Bill) which reduced the protection of Queensland’s water resources and delivered privileged access to water for some industrial water users.
Impacts of the previous Queensland Government's Actions:
Many of the WROLA Bill amendments were specifically intended to fast-track water access for the mining and unconventional gas sectors. The rights and entitlements of existing users, such as farmers, graziers and the environment are being removed or constrained under these new arrangements.
The requirement for mineral tenure holders to obtain a Water Act licence or permit for dewatering operations has been removed, thus granting the resources sector a “statutory right to take associated groundwater.” The Government's ability to manage Queensland's water resources sustainably has been greatly diminished.
The Mineral Resources Act 1989 and Petroleum & Gas (Production and Safety) Act 2004 were amended to establish a consistent framework for dealing with groundwater under the Water Act. But rather than adopting the more precautionary approach that previously existed under the Mineral Resources Act, the statutory right to take unlimited volumes of associated water under the Petroleum &Gas Act was extended to the minerals sector. In combination, the various amendments will place greater pressure on the sustainable and responsible management of Queensland’s water resources and effectively undo 15 years of work in delivering better management of Queensland’s water resources.
Further compounding the “statutory right to take groundwater” issue, is the removal of an affected landholder’s or a water user’s objection and appeal rights under the Water Act to the unlimited take or interference with this water. This has the potential for dire consequences in the Great Artesian Basin where aquifer pressure is a crucial and extremely valuable resource.
The WROLA Bill also contained measures to reform the framework for the release of Unallocated Water. Unallocated water can now be reserved outside a statutory Water Plan and in some cases prior to the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and assessment processes required for Projects of State Significance and prior to the amendment of a Water Plan.
There has also been a change to remove the requirement to obtain a water licence for the take of, or interference with, water where the risk to sustainability is low. How any assessment of the level of risk will be determined, is yet to be defined.
In combination, these amendments present an enormous risk of over-allocating scarce water resources and repeating the costly mistakes made in the Murray Darling Basin.
On the back of these amendments that clearly favour mining, petroleum and unconventional gas producers, the previous Queensland Government also flagged the development of a “water supply strategy” for managing water demand by the shale gas industry and others from the Great Artesian and Cooper Basins which underlie the Channel Country.
The reduction in regulatory oversight, the removal of objection rights, the “dismantling” of the water planning regime and the privileged treatment all of these changes provides to the oil, unconventional gas and mining industries, are designed to accelerate the development of deep oil and shale gas resources in the Channel Country. They pose an immediate and material threat to the Channel Country’s delicate surface and groundwater regimes and the region’s sustainable economic development.
Desired Policy Changes:
The stakeholders in the Channel Country call for:
- a precautionary approach to the management of the State's water resources, based on the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development;
- for all water users in Queensland to be afforded with equitable, consistent and secure access to the State’s surface and groundwater resources; and
- the water rights of all Queenslanders be respected and treated with integrity.