Water Management and Political Implications

South Australias Water Management and Political Implications

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has become a political battleground. Hundreds of South Australian irrigators converged on Canberra in December to protest the plan.

Brooks’ argument hinges on the idea that there is spare water sloshing around the basin to be reallocated. But experts know that’s simply not true. In fact, the opposite is more likely.

Regional Demand and Supply Statements

The state’s Regional Demand and Supply Statements provide a long-term overview of the status of drinking and non-drinking water resources, major demands and expected timeframes for any future gaps between demand and supply. They are used by the government and local councils to develop and assess options to address the shortfall.

These statements are prepared on a catchment or specified area basis and focus on managing the environmental values of a region’s water resources, rather than the allocation of water to individual farmers. This allows irrigators to see how their water usage is impacting the environment and gives them the opportunity to change their water management practices accordingly.

In a climate of declining rainfall and increased demand for water, farmers are increasingly looking to improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems. As part of this, they are implementing ‘digital irrigation’ systems, which can be operated and monitored remotely. These can also be adjusted to reflect weather conditions and changes in cropping patterns.

While these improvements can help, many irrigators believe the problem lies in the way they are allocated water. They argue that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is reducing their allocations, and that they are being hit by cuts to their environmental water buybacks and rising prices for their water. They point to data from agricultural consultants RMCG, which shows that despite taxpayer-funded efficiency schemes, irrigators are using more water than before the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

South Australia’s water security strategy to 2050, Water for Good, sets out 94 actions to ensure that water is available for the future. These include boosting the use of recycled water, as well as encouraging best-practice Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) in new developments. The EPA, NRM boards and some local councils are also promoting the use of recycled stormwater for irrigation in order to benefit urban streams and wetlands.

The state’s Essential Services Commission, ESCOSA, regulates the price and quality of urban and regional water and sewerage services, in line with its other essential services (such as electricity and gas). This is to help keep consumer costs down.

Water Allocation Plans

Each of South Australia’s eight natural resource management regions have a water allocation plan (WAP) that sets out the rules for managing and taking prescribed water in the region. These plans are developed with the community, industry and key stakeholders for each of the important regional water resources identified as needing special attention.

The WAP is designed to provide security and equity for water users, protect environmental flows and address the capacity of a regional water system. It does this by establishing the water allocation priority groups and the water sharing rules for each of the important river systems within the region. The WAPs also require decision-makers to consider the impacts of various actions on cultural values, particularly those of Traditional Owners.

During the drought, the low level of River Murray water availability caused allocations to be reduced across all entitlement holders. This included the environmental releases, which were directed to the highest priority environmental waterings to achieve multiple benefits from a limited volume of water. The low allocations have led to irrigators conserving water for future dry periods, which is a good thing. However, it is essential that these conservation measures don’t create a risk to public health by introducing untreated greywater into food production areas. This water has been generated from laundries and kitchens, contains traces of faeces, oils and grease and can pose risks to public health.

This year, River Murray storages have remained high and water allocations are projected to open at 100 per cent for the 2022-23 water year. This is great news for River Murray irrigators but the Trust is really excited about a new proposal that will change the way irrigators can carry over their allocation into the next year. Under the current arrangements, unused water allocations are forfeited at 30 June each year. The volume forfeited forms credits that are used to calculate partial carryover into the following year.

The Trust will support these proposals, as they will lead to a fairer process for irrigators in which the same level of water is available to everyone during drought. This will reduce the need for the commonwealth environmental water holder to buy back water and help to ensure that all irrigators reach their allocation in times of shortage.

Water Conservation Measures

The state’s water supply has been boosted by recent good winter rains and replenishment of some of its storages. This, coupled with some recent lessening of water restrictions, is expected to encourage households to reduce their consumption and adopt water conservation measures, a trend that has been evident in results from household surveys conducted by SA Water and the ABS.

The SA government has taken a range of steps to support the use of rainwater and wastewater recycling technologies. These include rebate schemes for household rainwater tanks, greywater systems and water-saving plumbing fittings, along with amended building regulations that require a supplementary water tank in new dwellings. In addition, the state government has encouraged the use of rooftop solar panels to generate electricity and hot water to assist in reducing energy bills during summer.

There are also a number of local councils that have adopted stormwater and wastewater recycling projects as part of their community water management initiatives. For example, a number of Adelaide-based councils have undertaken rainwater harvesting and reuse projects as part of the City of Adelaide Wastewater Recycling Project. The projects are designed to improve the management and quality of stormwater runoff from urban areas for reuse in the local water supply system.

Some of these projects are being replicated in regional South Australia as a result of the Statewide Cities and Towns Water Sustainability Project (DSEWPaC 2012). In the southern regions, there has been progress on implementing the recommendations of the Mount Lofty Ranges Surface Water and Groundwater Management Plan, which includes the use of recycled water in irrigation and a water conservation program for irrigated agricultural land.

Despite these efforts, it is clear that South Australia faces challenges to achieving the environmental and economic benefits of a diverse water supply. Some of the most critical issues need to be addressed by policy and legislative reform. These include ensuring that access to potable drinking water is considered as a fundamental human right, and the establishment of a sustainable level for non-domestic water use, and by developing a long-term, regional strategy for addressing water management challenges.

Water for Good

The state government’s Water for Good strategy outlines 94 actions to ensure the availability of water to meet socially and economically beneficial outcomes, now and into the future. This includes ensuring that the water supply system is resilient, sustainable and affordable to consumers. It aims to increase the state’s water security and provide environmental and other benefits from a diversified range of water supply sources, including urban stormwater, recycled wastewater, desalinated water and sea water.

In recent years there has been growing interest in the potential of re-using treated wastewater as a water source, both to reduce pressure on natural (surface and groundwater) resources and to provide additional community benefits such as energy savings, job creation and reducing carbon emissions. However, such projects require a substantial long-term commitment and are unlikely to be undertaken without support from the local community.

Regional and remote communities face particular challenges when it comes to ensuring that they have access to safe, high quality drinking water. Small economies of scale, limited funding and ageing infrastructure often result in a patchwork approach to service delivery, with some communities suffering from poor (and sometimes unsafe) drinking water as a consequence.

A key factor in this situation is the fact that water-related policy and planning arrangements are fragmented across the various state agencies involved in this area. This is exacerbated by the different interests and objectives of the various stakeholders, such as industry and environmental groups.

Ultimately, the most effective way to improve water services in regional and remote areas is to undertake a thorough stocktake of the existing water supply arrangements and short and long-term risks, with a view to developing a clear understanding of the systemic issues and the level of investment required to address them in a co-ordinated manner.

This needs to be a priority for the state government, together with the development of interim measures to improve drinking water quality and availability in these communities, such as subsidising the purchase of bottled water or providing water carts. The broader community also needs to be engaged in the process, with opportunities for community consultation and participation, particularly on a ‘take action’ basis.