Labor has promised to solve Australia’s big water problem. These 6 things should be at the top of the to-do list

During the federal election campaign, Labor promised to the future of Australia’s water resources. Now the new Minister for Water, Tanya Plibersek, must implement this policy, which is essential to ensure Australia’s future.

Australia already faces extreme droughts and severe flooding, and these will be exacerbated as climate change progresses. In this context, we must continue to feed a growing population and support important export industries, while leaving enough water for people to drink and rivers to flow.

Many of the national water policies are outdated and in some cases clearly ineffective. Over the past nine years of coalition government, commitment to problem-solving has been sorely lacking.

Labor says it will right those wrongs. It’s a huge job. Here, I describe six actions that the new government should prioritize.

Water Minister Tanya Plibersek, right, must right nearly a decade of wrongs in water policy.
Lukas Coch/AAP

What the Labor Party promised

The Productivity Commission last year warned Australia’s water policy needs to be modernized and reformed to meet future challenges.

One of Labor’s key pledges was to create a new National Water Commission – a body that the Abbott coalition government abolished in 2015.

Labor says the commission will drive water reform. One of its main functions will be to support the renewal of the National Water Initiative.

This initiative was a 2004 agreement between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories on the fundamental principles of sustainable water management. Water is primarily a state responsibility, so the initiative articulated a shared national vision as a first step.

The Howard Coalition government brokered the initiative and established the National Water Commission to oversee it. The Rudd and Gillard Labor governments maintained this orientation.

But the abolition of the commission killed that momentum for water reform. In the absence of a dedicated body to oversee implementation, government commitment to the agreed principles has weakened.

Read more: Grape growers adapt early to climate change – and their knowledge can help other farmers

man in suit yawns
The government’s impetus for water reform has faltered in recent years. Pictured: Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce during the basin plan debate.
Lukas Coch/AAP

For example, the initiative requires infrastructure proposals to be deemed “economically viable and environmentally sustainable” before moving forward.

Despite this, state and federal funds have been dedicated to the project Dungowan Dam in New South Wales, and federal funding to Hell’s Gates Dam in Queensland, before a detailed business case or environmental impact assessment has been completed for either.

The Labor Party will renew the National Water Initiative. This is expected to involve a renewed engagement between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories, following several significant updates to the agreement:

1. Consider the climate

Australia desperately needs a water management strategy that responds to climate change. Current water sharing plans are based on past climate variability. But as climate change progresses, this historic experience will be less useful.

2. Securing the water interests of indigenous peoples

Indigenous Australians need to be more involved in water planning and given much greater access to water for Indigenous cultural purposes. Greater attention must also be given to indigenous ownership of water resources.

3. Reform urban water management

Cities and towns need greater resilience in the face of drought, bushfires and floods. An overhaul of drinking water safety and wastewater and rainwater management is also needed to better protect public health and the environment.

In particular, water quality and reliability in some remote and indigenous communities require urgent attention.

Read more: Terra nullius has been overthrown. We must now reverse the aqua nullius and return water rights to First Nations people

The man wrapped in the native flag stands on the river bank.
The renewed agreement should include greater Aboriginal participation in water planning.
Richard Wainwright/AAP

What about the Murray-Darling basin plan?

The Murray Darling basin plan must be full implementation by June 2024. Plibersek has a lot of work to do if this deadline is to be met.

This brings us to the final three steps that the work should prioritize:

4. Complete water resource plans

The workforce must work with the Murray Darling Basin Authority to ensure that so-called “water resource plans” are completed and accredited. These plans, drawn up by the States, specify the sharing of water between users and the environment.

NSW plans are three years late and hamper progress. The federal government must rectify this – including using “step-in” powers to intervene if necessary.

5. Prepare for two big reviews

A five-year review of the “environmental water plan” for the basin is due in 2025. It will assess whether environmental water is better used for the benefit of dependent ecosystems. The review is a major undertaking and will require federal consultation with state governments, state and federal agencies, scientists, community and business groups, and Indigenous peoples.

The federal government should also review the pool plan from 2026, with a view to adapting it to the more frequent dry periods expected in the context of climate change.

6. Redesign of water markets

Water markets are at the heart of the basin plan. Farmers receive water from the river system and can choose to use it or sell it in water markets.

These markets need to be reformed. A review last year by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found increased oversight and transparency are needed to ensure their effectiveness and improve community confidence.

The ACCC has recommended a new agency to supervise and regulate the water market. Labor could create this agency or give these responsibilities to a new National Water Commission.

farmers protest with placards
Reform is needed to improve community confidence in water markets.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Water, water, everywhere

The water sector can help achieve important goals in many policy areas, including the transition to net zero emissions.

For example, wastewater treatment produces emissions including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. But wastewater can also be a source of energy, such as produce biogas.

Water is essential to Australia emerging hydrogen industry. And in the transition to a circular economyresources such as phosphorousand clean water itselfwill be increasingly recovered from wastewater.

In all of this, a federal policy will be necessary. The workforce also needs to overcome skills shortages – especially in engineering – and invest in Research and development to ensure that Australia’s water management is world class.

All eyes are now on Tanya Plibersek at this pivotal moment. Let’s hope she’s the visionary and effective federal water minister that Australia needs.

Read more: Our flood forecast is getting worse as the climate changes. We need to understand how the hills shape the floods

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