Australian Water Markets Report 2016-17
- In 2016–17 widespread early season rainfall, driven by a negative Indian Ocean Dipole, caused national storages to increase from 50 per cent at the start of the year to 79 per cent at the end of the year, and allowed for high water allocations around Australia.
- The wetter conditions resulted in lower water allocation prices in 2016–17. Inside the Murray–Darling Basin (MDB), surface water allocation prices fell by 74 per cent in the southern MDB (to an average of $31 per megalitre) and remained flat in most areas of the northern MDB.
- Given the higher volumes of water available, the volume of allocation trade within the MDB increased by around 45 per cent in 2016–17. However, the longer-term trends in water allocation market activity (within and outside of the MDB) are relatively stable and growth has been limited since 2012–13.
- In contrast, water entitlement trade activity has increased steadily since 2007–08. This has occurred outside the southern MDB—in the northern MDB, where volumes have increased by 986 gigalitres since 2007–08 (30 per cent growth per year), and in regions outside the MDB, where volumes have increased by 337 gigalitres since 2007–08 (10 per cent growth per year). The total volume of water entitlements traded in Australia increased by 23 per cent in 2016–17.
- During 2015–16 average regulated surface water entitlement prices increased dramatically. In contrast, increases were modest in 2016–17, at around 10 per cent in the southern MDB and 14.2 per cent in the northern MDB.
- In recent years, structural changes in the irrigation sector have had a noticeable impact on water markets in the southern MDB. In particular, the expansion of area planted to almonds has led to increased demand for water in the Victorian Murray region. However, ABARES modelling suggests that for the southern MDB in total, increases in water demand from almond and cotton growing have been more than offset by decreases in other sectors and regions.
- In 2016–17 trade restrictions in the southern MDB were binding to a greater degree than in previous years. Notably, the Goulburn inter-valley trade account (IVT), the Murrumbidgee IVT, the New South Wales–Victoria trade restriction and the Barmah Choke were all binding at different times throughout the year.
- Prices were consistently on average $18 lower in the Murrumbidgee than other areas in the southern MDB during the periods when the Murrumbidgee IVT was preventing outward trade. The trade restriction was binding three times in 2016–17, often closing quickly over a few days.
- The number and depth of markets for new types of water products increased in 2016–17. More so than previous years, carryover parking, forwards and leasing were a part of irrigators’ water management strategies. In 2016–17 the first Australian water exchange-traded fund was floated—a fund that owns water and offers equity on the Australian Stock Exchange.
For details on catchments within the southern Murray-Darling Basin and individual water markets further information is available in the associated data dashboard.
About the report
This report provides a comprehensive review of water markets across Australia and includes data from a range of Commonwealth, state and private sector sources. It explores annual water market activity across the irrigation industry and examines market behaviour in the context of longer-term changes. The Australian water markets report series is designed to inform market participants, regulators, decision-makers, researchers and other interested parties about Australia’s water market. The focus is on irrigated agriculture, the largest user of water in Australia.
The report covers climatic factors, water availability, environmental water and irrigated agricultural activity, as well as traded products, trading activity, prices and any relevant changes in water market structures. It also combines contextual information with detailed analysis of trade volumes, prices and market behaviour to provide a complete examination of the supply and demand drivers of Australia’s water markets.
This is the 10th annual statement of water trading activity across Australia. The National Water Commission published the first six reports in the series, from 2007–08 to 2012–13. In 2015 the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) was asked to produce the 2013–14 to 2016–17 editions of the report.
The 2016–17 report consists of this overview and a data dashboard. The overview outlines the trends and statistics of the 2016–17 water year. In contrast to previous years, the overview does not give detailed statistics on individual water markets. This information is provided in the data dashboard, which examines particular catchments and their markets and the southern Murray–Darling Basin (MDB).
The report incorporates data from:
- Bureau of Meteorology—primary information on water trading and water balances. Under the Water Act 2007 and the Water Regulations 2008, the bureau has statutory responsibility for collecting water trade data from jurisdictional agencies and irrigation infrastructure operators. The 2016–17 report is the first that uses the bureau’s dataset.
- Department of Agriculture and Water Resources—information on Australian Government environmental water recovery
- Commonwealth Environmental Water Office—information on the holdings and trade activity of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder
- Murray–Darling Basin Authority—information on water trading and environmental water in the MDB
- ABARES—information from the ABARES Murray–Darling Basin Irrigation Survey (MDBIS)
- Australian Bureau of Statistics—information on farm water use and irrigated agricultural production
- State and local water authorities—information about specific catchments.
Entitlements on issue
In 2016–17, 35,942 gigalitres of water entitlements were on issue in Australia. These entitlements were distributed between regulated and unregulated surface water systems and groundwater systems (Figure 1). The MDB accounted for 78 per cent of Australia’s regulated surface water entitlements and systems outside the MDB accounted for 79 per cent of unregulated surface water entitlements and 72 per cent of groundwater entitlements. The connected market in the southern MDB is the most important and active of Australia’s water markets. This is where the majority of trade activity occurs.
Figure 2 shows the total volume of surface water entitlements on issue, by water system. The largest systems (by surface water entitlement volume) are in the MDB. Large systems outside the MDB include the Burdekin (mainly regulated surface water), Tasmanian irrigation schemes and the Sydney South Coast and Hunter systems (mainly unregulated surface water).
In 2016–17, 8,524 gigalitres of groundwater entitlements were on issue. The majority of these entitlements were for areas outside the Murray–Darling Basin, particularly where surface water is less reliable.
Groundwater entitlements often have very different properties from surface water entitlements. For example, most surface water entitlements allow allocation water to be taken annually, but some groundwater entitlements allow allocated water to be taken over multiple years. In some cases, such as alluvial groundwater systems, groundwater areas may closely match surface water areas. However, some alluvial systems and other groundwater systems may cross multiple surface water areas. For example, the Great Artesian Basin crosses dozens of surface water areas across Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory and South Australia. In some cases, layered groundwater zones may themselves cross—for example, the Lachlan Fractured Rock groundwater source sits under parts of the Lachlan Alluvium, Lower Darling Alluvium and Murrumbidgee Alluvium. Given the hydro-geological challenges of sustainably managing groundwater systems, trade of groundwater—even within a system—is usually more limited than trade of surface water.
Note: Includes only groundwater areas with entitlements of greater than 30 gigalitres.
In 2016–17 rainfall was above average across most of Australia. The El Niño that began in autumn 2015 ended in late autumn 2016 and was replaced by a negative Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) that continued until late November 2016. A negative Indian Ocean Dipole shifts warm water eastward in the Indian Ocean, diverting monsoon rainfall south from the north–west of Australia down through to the south–east of the country. This typically results in above average winter–spring rainfall.
Figure 4 shows that rainfall was above average across most of Australia in the first half of 2016– 17. The exception was south-west Western Australia and some coastal areas in eastern Australia. In contrast, following the IOD climate event, rainfall was below average across large areas in the eastern states in the second half of the year (Figure 5).
Source: Bureau of Meteorology
Source: Bureau of Meteorology
Figure 6 shows that mean temperatures in 2016–17 were above average, particularly in eastern Australia, reflecting a trend in recent years. Some parts of northern New South Wales and Queensland experienced record high temperatures through 2016–17.
Source: Bureau of Meteorology
Storage levels increased from 50 per cent to 79 per cent at the end of 2016–17 (Figure 7), reflecting improved seasonal conditions during that period. This was most evident in the northern MDB, where storage levels increased from 24 per cent to 70 per cent. Storage volumes in the southern MDB increased from 38 per cent to 67 per cent. This was the first time since 30 June 2012 that storage levels in the MDB closed higher than the previous year.
Source: Bureau of Meteorology
Agriculture is the primary user of water in Australia. Figure 8 shows that in 2015–16 agricultural use accounted for around 70 per cent of water extractions, followed by urban use (21 per cent) (Figure 8) (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
Source: Bureau of Meteorology
Most agricultural water use is for irrigation. In 2015–16 irrigation consumed 92 per cent of water used in agriculture (ABS, 2017). In 2015–16 the MDB accounted for 66 per cent of irrigation water use in Australia and 64 per cent of irrigated land use (Figure 9 and Figure 10) (ABS, 2017). In Australia, most water trade occurs between agricultural users (DEWLP, 2016).
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics
Figure 11 shows the volume of irrigation water use in 2015–16, by natural resource management region. Outside the MDB, significant volumes of water are used to irrigate sugar cane in northern Queensland, particularly in the Burdekin and Burnett Mary regions, cotton in the Fitzroy, and pasture in Tasmania (North, North West and South natural resource management regions).
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics
Water use for the environmental has also risen in recent years, particularly in the MDB. Between 2007–08 and 2016–17 the Australian Government acquired 2,734 gigalitres of entitlements for the environment in the MDB through a mix of purchases and investments in infrastructure.
Table 1 summarises allocation trade activity for 2016–17. When environmental transfers are excluded, the majority of allocation trade continues to be for regulated surface water in the southern MDB (5,922 gigalitres or 84 per cent of total allocation trade in 2016–17).
Note: Price data is only available for New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Transactions outside these states are classified as $0 transactions.
Water transactions with no recorded value ($0 transactions) make up 51 per cent of all transactions in 2016–17. There are a number of sources of these transactions. Outside of New South Water, Victoria and South Australia there is limited price data available. Within these states a large proportion of these transactions are between water accounts of related entities, such as different accounts of the same business or between families. Within the southern Murray–Darling Basin, a large proportion of the volume of $0 transactions relate to environmental water management which make up 36 per cent of all allocation trade by volume. Further causes of these transactions are missing or absent data, or contracted water products.
Figure 12 shows that the volume of allocation trade in Australia has grown substantially since 2008–09. In 2016–17 the total volume of allocation trade was 7,035 gigalitres, 21 per cent higher than in 2015–16. Surface water trade continued to dominate, accounting for 97 per cent (6,840 gigalitres) of allocation trade. The volume of groundwater allocation traded in 2016–17 was 197 gigalitres. Despite a significant increase in allocation trade in 2016–17, the number of trades fell by around 11 per cent, to 24,638 transactions. This is broadly in line with the number of trades in recent years.
Growth in allocation trade volumes is exaggerated by environmental allocation transfers, particularly in the southern MDB (Figure 13). These are transfers within and between water systems to achieve environmental watering objectives. These transfers have no financial component, but they are still included on trade registers along with market activity. In 2016–17 environmental transfer volumes in the southern Murray–Darling Basin accounted for 36 per cent (2,451 gigalitres) of all allocations traded in Australia.
Figure 14 shows the volume of surface water allocation trade in 2016–17, by water system. The majority of water trade volumes occurred in the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Goulburn water systems in the southern MDB. These regions also comprised the bulk of environmental transfers in 2016–17. Outside the southern MDB, the most significant trade volumes were recorded in the Fitzroy, Burnett and Barron water systems in north-west Queensland.
Note: Includes only areas with more than 10 gigalitres of surface water trade. Shows trades into and out of each area.
Figure 15 shows 2016–17 allocation prices for those water systems where allocation price data is available. Prices were generally lower than in 2015–16, reflecting improved seasonal conditions across much of Australia. Prices were similar in the connected southern MDB, ranging from $175 per megalitre early in the year to as low as around $10 per megalitre at the end of the year. Between catchments, average prices ranged from $65 per megalitre in Campaspe to $45 per megalitre in the Murrumbidgee. Some of this differential may be due to trade restrictions. For example, prices were lower in the Murrumbidgee, where the inter-valley trade (IVT) limit was binding for most of the year. Prices tended to be higher in the northern MDB, ranging from $49 per megalitre in the Lachlan to $286 per megalitre in the Gwydir. For the few systems outside the MDB where allocation price data is available, prices ranged from $31 per megalitre in the Hunter to $104 per megalitre in the Thompson.
The largest trade volumes were for regulated surface water in the MDB and unregulated water outside the MDB (Table 2).
Between 2007–08 and 2016–17 the number and volume of entitlement trades have increased significantly (Figure 16). In 2016–17 the volume of entitlement trade increased by 23 per cent on the previous year. Trade spikes in 2008–09, 2009–10 and 2013–14 reflect a significant increase in the volume of water traded to the Commonwealth in the southern MDB as part of Murray–Darling Basin Plan water recovery. The 2008–09 water recovery was predominantly achieved through direct purchase, but the 2013–14 recovery is associated with infrastructure upgrades. Apart from these trade spikes, the long-term trend has been towards more entitlement trade. This has resulted in trade volumes doubling over the last decade.
Figure 18 shows significant trade activity in surface water entitlements in the Macquarie–Castlereagh and NSW Border Rivers systems in the northern MDB in 2016–17. However, a small number of large transfers dominate in both regions. In the case of the Macquarie–Castlereagh, the large volume of trade is the result of an accounting practice for the Trangie–Nevertire Irrigation Scheme—but this also represents commercial transactions. The southern MDB recorded significant entitlement trade in the Murrumbidgee, Victoria Murray, NSW Murray and Goulburn systems. The most significant activity outside the MDB was in the Tasmania, Hunter, Fitzroy and Thompson–Macalister systems.
Note: Shows only water systems with entitlement trade volumes greater than 1 GL
Unfortunately, very little data is available on entitlement prices outside the MDB. The MDB data shows that regulated surface water entitlement prices generally increased in the southern and northern MDB in 2016–17.
Southern Murray-Darling Basin
The southern MDB is a group of connected river systems in south-eastern Australia that includes the Murray River and its tributaries (Figure 20). In this report, the southern MDB is defined as including the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Lower Darling systems in southern New South Wales; the Murray, Goulburn, Broken, Loddon, Campaspe, Ovens and Wimmera–Avon systems in northern Victoria; and the Murray and Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges systems in South Australia.
The southern MDB remains Australia’s most significant water market and is widely regarded as one of the most sophisticated water markets in the world. It is unique because of its high degree of hydrological connectivity, sophisticated river management and robust governance. Collectively, these factors allow for relatively unconstrained water trading between systems and across state boundaries.
The majority of the southern MDB water supply is regulated surface water, but groundwater and unregulated surface water is also used in some areas (Figure 21). Most water is used for irrigated agriculture. Table 3 provides an overview of statistics for the southern MDB.
|Category||Variable||Value||National trade (%)|
|Allocation trade||Surface water trade volume||5,922 gigalitres||87|
|Groundwater trade volume||116 gigalitres||59|
|No. of surface water trades||20,813||87|
|No. of groundwater trades||257||31|
|Entitlement trade||Surface water trade volume||704 gigalitres||41|
|Groundwater trade volume||72 gigalitres||21|
|No. of surface water trades||4,992||65|
|No. of groundwater trades||345||15|
|Water supply||Major dams||Dartmouth, Hume, Blowering, Burrinjuck and Lake Eildon (see Figure 20)|
|Total storage capacity (excl. Snowy Mountains)||~16,000 GL|
|Water use||Significant irrigation activities||Broadacre cropping (including rice and cotton) and horticulture in southern New South Wales, dairy farming and horticulture in northern Victoria, horticulture in South Australia.|
|Gross value of irrigated agriculture production||$5.3 billion in 2014–15|
Trade activity and prices in 2016–17 largely reflected seasonal conditions, including the negative Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). However, several factors affected water prices and trade activity, including supply and demand and an unusually large number of trade restrictions between catchments in the southern MDB. Table 4 lists the major announcements and media reports that may have affected southern MDB allocation and entitlement markets in 2016–17.
Allocation prices in the southern MDB catchments were generally similar, but these varied due to trade restrictions. The most notable restriction was the Murrumbidgee inter-valley trade (IVT) limit, which restricted trade out of the Murrumbidgee for most of 2016–17. This contributed to Murrumbidgee allocation prices being around $18 per megalitre lower than in the Victorian Murray and $20 per megalitre lower than in the SA Murray.
The restrictions on trade out of the Murrumbidgee and from the NSW Murray to Victoria and South Australia could lead to higher allocation prices in downstream Murray regions. Prices will be affected by increased demand for water in the Mallee (Victorian Murray region) to service increased area planted to horticultural crops, particularly almonds. Trade-flow data shows a significant net market allocation trade out of New South Wales and South Australia into Victoria in 2016–17. The negative effect of the IVT limit on allocation prices in the Murrumbidgee is likely to have been partly offset by recent expansion in area planted to irrigated crops (such as cotton) in the Murrumbidgee catchment.
The negative IOD that developed in late autumn 2016 was associated with above average rainfall in the MDB in the first half of 2016–17. In contrast, rainfall was below average across large areas of the northern MDB and in the headwater catchments of the southern MDB in the second half of 2016–17. In June 2017 rainfall in some areas of the southern MDB was the lowest on record. Rainfall on irrigation farms in the southern MDB averaged 511 millimetres in 2016–17, 26 per cent higher than in 2015–16 (Figure 22).
Figure 23 shows that Murray system inflows in 2016–17 were well above average and substantially higher than inflows in 2015–16. This was reflected in an increase in storage volumes, from 38 per cent in the southern MDB at the start of the year to 67 per cent on 30 June 2017 (Figure 7). Storage volumes in the Murray (Hume and Dartmouth) ended the year at 72.9 per cent, compared with 72.5 per cent in the Murrumbidgee (Blowering and Burrinjuck) and 60 per cent in the Goulburn (Eildon and Waranga).
Source: Murray–Darling Basin Authority
Figure 24 shows total water allocations to regulated surface water entitlements in the southern MDB, with and without carryover from previous years. Total water availability (including carryover) increased by 60 per cent from the previous year. Final carryover available in 2016– 17 was 1,882 gigalitres or 19 per cent of total available water.
All high reliability surface water entitlements in the southern MDB received full allocations in 2016–17. This was also the case for general security entitlements in the Murrumbidgee, NSW Murray and Lower Darling (Figure 25). Reflecting the high level of water availability, Victorian Murray low reliability entitlements received a 5 per cent allocation for the first time.
Irrigation water demand
Demand for irrigation water across activities is primarily driven by the relative profitability of irrigated activities. Figure 26 shows prices for a range of commodities from 2000–01 to 2016–17. One of the most significant trends is the decline in wine grape prices since the mid 2000s, which has driven a reduction in the area planted to wine grapes. In contrast, cotton prices have trended upwards since the mid 2000s.
Almond prices have trended upwards since 2008 but with some volatility (Figure 27). For example, almond prices more than doubled between 2008 and 2014. This was due in part to drought conditions in California, the global production leader. An easing of drought conditions in the western United States and an increase in global production to meet demand, resulted in another price correction.
Source: United State Department of Agriculture – National Agricultural Statistics Service; Note: Prices shown are nominal. Figure shows calendar years.
Figure 28 shows that from 2008 onwards, the total volume of water used (and water use per hectare) to irrigate nuts in this area has increased. Water use or area data specific to nuts is not available. However, across Australia, area planted to almonds has increased from 3,555 ha in 2000 to 35,886 ha in 2016 (ABA, 2017). The Almond Board of Australia estimates that this area increased by 5,000 ha in 2017 and will increase by another 5,000 ha in 2018. Of the 10 million almond trees in Australia, 60 per cent are in Victoria and South Australia and New South Wales each have around 19 per cent. Increased water use by nut growers in the Victorian lower Murray is largely due to the expansion of area planted to almonds.
Like most types of permanent horticulture, nut production generally has a substantial lag between initial planting and prime production. Given the significant increase in area planted to almonds, water requirements for the lower Murray area are likely to increase over time. This has implications for future water trade and water management—notably trade restrictions and flow capacity. Trade restrictions are of particular concern because most tend to limit the water that can be traded into an area with new plantations. ABARES will continue to research and monitor the situation.
Source: ABARES; Australian Bureau of Statistics
The volume of water used to irrigate cotton in the southern MDB has also increased significantly. Most of the expansion is in the Murrumbidgee, where area planted to cotton increased from 3,000 ha in 2005–06 to 34,400 ha in 2015–16. This area increased to an estimated 45,000 ha in 2016–17 (Figure 29). Between 2005–06 and 2015–16 water use on cotton in the Murrumbidgee increased from 26 gigalitres to 320 gigalitres.
Note: 2016–17 values are based on ABARES estimates
Water trade model
Changes within the irrigation sector, such as expansion of almonds and cotton plantings, have important implications for water demand in the region. However, assessing the effect of these changes on water demand is complex given fluctuations in annual conditions, water prices and changes in water demand for other irrigation activities over the same period.
In recent research, ABARES has developed an economic model of water trade in the southern MDB, using historical water market data and Australian Bureau of Statistics the quantity of irrigation water and land use data, for more detail see (Gupta, 2018), using historical water market data and Australian Bureau of Statistics data on irrigation water and land use. This model was applied to estimate changes in irrigation water demand by region and activity in the southern MDB between 2002–03 and 2016–17, holding water allocation prices fixed at $100 per megalitre.
Using the model we estimate increases in water demand for cotton has increased by more than 400 gigalitres and water demand for fruits and nuts by more than 200 gigalitres. This assumes a price of $100 per megalitre and seasonal conditions and allocations remaining constant. However, these increases have been offset by decreases in other activities, including pastures for grazing and rice. The modelling shorts that the total quantity of water demanded in the region is estimated to have decreased slightly between 2002–03 and 2016–17 (Figure 30)
Note: Modelled results for $100 per megalitre water price
The modelling reveals —with water allocations, seasonal condition and prices fixed at $100 per megalitre—that from 2002–03 to 2016–17 total quantity of water demanded in the Murrumbidgee fell. Recent increases in demand for cotton were more than offset by reduced demand for pasture, rice and other cereals. In the lower Victorian Murray, almost all the increase in demand is due to fruit and nut production (Figure 31).
Note: Modelled results for $100 per megalitre water price.
The recent expansion of area planted to almonds and cotton has altered the balance of water demand between industries and regions, but the model suggests that expansion has not resulted in a net increase in total water demand and therefore market prices. However, crop changes do have important implications for inter-regional trading patterns. In particular, data suggest that the Victorian Murray region has become more reliant on importing water allocations from other regions (consistent with observed market trends in recent years). Given the potential for further increases in water demand in the Victorian Murray, trade constraints limiting the flow of water into the region (including the Murrumbidgee IVT, Goulburn IVT and Barmah Choke) are likely to bind more frequently than in the past.
The state and Commonwealth environmental water holders are now major owners of water rights in the southern MDB. As part of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, between 2007–08 and 2016–17 the Commonwealth acquired 2,180 gigalitres of water entitlements for environmental use in the southern MDB, including 104 gigalitres secured in 2016–17 (Figure 32). This was a 71 gigalitres increase on 2015–16, and incorporates 70 gigalitres from investments in water-saving infrastructure and 34 gigalitres from entitlement purchases. Most of the water savings were sourced from the NSW Murray and most entitlements were purchased from the Lower Darling(Figure 33). The acquisition in the Lower Darling comprised 21.9 gigalitres of entitlement purchased from Webster Limited’s Lake Tandou farming operation (ABC, 2017).
Environmental purchases influence the volume of water available for irrigation. Figure 34 shows how these purchases have reduced the volume of water available for irrigation between 2007– 08 and 2016–17. Excluding the effects of infrastructure savings, Commonwealth water purchases in the southern MDB led to a 13.9 per cent reduction in the water available to markets in 2016–17.
Note: Under the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, environmental purchases are limited to Commonwealth purchases. This does not include pre-existing Commonwealth water, state environmental water, or rule-based environmental water.
Surface water allocation markets
Figure 35 shows that the average monthly allocation price of surface water peaked at $300 per megalitre in late 2015. In June 2016 it fell to $177 per megalitre, before falling again to $23 per megalitre in May 2017.
The main driver of allocation prices in the southern MDB is allocations, which are highly dependent on the volume of water held in storage (Figure 36). Murray inflows were significantly higher in 2016–17 than in 2015–16, and southern MDB water storage levels finished the year around 30 percentage points higher than the previous year.
Historically, average water allocation prices across different trading zones in the southern MDB have generally moved in unison (Figure 37). However, prices in some systems have occasionally diverged due to restrictions on interregional trade. For example, the divergence between Lower Darling and other southern MDB prices in 2014–15 and 2015–16 was due to the suspension of interregional trade out of the Lower Darling as a result of low storage volumes in the Menindee Lakes.
Note: Locally fitted allocation prices
Inter-regional water trade
In 2016–17 the total amount of water moving between areas in the southern Murray–Darling Basin decreased slightly. This was due in part to the increased number of trade restrictions in place throughout the year, including the Barmah Choke, Goulburn IVT and Murrumbidgee IVT. Trade volumes were up by 18 per cent, but the amount of water traded between areas fell slightly.
Source: Murray–Darling Basin Authority
Figure 38 shows that the Victorian Murray region continues to be a large net importer of water allocations, with net trade of around 149 gigalitres in 2016–17. The net trade volume is similar to previous years and reflects increased water demand from horticultural farms in the lower Murray area. In 2016–17 only 65 gigalitres of water was exported from the Murrumbidgee compared with around 200 gigalitres in 2015–16. This was due to the effect of the regions export limit. As a result, larger export volumes were observed in the NSW Murray region (220 gigalitres in 2016–17).
Significant net trade was also recorded into the NSW Lower Darling region (148 gigalitres). Much of this trade volume was due to a small number of large transactions (with no recorded prices). Five of these transactions accounted for more than half of all volume flowing into the area.
The Barmah Choke, the Goulburn IVT export limit, the Murrumbidgee IVT export limit and the New South Wales to Victoria trade constraint were all binding at various points in 2016–17. The 2016–17 water year was exceptional because more restrictions were binding than in previous years. In 2016–17 these limits generally restricted trade into the downstream Murray trading zones in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, contributing to higher allocation prices in these zones. These limits also contributed to lower allocation prices in the upstream trading zones (including in the Murrumbidgee, Goulburn and above Barmah Choke trading zones).
The divergence in prices was most evident in the Murrumbidgee in 2016–17, where the 100 gigalitres IVT trade balance was binding for most of the year. Murrumbidgee prices were persistently below other southern MDB prices in 2016–17 (Figure 39). The trade restriction was imposed three times during the year, each time closing due to a relatively small number of large volume trades. As a result of the restrictions, in 2016–17 allocation prices in the Murrumbidgee were around $18 per megalitre lower than in the southern connected system. As a result of perceptions about access to trade capacity, WaterNSW has changed the way it manages trades through the Murrumbidgee IVT by introducing a one-hour gap between IVT announcements and accepting transfer applications (WaterNSW, 2017).
The impact of these trade restrictions on future prices could be exacerbated by increased demand for irrigation water in the downstream Victoria Murray region, where horticultural plantings have increased of crops such as almonds.
Environmental transfers accounted for around 40 per cent of total inter-regional flows of water in 2016–17. Environmental transfers tend to move in a downstream direction, with large volumes flowing into the SA Murray and out of the Goulburn region.
Source: Murray–Darling Basin Authority
The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) is one of several environmental water holders that regularly transfer allocations between southern MDB regions. Other major environmental water holders include the Victorian Environmental Water Holder, the Living Murray and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Figure 41 compares net interregional southern MDB environmental transfers made by the CEWH with those made by other environmental water holders. As is common, Figure 41 shows a relatively normal pattern of environmental flows, in particular water leaving upper catchments and flowing to lower catchments.
CEWH Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. Other EWH Other water holders include the Victorian Environmental Water Holder, the Living Murray and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Source: Commonwealth Environmental Water Office; Murray–Darling Basin Authority
Surface water entitlement markets
In 2016–17 southern MDB surface water entitlement prices increased by 10 per cent (Figure 42). , following a 37 per cent increase in 2015–16. Several factors could be driving this increase, most notably the increasing value of irrigated crops, which drives demand for irrigation water. A growing recognition of long-term climate trends—particularly a reduction in average winter rainfall and stream flow in the region since the mid 1990s—may also be driving entitlement price increases(Hughes, 2016). Area planted to cotton has also expanded in the Murrumbidgee in recent years, further driving competition for water.
Water entitlement prices are specific to particular water systems, resource types and reliability classes. Figure 43 shows that better water reliability leads to higher prices. As a result high security prices are higher than general security prices, and general security prices are higher than low security prices. High security prices are generally similar, but NSW high security prices tend to be higher than other high reliability prices. This is because NSW high security entitlements are among the most reliable in the southern MDB. Prices of individual entitlement types are also affected by the location of the entitlement, catchment-specific rules, carryover rights that the entitlement affords, and trade restrictions to market access. In contrast, in 2016– 17 NSW general security, South Australian entitlements and Victorian low reliability prices all increased, but other high reliability entitlement prices were fairly stable.
Note: Locally fitted entitlement prices
In addition to regulated surface water, the southern Murray–Darling Basin contains significant volumes of groundwater entitlements along the Murray and Murrumbidgee. Due to the costs of maintaining groundwater bores, the limited tradeability, and the relatively higher energy costs of extraction, groundwater resources tend to become more important in periods of relatively lower surface water availability. Groundwater markets have not seen the same price increases as surface water assets in recent years, partly as a result of increasing energy prices. Most groundwater markets have remained relatively thin in the southern MDB, recording minimal increases in the volume traded and number of transactions in both the entitlement and allocation markets.
In 2016–17 most groundwater allocations were traded in southern New South Wales (around 113 gigalitres), but a small volume was traded in South Australia (Figure 44).
Groundwater allocation prices follow a similar pattern to surface water prices, but groundwater allocation prices tend to be less sensitive to changes in seasonal conditions (Figure 45). In 2016– 17 annual groundwater allocation prices fell by around 45 per cent in the Murrumbidgee and by 70 per cent in the NSW Murray.
Groundwater entitlements are traded in all southern MDB states. In 2016–17 most trade occurred in the Goulburn–Murray, followed by the Murrumbidgee, SA Murray and NSW Murray (Figure 46).
Groundwater entitlement prices tend to follow a similar trend to surface water prices (Figure 47). In 2016–17 annual groundwater entitlement prices increased by $66 (7.3 per cent) to $966 per megalitre, following a 22.9 per cent increase in 2015–16.
New water products
Increasingly water markets (particularly in the southern Murray–Darling Basin) have been developing new solutions to problems, partly through new water products (Table 5). Products other than entitlements or allocation water have existed to a limited degree for many years, but several new water market products are gradually being adopted. Most of these products are contractual arrangements between individuals. They are executed using standard allocation or entitlement transfers and fulfil needs not addressed by existing temporary or permanent water products. These new water products allow greater capacity sharing, inter-temporal risk management and cash flow management.
In 2016–17 broker promotion and widespread water availability led to a substantial increase in the popularity of these products. In the same period, Australia’s first water exchange traded fund was launched on the Australian Stock Exchange, allowing investors easier access to water assets than ever before.
Longstanding products include delivery entitlements within irrigation districts, pipe capacity and water leases. Relatively newer products include forwards, deferred delivery and parking. Many of these products have existed for several years, but uptake has been limited. These products may be used for regulated and unregulated surface water, and for groundwater where applicable. Standardised versions of these products are offered by the larger brokers or on exchanges and brokers often offer several or all of these products. For this reason, brokers may use different terms to describe the same water product. An options market does not appear to be operating in the region.
These water market products have generated little or no publicly available data on volumes, number of trades, conditions or who is transacting. This could affect the future reliability of water trade data. For example, a forward contract appears on a state water register on the delivery date, not the date of agreement and it is unclear whether these transactions are recorded as the delivery price or as a zero dollar transaction. These contracted products may appear on private broker or private exchange websites, but the details are not collected by water market operators and therefore do not appear on public water market registers beyond the allocation or entitlement trade at execution. As a result of this information gap, the growing use of forward contracts is likely to make allocation trade registers less reliable.
The limited private sources documenting some of these new products suggest that they grew quickly in 2016–17. These products represent a small proportion of all water transactions compared with allocation and entitlement trade. However, in 2016–17 water availability and producers’ desire to save water resulted in these new products becoming increasingly popular. This was especially the case in the later part of the water year, when opportunities to use or trade excess water fell. Some broker websites showed a doubling of forward contracts from 2015–16 to 2016–17 and are beginning to show more information on these products (Ruralco Water, 2018).
All other catchments
Sizable water markets exist in catchments outside the southern Murray–Darling Basin—for example, in the northern Murray–Darling Basin, north-east Queensland and Tasmania.
Northern Murray–Darling Basin
Markets are active for several water systems in the northern Murray–Darling Basin. The region primarily comprises a range of inland systems along tributaries of the Darling River. This report also includes the Lachlan River, an intermittent tributary of the Murrumbidgee. Water systems referred to in the report are Barwon–Darling, Lachlan, Macquarie–Castlereagh, Gwydir, Namoi, Border Rivers (New South Wales and Queensland), Moonie, Condamine–Balonne and the Warrego–Paroo–Bulloo–Nebine intersecting rivers (Figure 48).
In contrast to the southern MDB, connectivity between individual water systems in the northern MDB is limited. This results in variations in market prices and trading activity between systems. Large variations in water supply between and during years, as well as the relatively low number of regulated rivers, has limited the development of water markets in the northern MDB (MDBA, 2015).
The majority (53 per cent) of northern MDB entitlements on issue are for regulated surface water(Figure 49). Unregulated surface water and groundwater are also important, accounting for 26 per cent and 21 per cent of entitlements, respectively. Major dams in the northern MDB include Burrendong, Wyangala, Copeton, Keepit and Splitrock. Cotton is the major irrigated activity in the northern MDB, followed by pasture and cereals production.
Leading into the 2016–17 water year, many parts of the northern Murray–Darling Basin were facing significant water shortages. By the end of the first half of 2016–17 rainfall was above average. This resulted in storage volumes in the northern MDB increasing from 24 per cent at the start of the year to 70 per cent at the end of the year (Figure 7). Increased rainfall also led to higher water allocations (Figure 50). However, during the second half of the year, rainfall was below average. Overall, between 30 June 2016 and 30 June 2017 total water availability (including carryover) in the NSW northern MDB increased by 1,927 gigalitres (or 279 per cent). These levels were similar to those recorded during the 2010–11 floods.
In 2016–17 the northern MDB recorded 1,827 allocation trades totalling 780 gigalitres (Figure 51). These trades accounted for 11 per cent of the total volume of national allocation trade and 7.4 per cent of the number of trades. Trade volumes increased by 68 per cent in 2016– 17.
Surface water trade accounted for 92 per cent of the volume of allocations traded in the northern MDB and most surface water trade occurred in the Queensland–Border Rivers, Lachlan and Macquarie–Castlereagh systems. Significant groundwater trade occurred in the Lachlan and Namoi systems.
Queensland price data is not available. For the remaining systems, the average price for surface water allocations ranged from $49 per megalitre in the Lachlan to $286 per megalitre in the Gwydir. Allocation prices can differ significantly in northern MDB systems because their hydrological connection is limited and the headwaters are geographically dispersed, resulting in larger differences in allocations.
Wet conditions in the northern MDB led to lower allocation prices in most systems in 2016– 17 compared with 2015–16. The exception was the Gwydir, where surface water prices increased from $255 to $286 per megalitre and groundwater prices increased from $129 to $139 per megalitre, possibly as a result of lower levels of water availability compared with other catchments.
Significant trading activity occurred in some water entitlement markets in the northern MDB in 2016–17, particularly in the Macquarie–Castlereagh (Figure 53). In total, 820 gigalitres of entitlements were traded via 1,109 transactions. This was equivalent to 40 per cent of the volume of entitlement trade in Australia, and 11 per cent of the number of trades. Nearly 80 per cent of this trade was in regulated surface water, with Macquarie–Castlereagh and NSW Border Rivers accounting for the bulk of this trade. However, a few large entitlement trades in the Macquarie–Castlereagh made up the bulk of this trade. Most groundwater trade occurred in the Lachlan, Namoi and Condamine–Balonne systems.
Entitlement prices showed significant variation. Surface water prices ranged from $180 per megalitre for supplementary entitlements in the Macquarie–Castlereagh to $2,850 for general security entitlements in the NSW Border Rivers. Groundwater entitlement prices ranged from $567 per megalitre in the Namoi to $3,385 per megalitre in the Condamine–Balonne (Figure 54).
Note: Groundwater resources are classified as Aquifer or Undefined
Rest of Australia
Water systems in the rest of Australia include regions outside the Murray–Darling Basin that already engage in, or may have the capacity to engage in, any form of water trade in the future. These water systems include agricultural areas along the NSW east coast, irrigation districts in Tasmania, parts of the South Australian south coast, Northern Queensland (including the Gulf of Carpentaria) and several irrigation districts in Western Australia. Most of these regions have only minimal trade in allocation and entitlement markets.
Many systems outside the Murray–Darling Basin are establishing new irrigation districts. Since 2010, several Tasmanian schemes and catchments in Queensland have been developed or have had unallocated entitlements offered to the public.
For details on individual catchments, see the ABARES Australian Water Market Report dashboard.
Water entitlements on issue are mixed for water systems in the rest of Australia, but most entitlements are for unregulated surface water or groundwater. Few regions contain regulated water courses. The exceptions are the Burdekin basin, Hunter, Fitzroy and Burnett Basin, which issue regulated surface water entitlements.
In 2016–17 Tasmanian systems contained the highest volume of water and recorded over 2,178 gigalitres of entitlements on issue, followed by the Sydney South Coast region (1,361 gigalitres) and the Burdekin (1,352 gigalitres).
Despite some regions in the rest of Australia having substantial volumes of entitlements on issue in 2016–17, few regions had a high volume or number of trades. Regions that did engage in allocation water trade in 2016–17 tended to have systems with a greater volume of regulated surface water. The exception is the SA South East system, which solely traded in groundwater allocations. The region with the largest volume of trade in 2016–17 was the Fitzroy Basin in Queensland (67 gigalitres of allocation water traded), followed by the Burnett Basin (44 gigalitres) and Barron water system (32 gigalitres).
Price data is not available for most regions outside the Murray–Darling Basin. The Thomson–Macalister, Harvey, Hunter and Tasmanian markets have limited price data. In 2016–17 documented prices were highest in the Thomson Basin, averaging $105 per megalitre.
ABA, 2017, Almond Insights – 2016–17 Industry Overview, Almond Board of Australia. Accessed: 20 November 2017.
ABC, 2017, Cotton grower Tandou to sell water entitlements, convert NSW farm to lamb business. Accessed: 16 November 2017.
ABS, 2017, Water Use on Australian Farms, Canberra, Australian Bureau of Statistics, July. Accessed: 11 November 2018.
BOM, 2017, Water information dashboard, Canberra, Bureau of Meteorology. Accessed: 15 January 2018
BOM, 2016, Water in Australia, Bureau of Meteorology. Accessed: 20 January 2018.
DEWLP, 2016, Victorian water trading 2015–16 annual report, Melbourne, State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
Gupta, H, Hughes, N & Wakerman Powell, K 2018, A model of water trade and irrigation activity in the southern Murray–Darling Basin, ABARES, Canberra, ABARES.
Hughes, N, Gupta, M & Rathakumar, K 2016, Lessons from the water market, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, Canberra.
MDBA, 2015, Water markets in the Murray–Darling Basin, Murray–Darling Basin Authority, Canberra, Murray–Darling Basin Authority. Accessed: 10 January 2018.
Ruralco Water, 2018, Ruralco Forward Water Markets, Ruralco Water. Accessed: 22 January 2018.
WaterNSW, 2017, WaterNSW increases notification time of IVT account openings, WaterNSW. Accessed: 01 October 2017.
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Resources & related products
The metadata and a PDF for this report is available at ABARES Publications.
- ABARES weekly climate and water update
- ABARES water trade and irrigation activity model
- ABARES water trade and irrigation activity model dashboard