Improving water use efficiency and the health of rivers, communities, environmental assets, and production systems

​​​​​​​​​Improve the environmental health of the Murray–Darling Basin consistent with national and international obligations by recovering water, including by prioritising water-saving infrastructure projects.
Help communities, irrigators and businesses to use water resources sustainably and efficiently, consistent with nationally agreed water reforms.

The department contributes to enhancing the sustainability and productivity of water systems and improving their overall health. This includes implementing the Murray–Darling Basin Plan through water recovery and the Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) Adjustment Mechanism.

We are also responsible for work with state and territory governments, landholders, water users and other stakeholders to manage significant water resources including the Great Artesian Basin and Lake Eyre Basin, and implementing initiatives to pro​mote water efficiency.​

More information is available at Water resources and policy.

Our activities in 2015–16 under this strategic objective included implementing the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund as part of the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper and the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia. The fund will assist state and territory governments to identify and fast-track the planning and construction of water infrastructure. Key deliverables during
the year included:

  • commencing the Northern Australia Water Resources Assessment project, led by the CSIRO
  • the approval of 34 water infrastructure feasibility studies, including 12 studies for northern Australia.

We began work with state and territory governments, stakeholders, landholders and water users to develop a new Great Artesian Basin Strategic Management Plan. The plan will establish principles for future Great Artesian Basin water management initiatives to ensure optimum economic, environmental and social benefits from the use of the Basin’s groundwater resources. A draft plan is being prepared
and is expected to be available to ministers in 2017.

We also continued work under the Lake Eyre Basin Intergovernmental Agreement, preparing a report on the condition of the basin’s watercourses and catchments.

We prepared the government’s response to the independent review of the Water Act 2007. The government accepted all 23 recommendations made by the expert panel; 21 in full, and two in part. The Water Amendment (Review Implementation and Other Measures) Bill 2015 was passed in May 2016, implementing key recommendations aimed at improving and streamlining the operation of the Water Act and supporting the delivery of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan.

We also delivered the $60 million Project Agreement for Tasmanian Irrigation Tranche II. The agreement was signed in February 2016 and two irrigation schemes have been approved for funding.

We completed the National Framework for Compliance and Enforcement Systems for Water Resource Management. This program provided nearly $54 million over five years to establish a nationally consistent approach to compliance for water resource management, by strengthening compliance and enforcement arrangements in each state and territory.

Annual performance statement

TABLE 5 Annual performance statement—Strategic objective 5: Improving water use efficiency and
the health of rivers, communities, environmental assets, and production systems, 2015–16

Performance measure


Result against performance measure

Continued water recovery in the Murray–Darling Basin towards bridging the gap from contracted infrastructure projects, water purchases and state activities, consistent with the Water Recovery Strategy

Corporate Plan 2015–16
Portfolio Budget Statements 2015–16, Environment Portfolio, p.77

1981.4 gigalitres of surface water have been contracted for recovery through programs administered by the department and Basin states.
2.4 gigalitres of groundwater has been recovered. a

On-farm irrigation infrastructure investments in the Murray–Darling Basin deliver water efficiency benefits to irrigated agriculture

Corporate Plan 2015–16
Portfolio Budget Statements 2015–16, Environment Portfolio, p.77

On-farm irrigation infrastructure investments in the Murray-Darling Basin are estimated to have delivered an increase, on average, of 15% in water efficiency. b

Great Artesian Basin jurisdictions agree on a new strategic management plan which guides the future management of the resource

Corporate Plan 2015–16
Portfolio Budget Statements 2015–16, Environment Portfolio, p.77

Agreement has been reached to prepare a plan, and work is now under way.

Basin governments agree on a package of measures for notification to the Murray–Darling Basin Authority on the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism

Corporate Plan 2015–16
Portfolio Budget Statements 2015–16, Environment Portfolio, p.77

On 22 April 2016, the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council agreed to a package of supply, efficiency and constraint measures under the SDL adjustment mechanism, and officials formally notified the Murray–Darling Basin Authority of the agreed adjustment measures on 5 May 2016.

A domestic water saving of at least 100 000 megalitres through the effective implementation of the National Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Scheme

Corporate Plan 2015–16
Portfolio Budget Statements 2015–16, Environment Portfolio, p.77

The scheme is estimated to have saved 100 000 megalitres of domestic water in 2016. c

a All water recovery figures are expressed in Long Term Average Annual Yield terms. The current Commonwealth water recovery target is 1938 gigalitres, being 2750 gigalitres (Murray–Darling Basin Plan) less 650 gigalitres (target for supply measure offsets) less 162 gigalitres state recoveries.
b The increase in water use efficiency percentage is based on data provided by On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program applicants at the time of submitting an application for Rounds 2–4 (11 March 2011 to 14 October 2013).
c Institute for Sustainable Futures 2015 modelling.

Analysis of performance against the strategic objective

Implementing the Murray–Darling Basin Plan

We continued to implement the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, including working towards agreement between water ministers for a package of measures to be considered in the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism. The government continued to prioritise water recovery through infrastructure projects to bridge the gap between the adjustment mechanism and baseline diversions by 2019. The Water Amendment Bill 2015, to cap water purchases at 1500 gigalitres, passed the Parliament in September 2015.

As at 30 June 2016, water purchases and state activities, consistent with the Water Recovery Strategy, had resulted in water recovery of 1981.4 gigalitres, representing 72 per cent of the target of 2750 gigalitres, based on Long Term Average Annual Yield. This comprised:

  • ​1168.4 gigalitres in purchases
  • 638 gigalitres in infrastructure recovery
  • 13 gigalitres in other recoveries
  • 161.9 gigalitres from state government recoveries.

The first recoveries of 2.4 gigalitres towards the ground water target of 40.4 gigalitres were also recorded in 2015–16.

As at 30 June 2016, 1627 gigalitres had been registered with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, and a further 161.9 gigalitres is held by the Basin States. This water is used to help protect and restore rivers, wetlands and floodplains in the Basin.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan sets limits, known as sustainable diversion limits, on the amount of water that can be taken out of the system for consumptive use. The Basin Plan also provides for adjusting these limits by up to 5 per cent to allow for better economic or environmental outcomes.

In April 2016, the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council agreed to a package of measures to provide an SDL adjustment mechanism. This marked three years of work between Basin governments to develop and assess the proposed measures. The adjustment mechanism will allow the SDLs to deliver better social, economic and environmental outcomes than would otherwise have been achieved
The Murray–Darling Basin Authority will now determine the effect of these measures on the SDLs. The Ministerial Council also requested the Commonwealth amend the Basin Plan to provide for a second notification. This will provide an additional 12 months for new or enhanced measures to be developed.

More than $8 billion is currently committed to water infrastructure pr​ojects in the Murray–Darling Basin. These projects are providing more efficient, productive and profitable use of water, while achieving water ranges that will benefit the environment.

Commonwealth investment in water delivery network upgrades is intended to generate water savings by reducing seepage, evaporation and other losses. Water savings are also being achieved through the rationalisation of irrigation schemes, some of which were established more than 50 years ago.

Feedback from irrigators indicates these measures also allow some irrigated activity to be undertaken in low allocation years, when previously no irrigation was possible. More than 10 000 individual irrigators will benefit from improvements to off-farm water delivery systems. Irrigation infrastructure investments on-farm are estimated to have delivered an increase in on-farm water efficiency of more than 15 per cent in 2015–16.

Snapshot: Sustainable diversion limits

The agreement of a sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism is an important step in implementing the Murray–Darling Basin Plan.

The SDL adjustment mechanism enables the Basin SDL for surface water (10 873 gigalitres per year) to be changed up or down by no more than 5 per cent (i.e. approximately 544 GL for surface water SDLs), as long as environmental, social and economic outcomes are not compromised. Other safeguards ensure there is no change to the reliability of supply for water consumers, and place limits on changes to environmental outcomes.

The adjustment mechanism can adjust the SDL through:

  • ‘supply measures’, which enable SDLs to increase without compromising the environmental outcomes attainable under the Basin Plan
  • ‘efficiency measures’, which involve recovery of additional environmental water through on-farm or off-farm efficiency projects, or other projects proposed by the states that entail neutral or beneficial socio-economic outcomes.

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority will model the package of agreed measures and then consult the public on SDL adjustments, before proposing amendments to the minister for tabling in Parliament.

Projects are expected to be implemented over the next eight years, providing a boost to regional economies and the health of Murray–Darling Basin rivers.

Photo of a creek and gum trees 

Photo: Murray–Darling Basin. Source: Murray–Darling Basin Authority.

Water efficiency labelling

The government’s Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) Scheme promotes water use efficiency in Australia. Under the scheme, products (such as shower heads) are registered and labelled with their water efficiency in accordance with the standard set under the national Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Act 2005.

States and territories have agreed to the scheme’s 2016–2019 Strategic Plan, which will help households choose more water-efficient products.

Modelling undertaken in 2008 and 2015 estimated the actual and projected extent of water savings resulting from the scheme (Figure 18). The most recent modelling projected greater water savings compared with the savings estimated in 2008, demonstrating the success of the scheme. Estimated water savings in 2013 were 70 000 megalitres, rising to 100 000 megalitres in 2016, with expected savings of 204 000 megalitres a year to be realised by 2030.

This is a line graph showing modelling by the Institute for Sustainable Futures on projected water savings under the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Scheme from 2006 to 2030, based on modelling conducted in 2008 and in 2015.  In the 2008 modelling, from a base of zero in 2006, the graph shows estimated annual water savings of   20 894 megalitres in 2010  50 049 megalitres in 2015  97 729 megalitres in 2020  106 923 megalitres in 2022.  In its 2015 modelling, from a base of 70 thousand megalitres in 2012, the graph shows estimated annual water savings of  100 000 megalitres in 2016  147 000 megalitres in 2022  204 000 megalitres in 2030. 

Source: Second independent review of the WELS scheme. Final report based on modelling by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, 2008 and 2015.

The modelling is based on the water savings generated by the scheme based on the sales data available for scheme products and the registrations in the database. For all scheme products, average consumption has fallen since 2013, suggesting this modelling represents a conservative estimate of water savings from the scheme.

Snapshot: Integrated water cycle management benefits Nyrstar Hobart smelter

Nyrstar Hobart is a large-scale zinc smelter that has been operating for almost 100 years on the banks of the Derwent River in Hobart. The smelter provides substantial social and economic returns to Tasmania and is one of the world’s largest zinc producers, with a production capacity of 280 000 tonnes. Water demand at the smelter is about 10 per cent of the total drinking water supply to
Southern Tasmania, with seven million litres of drinking water extracted from the Derwent every day.

The government provided $2.9 million under its National Urban Water and Desalination Plan for Nyrstar’s integrated water cycle management project. The national plan funds urban water infrastructure and research to improve the security of water supplies in Australia’s larger cities, without adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

The Nyrstar project involved the construction of stormwater detention facilities, water distribution infrastructure and a reverse osmosis plant to remove heavy metal contamination. As a result, the project has replaced 35 per cent of its daily water use requirements, or 2.5 million litres of drinking water, with treated stormwater.

The project has also reduced pollution in the Derwent by preventing contaminated stormwater overflows from the smelter. Zinc processing had led to ground contamination from heavy metals such as zinc, lead and cadmium. Several contaminated stormwater overflow events occurred each year, polluting the Derwent Estuary and resulting in high levels of mercury concentration in fish and oysters.

The stormwater detention and water distribution infrastructure has now improved the amenity of the site, and provided habitat for birds and aquatic species. The new works were completed in May 2016 and are now fully operational.

Photo of a creek and gum trees  

Photo: Nyrstar Hobart Stormwater Detention Basin.

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Last reviewed: 4 November 2019
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