11 October 2023

Water planning in the Northern Territory is on track

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Panorama of the spectacular desert oasis of the Ellery Creek Big Hole waterhole in the Northern Territory, Australia.

The NT has been widely criticised by the community for its approach to the National Water Initiative implementation Photo: File.

A new review has found the Northern Territory’s water planning processes are fit for purpose, despite widespread community criticism levelled at it.

Australia’s National Water Initiative (NWI) is the nation’s blueprint for water reform, adopted by all states and territories in 2004. The NWI sets the overarching framework and outlines key principles to support jurisdictions in their transition to sustainable water resource management.

One pillar of the NWI is a requirement for jurisdictions to develop and implement water plans. Since 2004 the Northern Territory (NT) has taken steps towards implementing all aspects of the NWI, including through its regulatory and planning activities.

Despite this, the NT has been widely criticised by the community for its approach to NWI implementation.

In 2020 the Productivity Commission (PC) held a public inquiry into state and territory governments’ progress towards achieving the outcomes of the NWI. Submissions to the inquiry highlighted a lack of trust in the NT Government to implement the NWI and ultimately sustainably manage the NT’s water resources.

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In July 2023, Badu Advisory was engaged to conduct an independent review of the NT’s implementation of the NWI, specifically in relation to water planning. Badu are an independent agency, external to the NT, who specialise in water management and provision of strategic advice to government, across all levels.

The scope of the review included an assessment of whether the NT was meeting its NWI obligations, and an evaluation as to the relevance of each NWI objective considering the NT’s environmental, social and economic context.

The review found that the NT’s water planning processes are fit for purpose, and consistent with the flexible approach provided for within the NWI.

The review identified the NT’s unique context as both a strength, in terms of the current state of its water resources, and a challenge, in terms of its ability to implement NWI requirements. The NT context identified in the report is defined by:

  • a developing economy;
  • a small and diverse population spread over a wide-ranging geographical area;
  • unique land tenure arrangements;
  • underutilised resources;
  • the high environmental and cultural value of water.

In terms of water planning specifically, the review found the following strengths:

  • Water planning processes in the NT are founded on seeking to balance social, economic and environmental values.
  • Due consideration is provided to social, economic and environmental values throughout the planning process through engagement of relevant stakeholders and scientific research. Each plan is unique, to align with the varying water resource contexts across the NT.
  • Statutory water allocation plans (Plans) are progressively being developed for areas where there is emerging demand and where there is the most competition for the use of groundwater.

Outside those areas, NT-wide policies and procedures are being used to guide decision making.

A number of criticisms of the NT’s water management relate to the minimal geographical area over which plans are declared, with the Productivity Commission noting that of all jurisdictions, the NT has lowest proportion of licences granted within a water plan area. However, NWI allows jurisdictions to determine ‘whether a plan is to be prepared… based on an assessment of the level of development of the water resource, and projected future… risks’.

The development of water allocation plans is continuing to expand areas covered and policy is being developed that guides decision making outside plan areas. Currently across the NT five water allocation plans are declared and water allocation plans are under development for the Georgina Wiso, Western Davenport, and Mataranka regions.

Most recently the department has developed the Surface Water Take – Wet Season Flows policy. The policy will support precautionary decision making on applications for water extraction licences to take surface water during the wet season, and ensure extraction is undertaken in a sustainable way.

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Aboriginal Water Reserves are established under water allocation plans.

An Aboriginal Water Reserve is established through legislation for a volume of water from a water resource that underlies Aboriginal land, to be set aside for Aboriginal economic development. With over 60,000 ML/year of water set aside for Aboriginal people in the three draft plans to be declared later in 2023 alone, the NT is set to lead the nation in this area.

The review also noted the following areas for future improvement:

  • Engagement: Although the NT is meeting the NWI’s 12-month engagement ‘rule of thumb’, the review noted that meaningful input, particularly into cultural values of an area, is likely to take much longer. The unique challenges the NT faces in stakeholder engagement are particularly centred around the small, remote, and widely dispersed nature of the jurisdiction’s population, with collaboratively planning with multiple Aboriginal groups across each area also a significant challenge.
  • Environmental management: The review identified precautionary decision-making, and the implications of using groundwater storage, as areas for further work to ensure future compliance with the NWI principles.

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