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Water Rights


The operating rules and constraints governing water entitlements, allocations, trades and transfers are provided on this page.


Operating Rules and Constraints

Urban water restrictions

ACTEW, with the approval of the ACT Government, can impose urban water restrictions on the areas of Canberra and Queanbeyan.

The ACT Government also has in place Think water, act water, which is a long-term strategy for sustainable water resource management and includes incentive programs and reduction targets which apply to urban areas in the ACT.

Murray-Darling Basin cap

In June 1995, an audit of water used in the Murray-Darling Basin revealed that diversions from rivers had increased by 8% in the previous six years and were averaging 10,800 GL/year. Subsequently, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council introduced a cap on diversions of water from the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. The cap aimed to limit the volume of water that could be diverted in any year to that based on the 1993–94 levels of development plus allowances (MDBA 2009). The cap’s primary objectives are to increase the health of the Murray-Darling Basin’s river systems while maintaining sustainable consumptive use (Commonwealth Water Act 2007).

The Murray-Darling Basin cap for the ACT allows the ACT and Queanbeyan City Council to take from surface water sources a net of 40,000 ML of water each year. The amount of water available to the ACT under these arrangements increases with population growth at a per-person rate, although the amount allocated for additional population is discounted 25% to reflect water use reduction targets set in the ACT Government’s Think water, act water report.

For NSW, the MDB cap is defined as ‘the volume of water that would have been diverted under 1993/94 levels of development’ (NWC 2007). As a result of this cap, no new water entitlement can be granted in the region without an equivalent reduction in another entitlement.


Water Entitlements

A water access entitlement (WAE) is a statutory instrument issued under the Water Resources Act 2007 (ACT). A WAE represents a share of the water resources controlled by the ACT and is expressed either as:

  • a volume, or
  • a percentage share of the water available in a defined water management area (WMA) according to the current water sharing plan.

If a WAE is defined as a percentage share of the total water available within the WMA, then the actual volume of this resource may decrease when the total water available is revised. There is no statutory review process to review WAEs at present; however this may alter with changes brought about through the Murray-Darling Basin plan. Reviews are currently driven by availability of the water resource, or through assessment of the Environmental Flow Guidelines, which are evaluated every five years.

ACTEW holds the main WAE for the purposes of urban water supply to Canberra and Queanbeyan.

The types of WAEs issued by the ACT Department of Environment, Climate Change, Energy and Water are described in Table A6.

Table A6. Water access entitlements issued by the ACT Government for the Canberra region during 2009–10

Type of WAE


Surface water

Specify the volume of surface water that holder is entitled to use from a water management area, on an annual basis


Specify the volume of groundwater that holder is entitled to use from a water management area, on an annual basis

Groundwater and surface water

Specify as a single total the combined volume of groundwater and surface water that holder is entitled to use from a water management area, on an annual basis


For these types of WAEs, an associated licence may specify the amount that can be taken as groundwater with the remaining volume being available from surface water

Urban water utility

Specify the volume of water that holder is entitled to use on an annual basis for the purpose of urban water supply to Canberra and Queanbeyan

An individual WAE may cover water that is used for a variety of purposes. WAEs are not broken down to usage types in the ACT.

In addition to the WAE, a licence to take water is required. The licence states the location from which the water can be taken and used, and conditions related to the taking and use of that water (DECCEW 2009)

Within the ACT, some basic water rights exist that do not require a water licence and therefore an entitlement. These include:

  • abstraction of surface water for stock and domestic purposes, which does not require a licence if the water is collected from the lessee’s property or where the property directly abuts a waterway
  • rainwater harvesting via a rainwater tank installed in accordance with a development approval under the ACT Planning and Development Act 2007, or a tank that is exempt from the Act
  • various short-term water uses as detailed in the Water Resources Regulation 2007 (ACT).

All water licences in the NSW portion of the region are unregulated and specify a maximum annual volume that may be abstracted by the entitlement holder. Each licence has purposes attached to it. These purposes are given a proportion of the overall licence entitlement. These licences are also attached to the land. Currently there is no metering or monitoring of the water licences in this part of the region.


Water Allocations

No water allocation system is in place in the Canberra region, in the sense that the term ‘water allocation’ is used in this National Water Account 2010. All water entitlement holders are entitled to take 100% of their entitlement volume each year unless restrictions are placed on them by their relevant state authority (either Department of Environment, Climate Change, Energy and Water, NSW Office of Water or ACTEW). Restrictions may be placed on water take when the flow is unavailable. Entitlements are not associated with a regular allocation announcement.


Trades and Water Right Transfers

Water Market Rules: Interstate Trading

The Water Resources Act 2007 (ACT) allows for interstate trades; however the required mechanisms are not yet in place for this trading to occur (NWC 2010b).

There are no interstate trades of water permitted in the NSW administered area of the Canberra region.


Water market Rules: Intervalley Trading

The Water Resources Act 2007 (ACT) allows for intervalley trades. WAEs and water licences can be traded within and between WMAs; however water licences cannot be traded. Trade between WMAs can only occur if the licence amount in the receiving WMA is not fully developed (NWC 2010b). Groundwater entitlements are tradeable on the same basis as surface water entitlements.

Intervalley trading of surface water is not permitted within the NSW portion of the Canberra region. Groundwater trades are permitted within GMAs but must be approved by the NSW Office of Water. Groundwater trading is permitted where the trade is consistent with the rules set out in the Policy for groundwater transfers in inland NSW outside water sharing plan areas.


Restrictions on Trade

Trade cannot occur on WAEs that were not purchased and paid for from the Department of Environment, Climate Change, Energy and Water; that is ActewAGL holds the urban water access entitlements, but are unable to be traded as they were granted without payment.