Water rights

Operating rules and constraints

Urban water restrictions

ACTEW Water, with the approval of the Australian Capital Territory (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 that 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 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 (Murray–Darling Basin Authority 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 divert 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 New South Wales, the Murray–Darling Basin cap is defined as 'the long-term average annual amount of water that a valley would divert from its streams if the development and management of that valley remained as it was at the end of the 1993–94 season (NSW Office of Water). 

Murray–Darling Basin plan

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority has released the Draft Murray Darling Basin Plan that guides the management of water resources across the Basin's four states and one territory. The Plan builds on and complements previous water reforms and contributes to the authority's vision for a healthy working basin.

In a healthy working basin, water needs must be balanced to ensure there are:

  • strong and vibrant communities with sufficient water of suitable quality for drinking and domestic use (including in times of drought), as well as for cultural and recreational purposes
  • productive and resilient industries that have long-term confidence in their future, particularly for food and fibre production
  • healthy and diverse ecosystems with rivers regularly connected to their creeks, billabongs and floodplains, and ultimately, the ocean. 

The basin plan aims to balance the water needs of the environment and other uses, through the establishment of new limits (known as sustainable diversion limits, or SDLs) on the volumes of water use. Drawing on the best available information and advice, the authority has:

  • assessed flow regimes at 122 environmental sites throughout the basin
  • taken account of physical constraints that limit the volume of water that can travel down a river
  • looked at how water is shared between the environment and other users, with arrangements in 2009 used as the reference point (or 'baseline') and including around 959 GL of environmental water recovered in the Basin prior to 2009 (of which 136 GL has been returned to the Snowy River)
  • taken account of potential social and economic effects. 

Based on this assessment, the authority has proposed a long-term SDL of 10,873 GL/y. This would see an additional 2,750 GL/y of water returned to the basin's rivers

The Murray–Darling Basin has been divided into 29 Surface-water Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) resource units and 66 Groundwater SDL resource units. Surface-water SDL resource unit SS1 and Groundwater SDL resource unit GS52 cover the ACT. The balance of Canberra sub-account region is within surface water SDL resource unit SS15 Murrumbidgee and Groundwater SDL resource unit GS20 Lachlan Fold Belt.

Water entitlements and other statutory water rights

A water access entitlement (WAE) is a statutory instrument issued under the Water Resources Act 2007 (ACT) and represents a share of the water resources controlled by the ACT. It 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, but 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 Water holds the main WAE for the purposes of urban water supply to Canberra and Queanbeyan.

The types of WAEs issued by the ACT Government, Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate (ESDD) are described in Table A6.

Table A6  Water access entitlements issued by the ACT Government for the Canberra region during 2011–12

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 extracted 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 abstract water is required. The licence states the location from which water can be abstracted and used, and conditions related to the abstraction and use of that water (Department of Environment, Climate Change, Energy and Water, 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 NSW surface water licences are unregulated. These licences along with the groundwater licences 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. There was no metering of usage in place for these licences during the reporting period.

Water allocations

No water allocation system is in place in the Canberra region, in the sense that the term 'water allocation' is used to describe an annual allocation announcement in the 2012 Account. All water entitlement holders are entitled to abstract 100% of their entitlement volume each year subject to environmental flow conditions and unless restrictions are placed on them by their relevant state authority (authorities include: ACT Government, Department of Territory and Municipal Services either the ACT Government, Environmental and Sustainable Development Directorate or NSW Office of Water.) Restrictions may be placed on water abstractions when the flow is unavailable. Entitlements are not associated with a regular allocation announcement.

For the purpose of 2012 Account, the urban ACTEW Water licence is considered to have annual allocation announcements, and therefore a liability is created each year.

Trades and water rights 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 (National Water Commission 2011).

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

Water market rules: inter-valley and within-valley trading

The Water Resources Act 2007 (ACT) allows for inter–valley trades. WAEs 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 (National Water Commission, Australia Water Markets Report 2010–11). Groundwater entitlements are tradeable on the same basis as surface water entitlements.

The Water Act 1912 has a provision for trade of both water entitlements and allocations. As metering is not in place, a trading system is currently not possible to be implemented for the Canberra region and it can be assumed there was no trade for 2011–12.

Groundwater trades are permitted within GMAs but must be approved by the NSW Office of Water.

Restrictions on trade

Trade cannot occur on WAEs that were not purchased from the ACT Government, Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate; that is, ACTEW Water holds the urban water access entitlements, but cannot trade them as they were granted without payment.