Water rights

Operating rules and constraints

Under the Northern Territory Water Act 1992 (the Water Act), the right to the use, flow and control of the water in watercourses, wetlands and underground water sources is vested in the Crown.

Within the Department of Land Resource Management, the Water Resources Division administers the regulatory functions of the WaterAct. This includes permits and licences for surface water and groundwater extraction and bore water drilling. This division also assesses compliance in relation to surface water and groundwater extraction licences, construct or alter works (dams/ interference with a waterway), bore construction permits and the investigation of breaches under the WaterAct.

Control of taking water is exercised by the Controller of Water Resource through the Department of Land Resource Management through allocation planning and its surface and groundwater licensing arrangements. Water can only be taken from designated surface and groundwater management areas within the region when a licence is issued. Under the Oolloo water allocation plan (in draft stage) the maximum annual volume of water available from this source is 40,000 ML from the Northern Zone and 20,000 ML from the Southern Zone. For the Katherine (Tindall Limestone Aquifer) Water Allocation Plan and Mataranka (Tindall Limestone Aquifer) water allocation plan (in draft stage) these limits are variable based on the flow of the Katherine River and are advised on an annual basis to all licence holders.

Water extraction licences include a condition that specifies that the Controller of Water Resources may limit the amount of water which may be taken at times of inadequate supply.  Restrictions on water commence when water flow drops below predetermined levels as advised in each of the water allocation plans.

In water allocation plan areas, water licences can be traded on a permanent or temporary basis, subject to the relevant trading rules.

For more information on operating rules, see Water Licensing and Permits on the Northern Territory government website.

Water entitlements and other statutory water rights

Under the Water Act, a licence is required to extract water from surface water in declared water control areas.  The Water Act also necessitates that all bores within a water control district must be authorised by a bore construction permit.

Licences to extract water are administered by the Department of Land Resource Management.  Licences specify the conditions, length of tenure, and volume of water that may be taken on an annual basis.  The volume is referred to as the 'annual water entitlement'.

The WaterAct also has provisions for 'riparian right' use of water that is an incident of land ownership and no licence is required to use water under these provisions.  The WaterAct also makes exemptions for having to apply for and be granted a licensed water entitlement for the following groundwater uses:

  • taking water for fire-fighting purposes;
  • watering cattle or other stock other than those being raised under intensive conditions; and
  • irrigating domestic gardens and lawns (not exceeding 0.2 ha).

Water allocations

Licensees are entitled to take up to the maximum annual amount prescribed in the licence, but must adhere to monthly limits during the year. Any unused allocation is forfeited and cannot be carried over to a subsequent water year.

Annual water allocations represent quantity of water available after environmental water provision and domestic requirements are met, and are determined and announced by the Controller of Water each year. The Oolloo and Tindall (Katherine) limestone water allocation plans set down diversion limits for entitlements from the respective aquifers. These limits are updated annually for both aquifers.

For current annual entitlements, see Water access and use.

Trades and water rights transfers

Water market rules: interstate trading

The Water Act 1992 regulates the trading and transferring of licences in the Northern Territory.  All trades require the approval of the Controller of Water Resources, with any such approval being subject to the provisions in the water allocation plans and Clause 25 of the Act.

The powers of the WaterAct are confined to the Northern Territory and therefore interstate trading is not permitted. 

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

Trading between zones within the same management area are permitted and are subject to compliance with the WaterAct and other administrative issues and can only occur within the annual limit defined for this zone.

Restrictions on trade

No restrictions on trades or transfers in addition to those described previously were in place during the 2011–12 year.