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Adelaide: Region description

  • The region is home to 75% of South Australia's population, most of which reside in the Adelaide metropolitan area.
  • Surface water is the region's main water source, primarily for urban supply.
  • Desalinated water is used for urban supply as a climate-independent alternative water source.

Adelaide region map. Water use: 1.9% of Australia’s water use. Land use: 50% of the region used for grazing and agriculture. Ecosystems: 13 wetlands of national significance. Water resources: 70% sourced from surface water.

For further information about the region scroll down this page or click on the links below:


Geographic information

Barossa Valley, Adelaide region (istock © moisseyev)


General description

Area: 5,350 km²
Population: 1.3 million (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] 2016)


Map of the main rivers and water catchments. The region is physically defined by the Gawler, Torrens, Onkaparinga, Myponga river and Flurieu Peninsula catchments. The city of Adelaide is located near the centre of the region along the Torrens River.
Figure R1 Contextual map of the Adelaide region



  • The Adelaide region is located in the southeast of South Australia, extending from the Barossa Valley in the north to the Fleurieu Peninsula in the south.
  • The region is physically defined by the Gawler, Torrens, Onkaparinga, Myponga river and Flurieu Peninsula catchments.
  • The region has an extensive network of water bodies and accounts for 1.9% of Australia's water use.


Land use

Map showing the distribution and land use types. The city of Adelaide is located in the central west of the region. Other towns in the region include Nuriootpa and Gawler in the northeast and Victor Harbor on the south coast. Urban land use is concentrated in the Adelaide metropolitan area.  Primary land use is grazing followed by dryland and irrigated agriculture.
Figure R2 Land use in the Adelaide region


  • The Adelaide metropolitan area (including Gawler) is the major population centre in the region with 1.3 million residents and makes up 16% of the region's land use.
  • Key agricultural industries (grazing, dryland, and irrigated agriculture) including wine production, beef and dairy cattle, vegetable growing, and fruit orchards occupy over half of the region.
  • Conservation and natural environments make up 13% of the region's land use.


Significant aquatic ecosystems

Map of Ramsar wetlands and nationally important wetlands. The 3 Ramsar-listed wetlands are the Coorong, Lakes Alexandria and Albert Wetland, which are located outside the region to the southeast. There are 14 nationally-important wetlands. Washpool Lagoon, Stipiturus Conservation Park, Upper Hindmarsh River Catchment, Upper Boat Harbour Creek Wetlands, Illawong Swamp, Congeratinga Swamp, Gold Diggings Swamp, and Maylands Swamp are located in the south and southwest of the region near the Flerieu Peninsula. Cleland Perched Swamps, Englebrook Reserve and Onkaparinga Estuary are located in the centre of the region to the south of Adelaide. The Port Gawler and Buckland Park Lake and the Barker Inlet and St. Kilda are along the northwest coastal edge of the region. The Clinton wetland is also along the northern coastline but outside the region boundary.
Figure R3 Significant wetlands in the Adelaide region



Water resources

  • Most of the region's water supply comes from surface water, including inter-region transfers from the River Murray, which is mainly used for urban supply.
  • Groundwater resources and recycled water are used mainly to support agriculture in the region.
  • The Adelaide Desalination Plant provides an alternative climate resilient water source for urban supply in the region (see the Desalinated water section below).


Surface water


Map of 11 major storages. Mount Bold Reservoir, in the central part of the region, and South Para Reservoir in the northeast, are the region's largest storages with capacities of 45,900 ML and 44,800 ML respectively. The remaining 9 storages, located across the region, provide approximately 100,000 ML in capacity.
Figure R4 Major storages in the Adelaide region; capacity of each storage is also shown


  • Surface water storages are an important source for water supply in the region, mainly for urban water supply.
  • The region's key surface water storages are connected to supply pipelines that access water from the River Murray (see Figure R8 below).
  • Further information on the Adelaide region's storages, including current levels and volumes for reservoirs, is given on the Bureau of Meteorology's Water storage website.


  • Primary rivers in the Adelaide region include the North Para and Onkaparinga rivers.


Map of key gauging stations. North Para River at Yaldara, station number A5050502, is in the northern part of the region near the town of Gawler. Onkaparinga River at Houlgrave, station number A5030504, is in the central part of the region.
Figure R5 Selected flow gauging stations on the North Para and Onkaparinga rivers within the Adelaide region


Graph of mean monthly flows along the North Para and Onkaparinga rivers and mean monthly rainfall for the Adelaide region
Figure R6 Mean monthly flows along the North Para and Onkaparinga rivers and mean monthly rainfall for the Adelaide region


  • The seasonal flow characteristics of rivers within the region reflect the region's annual rainfall pattern, where most rainfall occurs between June and October.
  • The perennial flow characteristics of the Onkaparinga river contrast to those of the North Para River, which may occasionally cease to flow during the summer months.



  • Groundwater is an important water resource in the Adelaide region for both irrigation and stock and domestic supply.
  • The location of each groundwater management area in the Adelaide region is shown in the Water management section below.
  • An example subsection of the Northern Adelaide Plains aquifers is shown below.


A simplified three-dimensional cross-section image of the Adelaide region's groundwater aquifers. The section is taken over the Gawler River in the Northern Adelaide Plains part of the region. The image shows that the region's aquifers are made up of a surficial Quaternery (Q) aquifer which is underlain and hydraulically connected to a sequence of 4 Tertiary (T1 – T4) aquifers. A fractured rock aquifer unit is also apparent across the region which promotes groundwater movement between the tertiary deposits.
Figure R7 Groundwater system within the Adelaide region


  • Groundwater generally flows west from the higher rainfall recharge areas in the Western Mount Lofty Ranges towards the St Vincent Basin (Stewart, Banks and Wilson 2009).
  • Lateral inflow is the main mechanism for recharge of the coastal aquifers.


Desalinated water

  • The Adelaide Desalination Plant, located at Port Stanvac (see Figure R8), treats sea water taken from the Gulf St Vincent, providing an additional, climate-independent water source. Desalinated water is mixed with water treated at the Happy Valley Water Treatment Plant before entering the Happy Valley distribution network and the North South Interconnection System.
  • The Adelaide Desalination Plant is able to produce up to 100,000 ML/year of water, which is about half of metropolitan Adelaide's annual water demand.
  • There are also more than 25 privately and publicly owned desalination plants with an individual capacity greater than 1.8 ML/year in the region. These desalination plants are typically used to improve groundwater, wastewater, and mains water quality on a small scale to a standard suitable for irrigation, industry, and medical purposes.


Recycled water

  • Approximately 30% of the wastewater treated at SA Water's wastewater treatment plants is used in recycled water applications (Office for Water Security 2010) including agricultural, viticultural, municipal, parks, and recreational purposes.
  • A large proportion of the recycled water is provided to Virginia Pipeline Scheme and Willunga Basin Water Company from Bolivar, Christies' Beach, and Aldinga treatment plants. Under the Aldinga Aquifer Storage and Recovery Scheme, recycled water is supplied from the Christies Beach treatment plant and injected to the Port Willunga Formation aquifer as managed aquifer recharge.
  • In addition to SA Water's  wastewater treatment plants, community wastewater management schemes are another source of recycled water (see Community Wastewater Management Schemes section below).


Stormwater harvesting

  • Stormwater harvesting (collection, treatment, and use of urban runoff) is of increasing importance to the Adelaide region and forms an integral part of the South Australian Government's water security strategy (Office for Water Security 2010).
  • There are currently eight stormwater harvesting and reuse projects underway in the Adelaide region, with the collective capacity to harvest approximately 8,000 ML of stormwater annually.


Water systems

Urban water system

  • The urban water system includes water treatment plants and wastewater treatment plants, pipes and tanks, owned and operated by SA Water.


Map of the urban water system infrastructure. There are 6 water treatment plants, 6 wastewater treatment plants, and 1 desalination plant located mostly within the Adelaide metropolitan area. There are also 3 major water supply pipelines from the River Murray to the region's storages: Swan Reach–Stockwell, Mannum–Adelaide, and Murray Bridge–Onkaparinga.
Figure R8 Urban water system infrastructure within the Adelaide metropolitan area


  • Urban users in the Adelaide region are also supplied by several water treatment plants outside the Adelaide metropolitan boundaries; however, these have not been included within the Account.
  • More information about the Adelaide urban water system can be found at the SA Water website.


Irrigation schemes

  • Three major irrigation schemes operate in the Adelaide region: Virginia Pipeline Scheme, Barossa Infrastructure Limited, and Willunga Basin Water Company.
  • The Virginia Pipeline Scheme provides water to irrigators within the Virginia and Angle Vale districts in the north of the Adelaide region. Recycled water from the Bolivar Waste Water Treatment Plant is provided for the irrigation of 20 different crops, including fresh vegetables.
  • Barossa Infrastructure Limited provides water to irrigators within the Barossa Valley. River Murray water is the primary water source, supplied via the Mannum–Adelaide pipeline and, if required, via the Swan Reach–Stockwell pipeline. Recycled water is also used for water supply.
  • The Willunga Basin Water Company provides recycled water to irrigators within the McLaren Vale region. Recycled water from the Christies Beach wastewater treatment plant is the primary source of water, which includes water injected to groundwater as part of the Aldinga Aquifer Storage and Recovery Scheme.


Community Wastewater Management Schemes

  • These schemes harvest water from household septic systems and are typically operated by local councils. They provide recycled water for irrigation of vines and recreation facilities, including that supplied to the region's irrigation schemes.


Farm dams

  • Farm dams refer to landscape catchment storages used to harvest runoff, floodwater, or collected rainwater. They are an important water resource in the region; however, water held in farm dams is considered to be taken from the shared pool of water resources and, as such, is not included as part of the region's water assets.
  • The Adelaide region has in excess of 15,000 farm dams holding more than 39,700 ML of water when full. On average, farm dams harvest around 10% of annual runoff, although on a seasonal basis this can be more than 70% in some catchments during the summer and autumn months. Water held in and abstracted from farm dams is used for a combination of purposes including industrial, irrigation, and stock and domestic purposes.


Water management

Farming at Aldinga, Adelaide region (CSIRO © John Coppi)


Surface water and groundwater management

Water legislation

  • Water resources, including watercourses in the Adelaide region, are managed according to South Australia's Landscape South Australia Act 2019 (the Act), which is administered by the South Australian Minister for Environment and Water.
  • The Act aims to promote sustainable and integrated management of the State's natural resources and to provide for the protection of the State's natural resources. The Act sets the framework for water planning and management including provisions for declaring a water resource to be prescribed and the development of water allocation plans.
  • South Australia's Water Industry Act 2012 consolidates legislation relating to water supply throughout South Australia to deliver a more efficient, competitive, and innovative industry. It facilitates planning in connection with water demand and supply and aims to regulate the water industry through the regulation of prices, customer service standards, and technical standards, and also by providing performance monitoring of the water industry.
  • The key objectives of the legislation are outlined in Part 1 (3) of the Water Industry Act 2012.


Water management plans

  • The Act enables the water resources of an area to be prescribed. Water allocation plans are then developed that set principles and objectives for the management of the prescribed water resources. Water-affecting activities that do not pertain to the taking of water from prescribed water resources are provided for through water-affecting activity permits.
  • The South Australian Department for Environment and Water coordinates the adoption of water allocation plans by the South Australian Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, and administers the plans following adoption.


Map of surface water management areas. The Western Mount Lofty Ranges Prescribed Water Resource Area encompasses most of the southern and eastern parts of the region. The Barossa Valley Prescribed Water Resource Area covers the upper reaches of the North Para River catchment in the northeast of the region. There are also 4 prescribed watercourses along downstream sections of the major rivers: Gawler, Little Para, Onkaparinga River, and River Torrens–Karrawirra Parri.
Figure R9 Surface water management areas in the Adelaide region



Map of groundwater management areas. The Western Mount Lofty Ranges Prescribed Water Resource Area encompasses most of the southern and eastern parts of the region. The Barossa Valley Prescribed Water Resource Area covers the upper reaches of the North Para River catchment in the northeast of the region. There are also 3 prescribed wells areas: North Adelaide Plains in the northwest, McLaren Vale in the southwest, and Central Adelaide, which encompasses most of the metropolitan area.
Figure R10 Groundwater management areas in the Adelaide region



Environmental water management

  • Environmental water in the Adelaide region is managed under the Landscape South Australia Act 2019 (the Act).
  • The South Australian Department for Environment and Water is the principal regulatory agency established to manage environmental water in the Adelaide region on behalf of the Minister.
  • The Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resource Management Board has an active role with respect to the management of natural resources within the Adelaide region pursuant to section 29 of the Act. The Act requires water allocation plans to include: an assessment of the capacity of the water resources to meet environmental water requirements; information about water that is to be set aside for the environment; and a statement on the expected environmental outcomes to be delivered.


Cultural water management

  • Water use for cultural benefit is considered a basic right in the Adelaide region. These rights are described in the Act and the Australian Government Native Title Act 1983.
  • The Water Allocation Plan: Western Mount Lofty Ranges includes a specific section on Indigenous water needs. The plan outlines that 'Access to, and use of, water from prescribed water resources by Indigenous people for the purpose of social, cultural, or spiritual use is exempt from licensing, provided they do not stop, impede or divert the flow of water'.


Organisations responsible for water management

  • The organisations responsible for water management in the Adelaide region are shown below.


Table R1 Organisations responsible for water management in the Adelaide region
Organisation Principal roles Major storages managed by organisation
Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges NRM Board
  • water resource planning, allocation and management
  • water resource monitoring.
South Australian Murray–Darling Basin NRM Board
  • water resource planning, allocation and management for River Murray water.
South Australian Department for Environment and Water
  • water resource assessments and assessments of development impact on water resources
  • implementation of natural resources management plans, including water allocation plans
  • water resource monitoring
  • water policies, legislation and regulation
  • maintain register of water licences, water access entitlements and water allocations
  • water resource monitoring and reporting on wetland health.
SA Water (South Australian Water Corporation)
  • management of surface water storages and weirs, and delivery of potable water, recycled water, and wastewater services.
  • Barossa
  • Happy Valley
  • Hope Valley
  • Kangaroo Creek
  • Little Para
  • Millbrook
  • Mount Bold
  • Myponga
  • Onkaparinga Summit
  • South Para
  • Warren
Allwater Joint Venture
  • management and maintenance of Adelaide's water and wastewater network and infrastructure
Adelaide Aqua Pty Ltd
  • operation and maintenance of the Adelaide Desalination Plant
Barossa Infrastructure Limited
  • distribution of water throughout the Barossa region via irrigation scheme, including River Murray water and recycled water
Willunga Basin Water Company
  • distribution of recycled water throughout the Mclaren Vale, Willunga and Sellicks regions via irrigation scheme
Water Reticulation Systems Virginia/Trility Pty Ltd
  • distribution of recycled water via the Virginia Pipeline Scheme
various WWTP operators (e.g., North Para Environmental Control)
  • wastewater and recycled water services
local government councils (27)
  • planning and development for community wastewater management systems and stormwater management
Environmental Protection Authority
  • water quality monitoring
South Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regions
  • water resource monitoring and irrigation water research


Water rights

Farm dam, Adelaide region (CSIRO © Willem van Aken)


Operating rules and constraints

  • Water allocation plans set the objectives and principles for allocating and transferring water rights and managing activities that affect prescribed water resources.
  • Water-affecting activity permits are used to manage activities that can potentially have adverse impacts on the condition of water resources.


Water entitlements, allocations, and other statutory water rights

  • The abstraction and use of water is authorised by water rights under South Australia's Landscape South Australia Act 2019 (the Act) and by water licences issued to users (water access entitlements).
  • Native title holders, as determined under the Australian Government Native Title Act 1983, can take water for cooking, washing and drinking purposes.


Water licences

  • Prescribed water resources areas covered by a water allocation plan have water licences on issue. Only in the Dry Creek Prescribed Wells Area are there water licences issued without an approved allocation plan in place.
  • Water licences for prescribed water resources are bundled into a single licence and are not subject to formal annual allocation annoucements but are deemed to be 100% of the volume of the water licence as at 1 July each year.
  • In contrast to the bundled licences in the region's prescribed water resources, water licences in the River Murray Prescribed Watercourse are unbundled and are managed as four separate instruments: a water access entitlement, water allocation, water resource works approval, and site use approval.
  • The legislative history of all prescribed resources and gazette notices in South Australia can be accessed at the Department for Environment and Water website.


Rollover allocations

  • Unused water allocations at 30 June each year are forfeited, but the volume forfeited forms credits that are used to calculate partial carryover into the next year.
  • The McLaren Vale Prescribed Wells Area, the Barossa Prescribed Water Resources Area and the Western Mount Lofty Ranges Prescribed Water Resources Area allow carryover up to a maximum percentage of the annual allocation as detailed in the relevant water allocation plan.
  • In the River Murray Prescribed Water Course, carryover of allocations on a Class 6 entitlement (for urban water supply) is not permitted according to the Water Allocation Plan for the River Murray Prescribed Watercourse. Carryover of unused allocations for Class 3a water access entitlements (used in the Adelaide region for irrigation purposes) is governed by the River Murray Private Carryover Policy.


Recharged water credits/allocations

  • Recharged water refers to water that is actively injected into groundwater.
  • Following a recharge period, a portion of this water is available to be extracted as a recharge water credit and can be carried over from previous recharge periods. A water access entitlement and water allocation are then issued to allow extraction of all, or part of, the recharge water credit during the water year.
  • This arrangement is called managed aquifer recharge. The conditions associated with allocating and carrying over recharge credits are described in the relevant water allocation plans.


Trades and water rights transfers

  • In the Adelaide region, water trading can occur within a prescribed water resources area according to the rules set out in the relevant water allocation plan and the Act.
  • Water trade cannot occur outside of, or between, the prescribed water resources.
  • Trades are assessed by the South Australian Department for Environment and Water based on the principles and objectives stated in the relevant water allocation plan.
  • Trade restrictions in the prescribed water resources areas are contained in the relevant water allocation plans usually under the heading ‘transfer criteria’.