Water in Australia

Water in Australia provides a country‑wide picture of water availability and use in a particular financial year. Water in Australia 2016–17 covers the period 1 July 2016 to 30 June 2017 and key messages for this year were:

Read the full Water in Australia 2016–17 report (9.1MB) .

You can also access data used in the report through Regional Water Information, and download high resolution images.

Monthly Water Update provides a regular snapshot of rainfall, streamflow, stream salinity and storage volumes for the previous month.

For further information, please contact us.


Above‑average rainfall with higher‑than‑average streamflows

Mean rainfall for Australia for the year July 2016 to June 2017 was 592 mm. The year 2016–17 was one of rainfall contrasts: largely wet conditions for the first nine months with a dry period from April to June. The 2016–17 mean rainfall was 28 per cent above both the long‑term mean of 461 mm and the 2015–16 mean (464 mm).

It was the eighth‑wettest year on record measured across the whole of Australia. Rainfall was very much above average across large parts of the north and centre of the country, as well as parts of the Northern Tablelands district of New South Wales and across southeastern South Australia and western Victoria. Average and drier conditions prevailed along the east coast and in much of the southwest.

The 2016 July to September period was the second wettest on record for the whole of Australia due to the influence of a strong Indian Ocean Dipole. During September 2016, rainfall was very much higher than average across much of the country, resulting in the second‑wettest September on record (Figure 1). Summer rainfall was also the fourth highest on record for Australia as a whole, and contributed substantially to the above‑average rainfall for Australia during 2016–17.

Maps of Australia showing the spatial distribution of relative rainfall conditions in decile groups for the months of September 2016 and June 2017.

Autumn rainfall was slightly below average for Australia as a whole in 2017 but varied across the country. Ex‑severe tropical cyclone Debbie made landfall on the central Queensland coast during March 2017. It tracked southeast towards the New South Wales border and beyond, causing rainfall anomalies of 400 mm above the long‑term monthly mean over large parts of the coastal area. The remaining months of autumn had lower rainfall anomalies than the preceding months (December to March). The reporting period ended with Australia's second‑driest June on record.

The annual streamflow conditions corresponded well with the spatial distribution of rainfall. Average to higher-than‑average flows predominated across the country, with many higher‑than‑average flows in the tropical north (excluding Cape York) and the southeast, particularly in the southern Murray–Darling Basin. Average flows were recorded along the New South Wales coast and in most of Queensland. Matching the rainfall conditions, higher‑than‑average flows were recorded at 66 per cent of the gauging sites in September 2016. By June 2017 this had changed; almost 43 per cent of the gauges recorded lower-than‑average flows in that month.

Streamflow was fresh (median salinity < 500 mg/L) at about 60 per cent of the monitoring sites analysed in 2016–17. These sites were mostly located in areas with higher annual rainfall, particularly along the east coast. Sites in southeastern South Australia and southwest Western Australia had higher salinities.


Boost in public water reserves

Overall, the accessible storage volume of surface water totalled across Australia for direct water supply purposes increased due to the wetter‑than‑average conditions in 2016–17. The accessible storage volume at the beginning of the year was 57 per cent of capacity; by the end of the assessment period it had increased to 77 per cent of capacity. The combined accessible storage volume of urban and rural systems increased in all States and Territories by the end of 2016–17 in comparison to the beginning.

Bar chart summarising the total accessible storage volumes for States and Territories at the beginning and end of the assessment period.

ACT = Australian Capital Territory; NSW = New South Wales; NT = Northern Territory; QLD = Queensland; SA = South Australia; VIC = Victoria; WA = Western Australia

Despite some upward and downward movements in particular systems, the total accessible storage volume for urban systems was the same at the end of 2016–17 as it had been at the start of the year (75 per cent of capacity). The Toowoomba system showed the largest proportional decline, from 70 to 58 per cent of accessible capacity. The largest proportional increase in accessible storage capacity was recorded in the Pilbara system (from 31 to 93 per cent) followed by Coliban (from 41 to 73 per cent) and Barwon Geelong (from 40 to 70 per cent). At 30 June 2017, the Perth and Townsville water supply systems were the only two urban systems sitting below 50 per cent of capacity.

The combined accessible water volume in rural storages across the nation increased from 52 to 78 per cent of capacity. The accessible storage volume in the Murray–Darling Basin and the Ord system increased significantly in 2016–17 due to the above-average inflows received during the year. In 2016–17, water allocation was the highest of the last seven years. Most water entitlement holders in the Murray–Darling Basin had received full allocations by the end of spring 2017.

Groundwater levels in the upper, middle and lower aquifers were generally average to below average with declining trends. The percentage of bores with below-average status was lower in 2016–17 than in the previous year.


Increased water trading

Entitlement and water allocation trade volumes increased in 2016–17 compared to the previous year. The volume of water entitlements traded nationally was 2100 GL, 23 per cent higher than in 2015–16. The total volume of surface water allocations traded during 2016–17 was 7000 GL, about 20 per cent higher than the previous year.

This year, the volume of entitlements traded in the northern Murray–Darling Basin exceeded the volume traded in the southern Murray–Darling Basin. Entitlement trade also increased outside the Murray–Darling Basin. The southern Murray–Darling Basin had a larger volume of allocation trading than the northern Murray–Darling Basin, with a record‑high volume traded in 2016–17. Improved water availability in 2016–17 also resulted in a significant drop in allocation prices.

Total water extractions in 2016–17 were slightly lower than the figures reported for 2015–16. The total volume of water extractions for consumptive use is estimated to be 15 670 GL.

Although the amount of water extracted for agricultural use in 2016–17 (70 per cent of the total) was similar to that of the previous year, the relative proportions of surface water and groundwater use differed. The increase in surface water availability resulted in increased surface water extraction for agricultural use in most regions, with a resulting drop in groundwater extractions. Thus, surface water extractions increased by 10 per cent whereas groundwater use dropped by 27 per cent.

About 20 per cent of the total extractions (3130 GL) was sourced for urban water supply, a 4 per cent reduction on the previous year’s volume. The remaining 10 per cent was consumed by other industries. Recycled water use dropped in most of the major urban centres except Sydney and Canberra.

Most of the environmental water releases occurred in the southern Murray–Darling Basin. Total environmental water releases held under regulated water entitlements in the southern Murray–Darling Basin were just over 1900 GL, while the total for the northern basin was 168 GL. Both these volumes were much higher than the releases during 2015–16. Outside the Murray–Darling Basin, about 200 GL of environmental water was released in 2016–17.


High storage volumes at the start of 2017‑18

The above‑average rainfall conditions in 2016–17 facilitated a large increase in water volumes held in most of the public water storages. Despite a dry May and June 2017, storage volumes were high at the end of the year. In all the systems in the Murray–Darling Basin except the Gwydir, the total water in store for 2017–18, including the carryover and non‑allocated volume, was more than 50 per cent of the accessible storage capacity. At the beginning of 2017–18, the likelihood of good allocations in that year was high due to this increased water in storage.


Water resources were at a low level of stress

Water stress is estimated using the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goal indicator 6.4.2 This is the ratio of freshwater withdrawn by major economic sectors and the total renewable freshwater resources, after allowing for environmental water requirements.

In Australia, this water stress indicator was 4.1 per cent in 2016–17, 5.9 per cent in 2015–16 and 7.4 per cent in 2014–15. These values are well below the initial water stress level of 25 per cent identified by the United Nations.


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