Water in Australia

Water in Australia provides a country wide picture of water availability and use in a particular financial year. Water in Australia 2015–16 covers the period 1 July 2015 to 30 June 2016 and key messages for this year were:

Read the full Water in Australia 2015–16 report (9.2MB) .

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.


Average conditions with a wet winter onset

Mean rainfall for Australia for the year July 2015 to June 2016 was 464 mm, which is similar to the long-term mean, but 12 per cent higher than 2014–15. Higher-than-average rainfall (this encompasses 'above average', 'very much above average' and record highs) occurred across large parts of northern Australia during a very strong monsoonal event in December, and in southern Australia during strong rainfall events in January. Much of the country had a very wet onset of the 2016 winter.

Annual rainfall was higher-than-average along the southern coast of Western Australia and in large parts of New South Wales and the interior. In contrast, many areas along the coast received lower-than-average annual rainfall (this encompasses 'below average', 'very much below average' and record lows). In addition to these annual conditions, lower-than-average rainfall was dominant throughout much of the country during spring 2015 and autumn 2016.

A lack of consistent rainfall throughout the year meant that lower-than-average streamflows were dominant in large parts of Australia (Figure 1). For each of the first 11 months of 2015–16, less than one-quarter of sites had streamflows that were higher than average. This changed in June 2016, with almost 50 per cent of sites having higher-than-average streamflows in that month.

A state summary bar chart for all streamflow stations with valid data. Below average flows were dominant in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland while average flows were dominant in the ACT, New South Wales, Northern Territory and Tasmania.


Continued decline in reserves

As streamflows in the areas where most urban centres are located were generally below the long-term mean, the combined storage volume of urban systems declined from 81 per cent of capacity at 30 June 2015 to 75 per cent at 30 June 2016. Storage systems in the Pilbara and Townsville showed the largest proportional declines, from about 50 to 30 per cent of accessible capacity. The Perth storage system had the lowest accessible storage volume (20 per cent), resulting from persistent dry conditions over the past few years.

Lower-than-average rainfall in many of the agricultural centres during the growing season resulted in high water demands and use. With lower-than-average streamflows during the first ten months of 2015–16, many rural storage volumes experienced a strong decline. Before the start of the 2016 winter rainfalls, most supply storages in the Murray–Darling Basin recorded their lowest volumes since the end of the Millennium Drought (1996–2010). Their combined volume at the end of April was 24 per cent of capacity. With the arrival of the 2016 winter rainfalls, storages, particularly in the southeast of Australia, received a surge in inflows. At the end of the year, the combined storage volume of rural storages was at 52 per cent of capacity, 7 percentage points below the 59 per cent of capacity recorded at the start of the year.

Groundwater levels in upper, middle and lower aquifers were generally average to below average, with a predominantly declining trend since 2011.


Continued water trading but lower water extractions

Volumes for water entitlements traded nationally were similar to 2014–15, totalling around 1700 GL for 2015–16. The total volume of surface water allocations traded during 2015–16 was 5800 GL, a marginal increase from the total allocation trade volume in 2014–15. Both types of trading occur predominantly in the southern Murray–Darling Basin.

The estimated total volume of water extractions for consumptive use across Australia was 15 900 GL in 2015–16 (Figure 2). This is 5 per cent lower than in 2014–15.

A pie chart of Australia's water extractions by use category for 2015-16. Agricultural makes up 70 per cent (11200 GL) of use, urban 21 per cent (3300 GL), and other industrial use by 9 per cent (1400 GL).

Water extracted for agricultural use accounted for 70 per cent of the total, or 11 200 GL, a decline from the 12 600 GL of agricultural water extractions in 2014–15. Declining storage volumes resulted in low allocations against the general security entitlements in New South Wales, which in turn caused this decline in water use. Twenty-one per cent of the total extractions (3300 GL) was sourced for urban water supply.

Total environmental water use, in the form of actual flow releases, in the southern Murray–Darling Basin (including the Lachlan basin) was just over 1000 GL, whereas the total for the northern basin was 66 GL. These volumes were significantly less than the 1600 GL and 145 GL of environmental water releases in the southern and northern basins, respectively, during 2014–15. Again, this decrease was due to lower allocations against the environmental water entitlements held by the environmental water holders.


Positive prospects for higher water availability in 2016–17

The strong onset of winter rainfall in Australia's southeast generated high streamflows and wet catchments. Most storage systems in the southern Murray–Darling Basin were rising quickly during June 2016. Total storage volumes in the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan basins were already substantially higher at the end of 2015–16 than at the start of the year.

With wet catchment conditions in June, the higher inflows into storages were likely to continue into July. No new allocations were announced against the regulated entitlements in June 2016 for the remainder of the 2015–16 water-accounting period. Water allocations carried over into 2016–17 were therefore at similar low levels to those at the start of 2015–16. However, with the already increased storage volumes and the positive prospects for further inflows, higher allocations in 2016–17 were likely, particularly for the general security entitlements in most areas of New South Wales.


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