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This paper describes the evolution and current situation regarding sustainable water policy in Australia as a result of numerous technical, social and, environmental pressures. These issues include multi-year water scarcity, rapid development and growth, declining river health, evolving agricultural practices, and social awareness.

Fifteen years ago Australia saw the start of the national water reform process. The reform process was driven by declining river health (flows and riverine biota) and increased salinity levels, wasteful farming practices that used 60% of the nation's water resources but which did not use water to its highest and best use, cities and towns that used “once through” water systems with little or no recycling – thereby being wasteful and expensive both economically and ecologically, an imminent water shortage – “not enough to go around,” and changing regional weather and climate patterns.

Most water systems relied heavily on surface collection and storage systems (with high evaporation losses) and a substantial annual snow fall on the Great Dividing Range bordering the east coast of Australia. The Snowy Mountains Hydro system built after the Second World War collected the annual snow melt and controlled releases to feed the major eastern Australian wader needs. This system performed as expected until the late 1980's when the “perfect drought” arrived that stretched the period of rainfall/snow depletion beyond the point where the stored capacity could maintain Australia's largest community water needs. Suddenly the largest cities in Australia (Sydney and Melbourne) were water endangered. As a result, the Council of Australian Government (COAG – comprising all states, territories and federal government) initiated the national water reform process in 1992. By the turn of the century little meaningful progress had occurred. Despite these issues there was no real driver for transformation. This changed in 2003 because of two main factors acting as powerful drivers aligned to sustainability: the worst drought on record started in 1999 and is still ongoing eight years later, and political opportunity for federal re-election.

As a result of these pressures, the federal government moved quickly to create the National Water Commission to administer the new national water initiative (answerable directly to the Prime Minister) and funded it with A2 billion to be used as seed money to bring about water reform and the adoption of best practice integrated water management across all sectors and water users nation wide. With a federal election mooted for October 2007, the federal government, having control of both houses, moved to consolidate overall water powers from the states. To ameliorate the constitutional change, the Prime Minister made an even greater financial inducement in the form of a A10 billion funding offer to the states for them to invest in better and more sustainable water management practice at the community level.

At the centre of the new water systems lies an integrated multi-dimensional framework of:

Resource and demand management,

Business case analysis that prices water at its highest and best use,

Full cost recovery in utility water pricing models that accounts for all future operating and capital cost financials,

Latest and smartest water management and technologies reduce water consumption by as much as 60%, and

Integrated water strategy.

Consequently, although initially drought enforced adoption of more water efficient and sound resource management practice arising from emergency measures; now the political opportunities and associated funding are bringing about beneficial water reform across Australia. In addition, this paper examines various factors for residential water consumption and the water demand outcomes for communities with third pipe systems.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2008-01-01

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