Water Journal : Water Journal December 2011
feature article water DECEMBER 2011 37 Pricing and institutional reforms have also been beneficial. Consumption-based and cost-reflective pricing has encouraged more efficient water use. The recovery of full efficient costs means that many water businesses are now better placed to fund necessary maintenance and new investment. Independent economic regulation and consumer protection frameworks, where implemented, are improving transparency and accountability while protecting disadvantaged customers. Disappointments On the other side of the ledger, the report documented some borderline results and even fails. Some of this can be attributed to the complexity and ambitious nature of the reform task. Many of the agreed actions are inherently difficult, and some of the deadlines were unrealistic even when the National Water Initiative was signed. As a result, many important actions are not complete. Drought has distracted and complicated the implementation effort as well as masked some of the results. Political commitment and leadership have been variable, and bureaucratic processes have been slow and often obscure to those to whom the outcome matters most. Historically high levels of investment in water management and infrastructure have not always been well aligned with reform objectives. Meanwhile, community confidence has been damaged by delays in delivering on commitments, by inconsistent implementation and by less than adequate involvement of affected communities. Sustainable Water Management Outcomes for the environment from water reform are not as clearly demonstrated as the outcomes for the economy. While we have seen welcome progress across jurisdictions in the development of environmental water management institutions and the recovery of water for environmental needs, we have also seen how easily ad hoc government interventions can undermine the security of water for rivers and wetlands. In extreme conditions, water plans have been set aside. Accountability for environmental outcomes remains weak, even when they are specified in the plans. In particular, monitoring capacity is often inadequate, and plans still lack the necessary science to link environmental watering with ecological outcomes. Nevertheless, the planning cycle continues and generally new plans are more soundly based than older ones. The real test for how well we are doing to keep a fair share of the resource for the environment will be when drought conditions return. The Commission put a marker down in its 2009 biennial assessment and said, 'water is still in trouble' because we saw insufficient progress towards the core commitment of the National Water Initiative: the commitment to tackle over-use and over-allocation. Regrettably, we find that this position has not improved. The Commission is deeply disappointed that the stated commitment of parties to make substantial progress by 2010 in adjusting all over-allocated or overused water systems to sustainable levels of extraction has not been met. Some governments remain reluctant even to identify explicitly their over-allocated and over-used systems -- surely a necessary first step towards restoring those systems to sustainable levels of extraction. Nowhere is this a challenge more than in the Murray-Darling Basin. The implementation of the Basin Plan will be a critical test for water reform and for Australia's ability to address the core challenge of managing water sustainably. The Water Act put in place a new governance model for the Basin. But this is not sufficient in itself to resolve the continuing and complex challenge of achieving a management regime that, in the words of both the National Water Initiative and the Water Act, 'optimises social, economic and environmental outcomes'. The failures of the past to achieve sustainable water management in the Basin have been as much failures of leadership as of the particular legislative and governance structures in place at the time. Environmental water needs are now better recognised. Security of water for rivers and wetlands must not be undermined.
Water Journal April 2012
Water Journal November 2011