National Water Quality Management Strategy: Policies and principles - A reference document

Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand and the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council, 1994

Executive Summary

The management of water resources is an integral part of environmental management and an essential requirement for the continuing viability of most sections of our society. Changes to catchments including deforestation, soil erosion, the use of fertilisers and pesticides and the disposal of industrial and domestic wastes have generated major intrusions into virtually all stages of the hydrological cycle with the potential for significant detrimental impacts on water quality. Growing community concern about the condition of the nation's water bodies and increasing understanding that sustainable management of water resources requires recognition of environmental needs, has led to demands for changes in the management of water resources.

Ecologically sustainable management of the nation's water resources follows the guiding principles set out in the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development. Sustainable management of water resources requires the adoption of policies which integrate economic and environmental goals, recognise the value of the asset, provide for intergenerational equity and adopt a precautionary approach.

The Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ARMCANZ) and the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) have accordingly agreed to pursue the sustainable use of the nation's water resources by protecting and enhancing their quality while maintaining economic and social development. This objective will be pursued through a strategy based on high-status national guidelines with local implementation.

In the development of this strategy ARMCANZ and ANZECC are giving priority to the development of a policy and management framework for water quality management (as set out in this paper): a review of drinking water guidelines; guidelines for the management of sewerage systems; guidelines for water quality management in the rural environment; and guidelines for water quality including national criteria. Other important matters include the development of guidelines for groundwater protection and for the management of urban stormwater systems.

A nationally consistent approach to water quality management will be achieved through the development of high-status national guidelines which can provide the point of reference when issues are being determined on a case-by-case basis. The adoption of national guidelines provides a shared national objective while allowing flexibility to respond to differing circumstances at regional and local levels. The management process provides for a consistent approach to the implementation of the strategy while recognising differing political, social and natural conditions.

A basic tenet of the water quality management strategy is the importance of identifying opportunities where economic instruments may be applied to achieve efficient allocation and realistic valuation of water resources as an asset. The adoption of market incentives and sanctions can modify the use of water resources and work towards desired water quality outcomes. The correct price for water resources will reflect the full social cost, both financial and environmental, of using the resource as well as capital, operations and maintenance costs.

The strategy proposes the adoption of a complementary package of regulatory and market-based measures to take advantage of the strengths of both approaches. Pricing and allocation reform would be key elements of a package which could also include improved institutional arrangements, clarification of property rights and measures to increase community awareness and acceptance of improved practices for water use and the need to adopt an integrated approach to the management of natural resources.

Important information needs to support both regulatory and market-based tools are:

  • water quality goals and objectives based on community preference and the scientific input of nationally consistent water quality criteria
  • nationally consistent effluent guidelines encouraging the adoption of technology which provides cleaner production processes and the use of best management practices
  • collection of appropriate water quality data.

The market-based aspects of the package could include pricing policies which reflect the full cost of supply, including operations and maintenance costs, and provide incentives for water users to take account of the cost of adverse environmental impacts which result from their use of the resource. Such an approach would not only ensure that social and environmental costs are recognised, but it would also encourage producers to adopt wastewater management practices which are cost effective and environmentally sound.

The proposed management approach explicitly recognises the importance of community involvement in the process of identifying the preferred uses of local water bodies. Community involvement is equally essential if genuine community acceptance is to be developed in relation to the costs associated with improved water quality. The costs and benefits associated with the proposed water use options can be made explicit when scientifically-based water quality criteria corresponding to each protected value are identified.

The determination of environmental values for local or regional water bodies represents the particular uses or values that the community wishes to preserve and should be the first step in the development of a water quality management program. These environmental values are matched with scientifically based water quality criteria to provide the water quality objectives. In the case of large catchments a different range of values may be given to segments of the stream or water body; however, the downstream effects on a water body would need to be considered when regional water quality objectives are set.

ARMCANZ and ANZECC will develop effluent quality guidelines for major industries which will set pollutant levels consistent with those achievable by accepted modern technology consistent with on-going economic viability. The effluent guidelines will not specify the technology to be used except in cases where effluent quality cannot be adequately assessed or defined. These guidelines would apply from start-up of new installations and would be progressively phased in by existing dischargers.

Diffuse sources of pollution must also be addressed in a water quality management strategy. Diffuse sources of pollution occur in both rural and urban environments, however, the potential for this form of pollution is greatest in the rural environment and a range of measures will be required for its control. These measures could include identification of current contributors and decisions on the need for changed land uses and improved management practices. The development of plans or strategies for the adoption of best management practices on a catchment basis may in many circumstances provide the most effective and efficient means for community consultation and participation involving the community. The concept of best management practices provides the basis for an integrated approach to natural resource use and management of water quality outcomes.

In implementing a strategy along these lines, some significant management frameworks may need to be put in place. Efficient and effective management of water quality requires: national consistency in processes for setting goals and objectives, clear and explicit administrative processes, mechanisms for the involvement of regional communities in the identification of environmental values and monitoring and enforcement measures.

In the light of the agreed national objective, State water quality planning and policy processes can then provide the context within which regional and local water quality management plans could be developed. The catchment management approach will usually provide the most effective mechanism for community involvement and be the basis for strategic planning and implementation of pollution control measures. As central as community involvement and commitment is to an effective water quality management strategy, the role and responsibility of governments as the final decision makers in managing water quality in the interests of the whole community must be recognised.