As water is such a precious resource, there can be considerable tension with how water should be used and managed.  The interests of government, agriculture, industry and communities can all clash in terms of how water rights should be allocated. 

Dr Mark Shepheard with Professor Aron Murphy

Dr Mark Shepheard is the Unit Coordinator for LAW207. He is passionate about protecting our environment, especially our precious water resources. He notes ‘the law is often looked at to fix environmental problems which arise.’ The reality is, there are often unexpected social consequences of well-intentioned reforms. One very poignant and public example of the community disdain which reforms can sometimes create, is the burning of the Murray Darling Basement Plan in Griffith in 2010. The group burnt the plans, in order to demonstrate against the large amounts of water which were taken away from irrigators. 

A more recent example of conflict with water access is the community opposition to long wall mining underneath Wollongong’s Woronora Reservoir. The NSW Parliament was due to debate a 10,000-strong petition against Peabody Energy’s expansion plans. However, Parliament was shut down before that could happen and instead gave approval to these expansion plans instead. For the first time mining under the reservoir has now been approved. This undermines the water supply for the Sutherland Shire. This has occurred after a 2019 independent report into coal mining in the Greater Sydney Water Catchment Areas found evidence that mining has resulted, and continues to result, in losses of water from the Greater Sydney water supply system.

People’s livelihoods can be linked to water access. If this access is reduced or denied, communities can erode. This, coupled with the growing gap between rural and urban prosperity- it is little wonder this is such a contentious issue!

The governance of water is particularly interesting as it is relevant to both rural and urban people. In terms of urban or city environments, water is a central and necessary feature of gardens, parks and golf courses. Due to the high density of people in urban environments, there are also considerable issues relating to water pollution, sewerage treatment and desalination plants. From a rural perspective, water is central to mining, coal seam gas and fracking, as well as food and fibre irrigation.

The millennium promised a new era in Australian water law for increased intergovernmental cooperation within the Federation to achieve sustainability in water management, water access, and use.  The anticipated Water Management Act 2000 (NSW) commenced a staged replacement of the 1912 statute; the Council of Australian Governments National Water Initiative Agreement of 2004 laid the foundation for the passing of the Water Act 2007 (Cth), and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan 2012 (Cth).  Many of the reforms were precipitated in recognition by lawmakers of the need to drastically reform governance arrangements in response to the impact of drought. 

In 2020, water management, water access, and water use remain significant issues underpinning conflict between regions, between rural and urban communities, between States, and between Governments.  This unit seeks to introduce key dimensions of water law and governance regimes in NSW and the interaction of these with the Commonwealth legal framework. Emphasis is placed on experience in the Murray-Darling Basin (M-DB), but not exclusively. The active research focus in the unit provides an opportunity to develop a critical analysis of water law and associated problems outside the M-DB and in urban as well as rural environments. 

If you are interested in finding out more about how the law can assist in answering some of these complex issues, make sure you enrol in LAW207 in Trimester 2!