The IUCN Academy of Environmental Law series
Edited by Michael Kidd, Loretta Feris, Tumai Murombo and Alejandro Iza
Chapter 9: Achieving ecologically sustainable development in multi-level water governance regimes: the case of the Murray–Darling Basin
The history of Australian water management laws has five distinct epochs over the period from 1788 to 2009. The early European colonies established in 1788 inherited the riparian doctrine, entrained in British common law, which gave landholders conditional rights to the access and rights to water contiguous with and adjoining their land. This law was replaced by a licensing and allocation system for both surface and groundwater in 1886. This was first achieved through the New South Wales Water Rights Act 1896 that vested in the Crown the right to water in rivers and lakes and water contained in any works to which the Act applied. However, the first comprehensive piece of water legislation was the Water Act 1912 (NSW)under which land owners retained some limited riparian rights for livestock watering and domestic purposes. For all other extractions of water a landholder was required to apply for a licence for a fixed term which could be renewed, amended or cancelled. In the second half of the 20th century a number of problems emerged with the way water was being managed in Australia, particularly two sets of issues: increasing relative scarcity of water resources and the efficiency and equity of their allocation, and increasing environmental impacts, degradation and the sustainability of water use. This required a fundamental paradigm shift in water resources management. In response, the concept of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) has been placed in the water management laws of each State and recently in a new Federal Act – the Water Act 2007.
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