Water for life
Sufficient and secure water supply is essential for Melbourne being a vibrant, liveable and sustainable city now and in the future.
Melbourne has some of the highest-quality drinking water in the world due largely to having healthy and protected water catchments. Melbourne is one of only a few major cities in which most of its drinking water comes from protected catchments which have limited public access to minimise water quality risks. Our water supply catchments provide most of the potable supply for 75 percent of Victoria’s population, as well as many other economic, social and environmental benefits.
However, significant planning and action is required to equip the region to meet two major challenges for the future: population growth and declining water availability.
With a population of around 5 million in this region now, Melbourne’s total annual water consumption is already outstripping average annual inflows. The gap is currently being filled with desalination water. The region’s population is projected to keep growing well above its current level which will further increase demand.
While population and water demand grow, long-term climate projections show a trend towards warmer and drier conditions, with less rainfall on average and more variability year to year. As a result, the amount of water flowing into rivers and dams is declining. Streamflows are projected to decline by a further 8 to 22 per cent by 2065 under a medium climate change scenario, or by up to 40 per cent under a high climate change scenario.
Over the next 50 years, water supplies will need to double just to meet demand in cities and towns across the wider region. Historic water injustices for Traditional Owners, who have long been excluded from water management decisions and water ownership in Victoria, must also be remedied. Additional water is also essential for the environment if we are to prevent further decline in the health of many rivers, and water quality must be protected to support a wide range of uses.
To achieve all of these aims, it is expected that the region will need to make greater use of manufactured water sources, such as desalinated water and fit-for-purpose recycled water, as well as stormwater.
Policy and planning
The Water Act 1989 provides the legal structure for managing Victoria’s water resources. A water entitlement framework defines how water is shared, held, used and traded to support agricultural, urban and environmental water needs and ensures planning processes are in place so that future water needs can be met. Water entitlements in the Port Phillip & Western Port region include:
- Bulk water entitlements are held on behalf of consumers by two bulk water authorities: Melbourne Water and Southern Rural Water. Melbourne Water supplies bulk water to three retail water corporations: South East Water, Yarra Valley Water and Greater Western Water. Southern Rural Water licences farms and other businesses to take and use groundwater across the region and from the river diversion entitlements it holds in the Werribee catchment.
- Environmental water entitlements held by the Victorian Environmental Water Holder are used to improve the health of waterway and groundwater ecosystems.
- Water licences entitle individuals, farmers and other businesses to take and use water from waterways, catchment dams, springs, soaks or aquifers to irrigate specific parcels of land or use in commercial activities.
Melbourne Water manages Melbourne’s water supply system. This includes the Thomson, Yarra, Tarago and Bunyip rivers and the dams, reservoirs, viaducts and pipelines that store water and supply its customers.
Melbourne Water is also the Waterway Management Authority responsible for managing the rivers and creeks across the Port Phillip & Western Port region. Melbourne Water led the creation of the Healthy Waterways Strategy 2018-28 to guide this work.
Decision-making for sustainable water use
The central purpose of the Water Act 1989 is to “promote the equitable and efficient use of water resources, ensure water resources are conserved and properly managed for the benefit of all Victorians, and increase community involvement in conserving and managing water resources”.
At state-wide scale, Water for Victoria is the Victorian Government’s plan to meet the demands of a growing population and the predicted impacts of climate change.
At regional level, the Central Region Sustainable Water Strategy covers the Port Phillip and Western Port region and the urban centres of Greater Melbourne. The strategy describes actions and water supply augmentations to meet the region’s water needs from 2006 to 2055. An updated Central and Gippsland Region Sustainable Water Strategy is being prepared in response to new population and climate change projections. It will focus on water conservation and efficient use, greater use of recycled water and stormwater, better water-sharing arrangements and improving how water entitlements and trade can be used to better manage risks.
Given the spread of responsibilities across numerous organisations, an integrated, collaborative approach to the planning and management of water supply and use is essential. Integrated Water Management Forums have therefore been established for the Western Port, Dandenong, Yarra, Maribyrnong and Werribee catchments to bring key stakeholders together and find more ecologically sustainable and economic ways to use and conserve water. They consider and plan for growing uses of water reclamation and fit-for-purpose reuse, stormwater harvesting, aquifer storage and desalination to secure reliable supplies for homes, businesses and water environments as our climate becomes drier and warmer. Each Forum involves multiple organisations with interests across the whole water cycle. Strategic Directions Statements, Catchment-scale IWM Plans and prospectuses of priority projects will be products of each of the Forum’s work.
The health of many waterways has been profoundly impacted by the vast volumes of water taken for human uses. The Victorian Environmental Water Holder (VEWH) was established in 2011 to help solve this problem. The VEWH is the legal owner of water allocated to the environment and stored in dams alongside the water allocated to cities, farms and industry. In this region, the VEWH works with Melbourne Water to manage the environmental water it stores in Melbourne Water’s dams. This water is used in carefully managed and timed releases to mimic natural floods, create seasonal flows to trigger fish breeding and to maintain in-stream water quality.
Stream Flow Management Plans (SFMPs) are used in un-dammed catchments where the volume of diversions is known to stress the waterway’s capacity in dry seasons to provide for the environment and water users. Melbourne Water maintains SFMPs for seven sub-catchments in the region: Woori Yallock, Hoddles, Olinda, Stringybark, Steels, Pauls and Dixons Creeks, the Plenty River and the Little & Don Rivers.
Southern Rural Water maintains Local Management Rules to protect dry-season flows on Main Creek and its tributaries in part of the Werribee catchment.
Traditional Owners are the voice of their Country
In all policy and planning processes, the knowledge held by Traditional Owners and Aboriginal Victorians is being increasingly valued, and the influence and involvement of Traditional Owners in planning and management is increasing. There is recognition that the waterways and lands are interconnected ‘living entities’ and that the Traditional Owners are the ‘voice of the living entities’ on their Country.
For the management of water supply and use, there is a particular need to plan for an provide water that Traditional Owners can have used for cultural purposes.
Water resources in this region now
A quick look back
Over the past century, our rivers and dams have provided safe, reliable and affordable water supplies. More recently, the region’s water supply system was severely affected by the Millennium Drought from 1997 to 2009, when Melbourne’s dams dropped to a critical low of 25 per cent of capacity, and severe water restrictions were enforced in many towns. Households, businesses and industry responded to calls to save water, and consumption was cut by about a third in Melbourne between 1997 and 2009.
The Millennium Drought and low water levels in storages, together with future projections of population growth and climate change, highlighted the need for a diversified water supply system for the future. Building more dams wasn’t the solution as sites suitable for new dams had been exhausted and long-term declines in average rainfall meant that, in the future, there wouldn’t be enough rain to fill them. Instead, a rainfall-independent water source was built: the Victorian Desalination Project at Wonthaggi and a number of regional towns were connected to the Melbourne supply system through the water grid.
Our water balance today
Today, this region’s water supply system includes the protected and open water supply catchments, reservoirs and weirs used to harvest and store water plus the Victorian Desalination Project. A network of rivers, pipes and pumps are utilised to transfer water to communities across the region and beyond.
The historic average inflow into Melbourne’s storages was around 615 gigalitres but the average for the past few decades is significantly less. From1997 to 2019, the average was only around 418 gigalitres.
Together with Melbourne’s increased population and water demand, the result is that Melbourne’s current annual water consumption is around 70 gigalitres more than the average volume of water that flows naturally into our dams and water storages.
This means we already rely on the Victorian Desalination Project at close to maximum capacity to secure water supply for Melbourne and surrounding cities and towns. Since 2016, annual desalinated water orders have supplied the equivalent of more than 18 per cent of Melbourne’s storages. For the past three years, 125 gigalitres of desalinated water was ordered, out of a maximum of 150 gigalitres, leaving little capacity to respond to a water supply emergency such as a prolonged or severe drought.
Rainwater, stormwater and recycled water resources are used to a limited, but growing, extent by households and businesses, and for agricultural purposes across Melbourne and the surrounding region. These sources will be more important for the future supply.
Water for agriculture
Water for stock and domestic purposes, and for irrigation, is vital for the agricultural sector of this region. There are significant irrigation districts at Werribee and Bacchus Marsh, and groundwater is sourced in various areas for agricultural use.
Victoria’s water management arrangements will enable farmers to maximise the value of agricultural production with the available water, while supporting farming communities to adjust to change in a warmer and drier future. The Government is committed to supporting irrigators and farmers to adopt best management practices, maximise their water use efficiency and adapt for future challenges.
Water for the environment
Our reliance on rivers and dams to provide most of our water supplies has come at a cost to the environment and to Traditional Owners, and has also affected recreational uses of waterways.
There is less water in our rivers, and we have seen declines in river health. Long-term water availability for the environment is declining — even more than for consumptive uses — in many river basins in the region. Significant additional volumes of environmental water are required if we are to avoid irreversible declines in river health and ensure the survival of native species and the health of water ecosystems.
The Central Region Sustainable Water Strategy from 2006 sought increases to the environmental water reserves in the Werribee, Maribyrnong, Yarra and Westernport catchments, but opportunities to achieve those aims have been limited since then. Now, the Healthy Waterways Strategy 2018-28 includes similar objectives, seeking to increase the environmental water reserve by:
- 10-20 gigalitres per year in the Werribee catchment
- 10-20 gigalitres per year in the Maribyrnong catchment
- 15-25 gigalitres per year in the Yarra catchment
- 1-5 gigalitres per year in the Westernport catchment.
Around 10 gigalitres is sought in the Werribee system just to improve water quality for native fish, frogs and platypus, prevent blue-green algae blooms, allow populations of native freshwater fish species (including galaxiids) to survive and thrive, and provide refuges for fish. An estimated 3 gigalitres is sought in the Maribyrnong system in the short term to provide enough water to flush pools and maintain water quality during summer, allow populations of native freshwater fish species (including galaxiids) to breed and move between habitats, and to provide aquatic habitat for platypus and waterbugs. In the Yarra system, an additional 11 gigalitres is important to enable populations of native freshwater fish species (including Australian grayling) to survive, and to allow platypus to move between habitats.
These volumes may be revised through the development of the new Central and Gippsland Region Sustainable Water Strategy.
Water for recreation
Declining water availability also diminishes the recreational use and enjoyment of the region’s rivers, creeks and lakes. Low water flows during dry summers and droughts, and algae blooms, can lead to the closure of waterways for public use or fishing and the cancellation of major water sport events.
Water for Traditional Owners
Traditional Owners have never ceded rights to water across Victoria, yet Aboriginal people hold less than 0.1 per cent of water rights in this state. This exclusion denies Traditional Owners the right to care for Country — the essence of Aboriginal social, spiritual, economic and physical wellbeing, and the basis of cultural lore. In this region, the three Registered Aboriginal Parties – Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and the Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation – do not currently hold any water entitlements. How water is shared and managed in the future needs to redress these historical injustices.
Key challenges and drivers of change
This region faces significant challenges regarding its water supply: a drying climate, flow-stressed rivers and a need to double water supplies to meet population growth in the decades ahead. Securing adequate water for households, businesses, farms, Traditional Owners and our local rivers will be a major task. All water users will need to use water more efficiently and diverse, integrated water supply options will be needed to meet future demands with a climate that produces less rainfall and water storage.
As Victoria becomes warmer and drier, the decrease in rainfall and reduction in water availability will have consequences for agriculture. Protecting agricultural land that has secure supplies of treated and recycled water and existing irrigation infrastructure will become increasingly important. The Victorian planning system already protects declared irrigation districts and new protections for recycled water precincts are being developed.
From an environmental perspective, there is an important and substantial challenge to achieve adequate environmental water allocations that can retain and improve the environmental values of rivers and streams across the region. In the past, environmental water allocations have tended to be secondary to consumptive needs, but a number of river systems in this region are now very flow-stressed and urgently require increased allocations in the short term and further increases beyond that.
Achieving water justice through the return of water to Traditional Owners to support their cultural values is also a challenge as the vast majority of surface water across the region is fully allocated.
Vision and targets for the future
The Victorian Government’s Water for Victoria plan includes the following vision:
Water is fundamental to our communities. We will manage water to support
a healthy environment, a prosperous economy and thriving communities, now and into the future.
The Strategic Directions Statements of the five Integrated Water Management Forums across the region also provide catchment-scale visions, as summarised below.
Regional Catchment Strategy targets
The following target focuses on improving environmental water allocations and supporting the long-term health of waterways in this region. It is consistent with the Healthy Waterways Strategy 2018-28. Achieving this target will contribute to realising the visions outlined above. Progress towards this target will be primarily monitored through the ongoing Healthy Waterways Strategy monitoring and reporting program led by Melbourne Water, and through the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and the Victorian Environmental Water Holder.
Target 1.1 – Environmental water
The following target focuses on improving water allocations for Traditional Owners. It is consistent with the role of Traditional Owners as the voice for their Country and with the directions expected to be outlined in the Waterways of the West Action Plan and the Central and Gippsland Region Sustainable Water Strategy. Progress towards this target is expected to be monitored through the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
Target 1.2 – Water for Traditional Owners
The following organisations formally support the pursuit of the visions and targets for water supply and use. They have agreed to provide leadership and support to help achieve optimum results with their available resources, in ways such as:
- Fostering partnerships and sharing knowledge, experiences and information with other organisations and the community
- Seeking and securing resources for the area and undertaking work that will contribute to achieving the visions and targets
- Assisting with monitoring and reporting on the condition of the area.
- Melbourne Water
- Port Phillip & Westernport Catchment Management Authority
- Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA)
- Sustainability Victoria
- Greater Western Water
- Yarra Valley Water
- South Gippsland Water
- Hume City Council
- Macedon Ranges Shire Council
- Wyndham City
- Western Alliance for Greenhouse Action
- City of Greater Dandenong
- City of Casey
- South Gippsland Shire Council
- Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation
- Native Fish Australia (Vic)
- The People and Parks Foundation
- Birdlife Australia
- Nillumbik Landcare Network
- Federation for Environment and Horticulture in the Macedon Ranges
- Werribee River Association
- Friends of Lower Kororoit Creek Inc
- Yarra Ranges Landcare Network
- Northern Yarra Landcare Network
- Johns Hill Landcare Group
- Nangana Landcare Network
- South Gippsland Landcare Network
- Loch-Nyora Landcare Group
- Mt. Lyall Landcare Group
- Poowong & District Landcare Group
- Triholm Landcare Group
- Main Creek Catchment Landcare Group
- Westernport Swamp Landcare Group
- Kooyongkoot Alliance
- Abbotsford Riverbankers Inc
Add your organisation as a supporter and partner
If your organisation supports these directions and targets for water supply and use and wishes to be listed as a partner organisation, you can request to be listed as a partner organisation. Adding your organisation to this list will:
- enable your organisation to list one or more priority projects in the Prospectus which will describe how your priority project will pursue the targets of this Regional Catchment Strategy and potentially make your organisation’s project more attractive to investors by using the strategy to highlight its relevance and value
- demonstrate your commitment to a healthy and sustainable environment
- demonstrate the level of community engagement and support for this work.
Priority projects to move forward
There are significant ongoing programs and initiatives undertaken by many organisations in this region that are vital for the management of water supply and use, and are priorities to continue. In addition, there are numerous project proposals that, if funded and implemented, can contribute to achieving the Regional Catchment Strategy’s visions and targets. Project proposals include:
- Victorian Climate Resilient Councils proposed by the Western Alliance for Greenhouse Action.
A list of project proposals across the region and their key details can be viewed on the Prospectus page of this Regional Catchment Strategy.
Propose a new priority project
As part of the ongoing development and refinement of this Regional Catchment Strategy, additional priority projects may be considered for inclusion in the Prospectus.
If your organisation supports the directions and targets for water supply and use, and has a project it would like highlighted and supported in this Regional Catchment Strategy, please complete and submit a Prospectus Project Proposal.