Water is essential for the health and wellbeing of all NSW citizens, the preservation of the state’s natural environment and the prosperity of our economy. We all have a common purpose to share and manage water responsibly.
Water is essential to our environment, economy and communities
Valued at over half a trillion dollars in 2020, the NSW economy is forecast to grow to about $2 trillion by 2040. The water industry directly supports a significant number of jobs, and water is also a key input into industries such as agriculture, energy, mining and manufacturing, and tourism. These industries play a vital role in the NSW economy: irrigated agriculture alone contributed $4.4 billion in gross value in 2017/18, [Australian Bureau of Statistics, Gross value of irrigated agricultural production - 2017/18] as well as indirectly generating jobs and income in regional communities.
Water is essential to the health and wellbeing of NSW residents. A secure supply of safe drinking water is critical for the continued urban expansion and growth of NSW cities and towns, and the water sector supports sanitation through wastewater and stormwater services. Water enhances the liveability of communities by supporting green spaces within the urban landscape and recreational activities. Water also acts as a natural cooling asset, reducing the temperature of urban landscapes by 1-2 degrees [Kurn, D.M., Bretz, S.E., Huang, B., and Akbari, H. 1994, The potential for reducing urban air temperatures and energy consumption through vegetative cooling, United States, DOI:10.2172/10180633] through assets such as urban wetlands and lakes.
Water is also deeply entwined with Aboriginal culture - providing food, kinship, connection, recreation, stories, songlines and healing. Healthy waterways are critical to the culture and wellbeing of Aboriginal communities across NSW.
Water is critical to a healthy and sustainable natural environment, and to the resilience of NSW’s natural capital. Water supports a variety of ecosystems and habitats that maintain native flora and fauna, such as diverse fish and bird populations, including a number of the state’s threatened species and threatened ecological communities. Wetlands, estuaries and other waterways across NSW are both internationally- significant environmental assets and important visitor attractions for regional communities that help to sustain livelihoods and the health of individuals and businesses. Many of our waterways, and the plants and animals they support, are in a stressed state: we need to do more than protect these waterways - we need to enhance and actively sustain the condition of our rivers, creeks, wetlands and estuaries.
The recent drought has highlighted the vulnerability of metropolitan and regional water supplies across NSW. At the beginning of 2020, 100% of NSW was in drought. The Bureau of Meteorology reports the recent drought in the Murray-Darling Basin to be the most intense on record, noting that the drought has also taken place against a background of rising temperatures - with the last seven years in the Basin being among the 10 warmest on record (and 2019 being the warmest) [Bureau of Meteorology 2020, Climate Statement 70 - Drought conditions in Australia and impact on water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin, 13 August 2020, p.17.]. Across the state, many communities continue to deal with the effects of these drier and hotter conditions on vital water supplies and water-dependent environmental assets.
Between July 2017 and February 2020, Greater Sydney’s water storages experienced one of the worst drought sequences on record. Sydney’s storages declined rapidly over two and a half years by over 50%, reducing dam levels to a low 40%. This rate of depletion had not been experienced in the historical record and was not anticipated in the 2017 Metropolitan Water Plan, which was prepared to secure water for a liveable, growing and resilient Greater Sydney.
If Sydney experiences water shortages like this in the future, it is likely to have an impact on the city’s economic performance and NSW’s credit rating, with consequent negative economic effects.
During the same period, most major regional dam storages were depleted, with some storages effectively empty and others dangerously low - representing a significant risk to water security. At the end of 2019, almost 50 town or city water supplies were at a high risk of failure, facing the risk of 'zero' water supply within six to 12 months. In some towns when rainfall came in early 2020, water was declared unsafe as water quality parameters exceeded Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
Drought can also have devastating effects on our natural systems. Drought, high temperatures and bushfires followed by heavy rainfall resulted in the deaths of millions of native fish over the summers of 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 in NSW. For example, in 2018/2019 there were three significant fish death events in the Darling River near Menindee where it is estimated that over one million native fish died.
The recent drought highlighted many vulnerabilities in metropolitan and regional water services in NSW. These vulnerabilities indicate that we need much better long-term strategic planning and to fundamentally rethink and improve how we use and manage water.