Early functions

National Water Commission buildingThe Commission was established through the intergovernmental agreement on the National Water Initiative (NWI) in 2004 under the auspices of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). It was given legal effect through the passage of the National Water Commission Act 2004 by the Commonwealth Parliament.

2005 was our first full year of operation, with inaugural Commissioners appointed by the then Prime Minister in March 2005.

When the NWI was agreed, water policy and implementation and the associated expertise resided primarily in state and territory governments. Australian Government responsibility for water-related issues rested with several separate agencies, overseen by a coordinating water area within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Australian Water Resources 2005

The Commission was charged with establishing benchmarks against which to measure future progress under the NWI. In October 2006, the Commission released the findings of the first stage of the baseline assessment of water resources—Australian Water Resources 2005.

This provided a snapshot of Australia's water resources at the beginning of the NWI reform journey in 2004-05. Baseline data on water availability, water use and river and wetland health served as the starting points to measure improvements in water management.

A Level 2 assessment, released publicly as a dedicated website in July 2007, included integrated surface water and groundwater balances for 51 priority water management areas (including all capital cities), comprehensive statistics on water use in the Australian economy in 2004–05, and a new national framework for assessing river and wetland health (tested in Victoria and Tasmania).

Australian water resources 2005 also revealed a need for better groundwater and surface water management and assessment, including further mapping and analysis of the extent of groundwater–surface water interactions.

Importantly, the report recommended that Australian governments agree on a consistent approach to sustainable resource management, including an agreed definition of ‘sustainable yield’.

As a companion resource, the Commission also undertook a baseline assessment of water governance arrangements in 2006, as was required under the NWI and the National Water Commission Act.

National Competition Policy assessments

One of the Commission’s initial tasks included monitoring the transition from earlier water policy frameworks, namely the COAG Framework of 1994 and the National Competition Policy (previously undertaken by the National Competition Council).

The Commission delivered its National Competition Policy (NCP) assessments in 2005 and 2007, thereby adjudicating whether or not states and territories had met milestones and earned the right to receive related NCP payments.

Visit the Assessments topic in our Library to view or download reports

NWI implementation plans

As signatories to the NWI, all governments were required to lodge plans outlining how they would implement its requirements. These plans included timelines for implementation of agreed actions and were to be accredited by the Commission—providing a benchmark against for assessing future water reform progress.

By July 2007, the Commission had certified all nine implementation plans and advised COAG that they were NWI-consistent.

Visit the Assessments topic in our Library to view or download reports

Funding programs

When the Commission was established, the Australian Government gave it responsibility for administering two programs under the Australian Government Water Fund, commencing in 2004‑05:

  • The Water Smart Australia (WSA) Program, worth $1.6 billion, which aimed to accelerate the development and uptake of smart technologies and practices in water use across Australia.
  • The Raising National Water Standards (RNWS) Program, which offered support for projects that are improving Australia's national capacity to measure, monitor and manage water resources. This program was initially allocated $200 million, but this was later revised to $250 million.

Applications for WSA funding opened in April 2005. Continuing responsibility for the program was transferred from the Commission to the then Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in 2007. By that time almost all available funds had been committed, although expenditure of the committed funds was continuing.

The RNWS Program closed on 30 June 2012, having supported 178 projects worth $245.12 million. RNWS investments have facilitated improved water management at local, state and national levels, provided valuable analysis to support the Commission’s reform assessments, and enabled exploration of emerging challenges to efficient water use.

The Commission's series of Waterlines reports constitutes an important component of the RNWS legacy.

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