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Guidelines for groundwater quality protection in Australia 2013

Publication details

Australian Government, 2014

These guidelines support a national approach to groundwater quality protection that applies to all groundwater in Australia, regardless of its current or potential uses. State and territory governments are the primary users of these guidelines as they are responsible for developing policies and regulations tailored to their specific needs. The guidelines were drawn up under the aegis of the National Water Reform Committee.

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Background

Groundwater is an important resource for drinking water supplies, irrigation, industrial development, and ecosystem and streamflow maintenance. Increasing demand and a trend towards a drier climate is placing pressure on some groundwater resources. Protection of groundwater quality is imperative to ensure the protection of healthy ecosystems and maintenance of environmental values as well as for future economic and population growth.

The National Water Initiative (NWI) (Clause 7) supports the implementation of the National Water Quality Management Strategy (NWQMS). The NWQMS provides a national framework and comprises a description of policies, principles and guidelines for end users and water sources. As part of the NWQMS, the original Guidelines for Groundwater Protection in Australia were developed and adopted in 1995. The importance of groundwater for water supply, the higher risk of water quality impacts, and the improved understanding of groundwater management in recent years has provided the impetus for revising the Groundwater Protection Guidelines. This publication forms the updated Guidelines for Groundwater Quality Protection in Australia and focuses on the adoption of risk-based management to protect and enhance groundwater quality for the maintenance of specified Environmental Values.

State and territory governments are the primary users of these guidelines as they are responsible for developing policies and regulatory systems tailored to their specific legislative and resource situations. Practical applications of the guidelines include the assessment of groundwater, the identification of groundwater quality objectives and the development of specific groundwater protection mechanisms. The objective is that state and territory governments can take these guidelines into account when developing policies and legislation to protect the groundwater quality of each water resource, thus maintaining or enhancing the associated Environmental Value and preventing contamination within their respective jurisdictions.

The framework presented in these guidelines is a practical strategy to maintain or enhance groundwater quality so as to support an Environmental Value, and is based around a set of over-arching principles for groundwater quality protection, including ecologically sustainable development, adoption of a risk-based approach, the polluter pays principle, recognition of intergenerational equity issues and the precautionary principle. The framework sets out a process for developing a groundwater protection plan, which includes assigning an Environmental Value category to a groundwater system, setting water quality objectives, and developing management strategies that are tailored to individual groundwater protection scenarios. The framework in these guidelines can be applied within existing Commonwealth, state and territory legislation. Detailed strategies and management rules can then be defined for individual groundwater protection scenarios within this framework.

These guidelines provide currently known principles and key methods for maximising groundwater quality protection.

Protection of groundwater quality occurs within 3 existing legislative frameworks:

  • Groundwater Management, which deals with groundwater entitlements and allocations
  • Land-use Planning, which controls decisions on land development
  • Environment Protection, which deals with environmental maintenance and hazardous activities.

These guidelines support a national approach to groundwater quality protection that applies to all groundwater in Australia, regardless of the current or potential uses of the groundwater.

The national application of the guidelines will enable management of groundwater quality of aquifers, as well as their connected surface water systems, across traditional management boundaries. Groundwater quality protection also applies to groundwater that extends under coastal waters. Consideration of the unsaturated zone within groundwater quality management is also enabled by these guidelines, and may be required where state or territory legislation includes the unsaturated zone in their definitions of groundwater, or where consideration of the unsaturated zone could contribute to more effective management of groundwater quality.

The guidelines are set out as follows:

  • Chapter 1 provides an overview of the objective and scope of these guidelines within the NWQMS.
  • Chapter 2 provides context on the current and emerging groundwater quality issues and the need for groundwater quality protection.
  • Chapter 3 outlines the underlying principles for the revision of the guidelines including ecologically sustainable development, adoption of a risk based approach, the polluter pays principle, recognition of intergenerational equity issues, and the precautionary principle.
  • Chapter 4 describes the overall framework and outlines the 12 key elements to be considered when developing a Groundwater Protection Plan.
  • The appendixes provide additional background material relating to current and emerging issues in the protection of groundwater, an overview of groundwater regulation and management in Australia.

Users of these guidelines should note that the NWQMS is currently being updated and Chapter 1 of these guidelines may be revised to ensure alignment with the updated NWQMS.