The New South Wales Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water has released proposed changes to water laws designed to give property owners and farmers improved access to water for firefighting, and is calling for feedback on the proposed changes.

The Water for Bushfire Preparedness and Firefighting Proposed Approach Paper outlines changes that are designed to make it easier for New South Wales landholders to lawfully take small volumes of water to fight bushfires that threaten their properties.

The paper includes a potential new exemption that could be introduced quickly. If implemented, the exemption would be reviewed after a few years to determine whether it should transition to a basic landholder right under the Water Management Act 2000.

The current laws allow rural fire brigades and their officers to take water from a water source to extinguish or control a fire without a licence. But landholders themselves are only exempt if there is an emergency and they have received a lawful direction from an authorised officer.

There are no provisions at the moment for farmers or landholders to extract water from rivers or aquifers to help them prepare for imminent bushfires or fight active fires on their own land without holding water licences that can cost many thousands of dollars.

The New South Wales Government has set up a technical advisory group to review and address the issue. 

The government said a range of policy options have been assessed and the department is now proposing a new regulatory framework that is simpler and more accessible to landholders, while still being enforceable.

The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water held a range of meetings on the policy options with some of the peak stakeholder groups in December 2023, including Local Government New South Wales, New South Wales Farmers, New South Wales Irrigators’ Council, Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales, the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, and various community-based organisations.

The department is now seeking broader feedback on the proposed approach.

To view the documents and share your views, visit https://water.dpie.nsw.gov.au/our-work/allocations-availability/drought-and-floods/water-for-bushfire-preparedness-and-firefighting 

The public consultation process will close on 6 May 2024 and a report is expected to be published mid-year.

New South Wales Department of Climate Change Executive Director Strategy and Policy – Water, Energy, the Environment and Water, Kaia Hodge, said, “No one can forget the devastating 2019-20 bushfire season. Its length and intensity, after years of prolonged drought across the state hammered home the importance of getting on the front foot with bushfire preparedness including improving landholder’s access to water.

“The New South Wales Government has set-up a technical advisory group to tackle this head on, including developing ways to cut the red tape and remove the cost burden so landholders and farmers can easily and lawfully access water in bushfire emergencies to protect lives and property.

“But it is also important that any changes to the regulations do not have any major impacts on the environment or other water users, which is why they need to be carefully considered and managed responsibly.”

Featured image: A bushfire in New South Wales. Courtesy of New South Wales Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

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