Environmental flows are recognised (and, increasingly, provided) by an ever-growing list of jurisdictions around the globe. As the number of countries with basic environmental flows commitments grows, I think it’s helpful to examine the way environmental flows is transitioning from policy, to implementation, to management. In particular, in locations where water recovery has been substantial, there has been a real shift in focus from the ‘more is better’ mantra of water recovery, to using existing environmental water effectively.
How do jurisdictions go from paying lip service in policy documents and legislation, to actually putting more water back in rivers and wetlands? In 2010, the WWF and Nature Conservancy released this report, The Implementation Challenge, on the challenge of transitioning from environmental flows policy to implementation. It draws on case studies from around the world, including Europe, the Americas, Africa, Australia and south-east Asia, and generates some helpful guidelines for enthusiastic environmental flows policy makers, helping them navigate the difficult transition from policy to implementation.
The first step is recognising the need for environmental flows, and doing the science and community engagement in local catchments to identify what the environmental flows should be, in order to protect the ecosystems and assets valued by that community. This is not a trivial step, but there are a number of well-documented processes that can be used in different water management regimes to get this done.
The next step, which is when I think it gets interesting, from a legal and policy perspective, is when the recommended flows are identified, and the responsible organization has to figure out how to deliver them. This can happen in three types of situation: (1) full allocation of water rights in the catchment, and existing rights or historical use patterns are being respected; (2) full allocation, but all rights to water are being renegotiated as part of setting the environmental flows; or (3) something less than full allocation, so that more water can be set aside for the environment without affecting existing users (if any).
Clearly, it’s easiest to implement environmental flows under scenario 3, and they become a constraint on future uses of water in the catchment. This can also represent the best outcome for the ecological health of the river, as it’s more likely to be maintained from the outset (rather than being clawed back from a state of degradation later).
Scenario 2 is possibly the most challenging, as everything is up for grabs. I think one of the best examples of scenario 2 is the water reform still underway in South Africa. Following constitutional reform in 1994, South Africa committed to major water reform. The 1998 National Water Act legally set aside water for basic human needs and an ecological reserve (flows to protect the ecological health of the water systems), which must be met before economic uses of water. Whilst this legal reform was a world first, and created a model for defining environmental water that has inspired other jurisdictions (including Australia), implementation has lagged well behind the law. There are many reasons for this, and I suspect one important reason might be that negotiating everything takes a long time, especially when there are historical uses of water for economic purposes. Even if these historical uses are legally downgraded, the former owners won’t want to give them up for nothing.
Scenario 1 is happening now, in many developed and developing countries. Scenario 1 happens after many years of water extraction, when communities and governments recognise the need for environmental flows to protect the health of rivers and wetlands. Enabling the environment to legally use water is the first step – but when all the water has been allocated to others, how do you give any to the environment? There are some great examples from the western USA and in the Murray-Darling Basin of Australia, where water has been recovered using a combination of purchase of water entitlements from existing users, and investment in water savings (through efficiency measures, or alternative water uses). In Australia, the environment is now one of the largest single holders of water entitlements, and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has large volumes in many catchments throughout the Murray-Darling Basin.
The final step in this transition is to management, and this step is the most recent. Where environmental flows policy programs have been successful, environmental water managers are now facing the task of managing this additional water. In some places, this water is only held as instream flows or rules-based water, requiring little to no management. But where environmental water entitlements are held in storage, and can be called out to extend or top-up natural flooding events, or keep wetlands alive during severe drought, management is essential. Environmental water managers now need to demonstrate that they are using this water effectively to deliver real, measurable, on-ground improvements in river health.