Environment Law in the Northern Territory

Water regulation in the Northern Territory

Overview

Water resource laws in the Northern Territory:

  • control who can use water resources
  • control how water resources are allocated and managed
  • may require people who extract surface or groundwater or do works which affect a waterway to hold a licence
  • require people discharging waste into water to have a licence
  • impose criminal offences for polluting water

What are the laws?           

The Northern Territory Water Act and Water Regulations control how water resources are allocated, used and managed.  These laws create a system for allocating water to people, the environment and industry and require people undertaking certain works (such as water extraction) to hold licences.

The Water Act and Water Regulations also play an important role in regulating pollution and specifically regulate water pollution.  The Marine Pollution Act and Marine Pollution Regulations regulate water pollution at sea.

The mining industry is exempt from the requirements to hold water licenses and permits for extraction of surface and groundwater under the Water Act.[1]  In addition, the Water Act pollution provisions do not apply to water pollution that occurs in the course of carrying out mining or petroleum activities on mining or petroleum sites.  Instead, this type of water pollution is regulated by the mining laws that control the type of resource being mined (for example, the Mining Management Act and Petroleum Act).  For more information, please read our Fact Sheet on Water and mining.  The only times when the pollution provisions under the Water Act apply to the mining industry are when:

  • water pollution caused by mining escapes from a mining site[2] or petroleum site[3] to a non-mine site area
  • underground waste disposal associated with mining takes place and the waste is not confined to the mining site or petroleum site.[4]

The Water Supply and Sewerage Services Act and Water Supply and Sewerage Services Regulations control water supply and sewerage services.

Who are the regulators?

The Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management is responsible for administering and enforcing breaches of the Water Act. The Marine Safety Branch of the Northern Territory Department of Lands, Planning and Environment is responsible for enforcing marine pollution laws.  The Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy is responsible for enforcing mining laws about water pollution from mining sites.

Environment protection under water laws

The Water Act provides two important environment protection mechanisms.

  1. It provides a process for water to be allocated to the environment to maintain the health of aquatic systems (often called “environmental water“) when water allocations are planned;[5] and
  2. It creates criminal offences for water pollution.[6]

Environmental water allocations

The legal process for management of water resources allocates water to “beneficial uses”.[7]  Beneficial uses are the uses which are legally recognised as needing water to be allocated to them. [8]  Providing water to the environment to maintain the health of aquatic ecosystems is recognised as being a beneficial use.  When water allocations are planned, they must allocate some water to the environment.[9]

When a water allocation plan has been prepared, the Minister for Land Resource Management may set up a Water Advisory Committee.[10]  A Water Advisory Committee has to advise the Controller of Water Resources[11] on whether the water allocation plan is effective in delivering economic and social benefits within ecological restraints.[12]  As a consequence, water allocations have to be based around the concept of sustainable flows of environmental water.

The Controller of Water Resources also has other functions for assessing and investigating the Northern Territory’s water resources. To enable effective planning for environmental protection, the Controller of Water Resources must ensure as far as possible that a continuous program for the assessment of water resources of the Northern Territory is carried out.[13] This investigation should collect and analyse information about:

  • volume;
  • flow;
  • quality;
  • characteristics;
  • flood potential; and
  • use of water resources.

It should also sample and analyse water, and waste that might pollute water.[14]

Protection of waterways

It is illegal to interfere with a waterway or to obstruct the flow of water in a waterway without permission.[15] A waterway includes all, or a part or portion of, any:[16]

  • river, creek, stream or watercourse
  • natural channel in which water flows, whether or not the flow is continuous
  • channel formed wholly or partly by the alteration of a natural waterway or channel lake, lagoon, swamp or marsh that water collects (whether or not the collection is continuous) and into, through or out of which a current flows (whether or not the flow is continuous)
  • land on which water collects as a result of works being done to a waterway
  • land which is intermittently covered by water from a river, creek, stream, watercourse, natural channel, or natural channel which has been altered or relocated (i.e. a floodplain)
  • land that has been published in the Gazette by the Minister for Land Resource Management as being a waterway for the purposes of the Water Act.

People who own or occupy land immediately adjacent to a waterway are entitled to access to those waterways.[17]  However, if there is an obstruction or interference to a waterway, the Controller of Water Resources can require the owner or occupier of the bed or banks of a waterway or owners and occupiers of land immediately adjacent to the bed or banks of a waterway to take action to remove the obstruction or interference.[18]

Sewerage works and the environment

When doing works related to sewerage infrastructure, the person (or company)[19] doing works must cause as little damage as practicable to land.[20]  When works are finished, the land has to be restored as nearly as possible to the condition it was in before works started.[21]  People (or companies) who have sewerage services infrastructure may remove trees, crops or shrubs up to 1.5m either side of that infrastructure, without needing to tell anyone in advance.[22]

Who can I report my complaints or concerns to?

If you have a concern about water management or water pollution, you can contact the Water Resources Branch of the Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management.

If you have a concern about water management at a mine site, or pollution on, or coming from, a mining site, you can contact the Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy. The Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy has Mining Officers responsible for receiving complaints and investigating complaints about mining sites.[23]  The Mining Officers are not allowed to disclose your name to anyone.[24]   Concerns or complaints can be reported to:

Director of Mining Environmental Compliance
Department of Mines and Energy
GPO Box 3000
Darwin
NT 0801

If you have a concern about marine pollution, contact the Marine Safety Branch of the Northern Territory Department of Lands, Planning and Environment.


[1] s7 Water Act

[2]s4 Mining Management Act defines a “mining site” as meaning an area of land (i) in respect of which a person holds a mining interest; (ii) on which mining activities are being or have been carried out; or (iii) that is declared by the Minister for Mines and Energy by Gazette notice to be a mine site

[3] s4 Water Act defines a “petroleum site” as meaning an access authority area, licence area, or permit area under the Petroleum Act on which a mining or petroleum activity occurs; or an area of land on which exploration for petroleum occurs or is extracted or processed under an Act of the Commonwealth

[4] s7(4) Water Act

[5] s 22B(5)(a) Water Act

[6] s16 Water Act

[7] s 22B(5)(a) Water Act

[8] s4(3) Water Act

[9] s22B(6) Water Act

[10] s23(1A) Water Act

[11]Note that “ecological restraints” is not defined in the Water Act.  However, as the Act requires the Committee to provide advice the effectiveness of a water allocation plan in maximising economic and social benefits within ecological restraints, it may be inferred that the first step in the advisory process should be the assessment of the environmental restraints (i.e. the quantity of water required to main the health of aquatic ecosystems) before assessing whether or not the remaining allocations of water are maximizing economic and social benefits

[12] s23(1B)(a) Water Act

[13] s34 Water Act

[14] s34(c) Water Act

[15] s15(2) Water Act

[16] s4 Water Act

[17] s13 Water Act

[18] s15(4)(a) and (b) Water Act

[19] The licensee – the person to whom a water supply licence or sewerage services licence has been granted under s12 Water Supply and Sewerage Services Act

[20] s62(4)(a) Water Supply and Sewerage Services Act

[21] s62(4)(b) Water Supply and Sewerage Services Act

[22] s70(1) Water Supply and Sewerage Services Act

[23] s61(f) Mining Management Act

[24]s63 Mining Management Act