Sewage is wastewater that comes from toilets, bathrooms, kitchens and laundries. Most sewage goes through Victoria’s reticulated sewerage systems for treatment. Sometimes it’s not practical, or possible, to connect to the existing sewerage system. Where this occurs, sewage is managed using a standalone on-site wastewater system such as a septic tank with a dispersal/recycling component which is designed to treat and contain waste within a property boundary.
These systems are in place across Victoria, where no sewer is available and are installed on single land title sites to treat wastewater which contains human waste. If not maintained or incorrectly installed these systems can create public health and environmental issues.
On-site wastewater systems must perform effectively and be well managed to minimise risks to public health and the environment.
Who is responsible for what?
The Department of Environment Land Water and Planning (DELWP) and the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) are responsible for overseeing the regulatory framework that Councils and Water Corporations use to manage the risks posed by poorly performing on-site wastewater systems.
The Department is responsible for legislation for the water industry and the services it provides. We administer the Water Act 1989 and the Water Industry Act 1994 and Water Corporations’ compliance with the provisions in these Acts. We also inform policy that supports the Environment Protection Act 2017.
The EPA administers the Environment Protection Act 2017 (the Act) and Environment Protection Regulations 2021 (the Regulations) and developed the Code of practice - onsite wastewater management, which sets out guidance for the appropriate management of on-site wastewater systems.
Councils administer the use and installation of systems designed to discharge less than 5,000 litres per day of sewage via the Act, the Regulations and the Code of practice. Councils must also assess risks and identify strategies to manage these systems, via a domestic wastewater management plan and refer high risk unsewered townships to Water Corporations.
Water Corporations provide sewerage, water and recycled water services to residential, commercial and industrial customers. Water Corporations also work with Councils in relation to high-risk systems to determine options such as connection to a sewerage system or an alternative service.
Victorian Auditor-General's Office (VAGO) report
In September 2018, the Victorian Auditor General’s Office (VAGO) released its report on ‘Managing the Environmental Impacts of Domestic Wastewater’. VAGO made eight recommendations to both DELWP and EPA.
What actions is the Department taking after the report?
DELWP is working with the EPA, Councils, Water Corporations, the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) and VicWater to implement the recommendations raised in the report.
The review of the State Environment Protection Policy (Waters) in 2018, its Implementation Plan, the Act and Regulations and broader EPA reforms respond to many of the issues the Auditor General’s report has raised.
In its response to the audit (7 September 2018), DELWP supported or supported in-principle the audit’s recommendations pending the October 2018 finalisation of SEPP(Waters) and its implementation plan.
A key recommendation from the audit involved setting up a state-wide steering committee to review issues and recommend solutions.
Other DELWP managed activities and outputs include the following:
- Quarterly meetings of the Onsite Domestic Wastewater Management (ODWM) steering committee
- Work with EPA, Department of Health, MAV, Councils, and Water corporations to review key issues with the regulatory framework and develop a standard risk assessment framework.
- Support EPA to undertake a preliminary review of the Code of practice - onside wastewater management (publication 891.4). EPA_WasteWater CoP_Recommendations Report_Feb 2021 (PDF, 638.5 KB). CoP Literature Scoping Review - Final Report (PDF, 1.3 MB).
- Review of the domestic wastewater management plan (DWMP) model: Councils that have on-site wastewater systems must develop a plan to identify, assess and manage risks to public health and the environment from these systems. A model plan was developed in 2005 to provide guidance on the standard expected of all councils’ DWMPs. Recommendation nine from VAGO’s audit stated the model be reviewed with a focus on ‘Improving the risk assessment approach to align with relevant Australian standards.’ Improvements to all sections of the model including approaches to strengthen the risk assessment processes have been identified and will inform EPA’s program of work to transition the relevant saved State Environment Protection Policy clauses.
- Discuss a review of the Land Capability Assessment framework.
- Support EPA to develop resources that assist Councils to regulate on-site wastewater systems under the new environment protection legislation.
- Work with Water Corporations and Councils to determine Integrated Water Management options for where sewerage cannot be provided.
- Work with Water Corporations and Councils to determine options for improving sewer connection rates and system maintenance models.
- Discuss and share new and innovative pilot projects underway and build confidence in alternative systems. This resulted in several case study reports highlighting how current and legacy issues are being addressed.
- Sewer alternative put to the test in innovative Park Orchards trial (PDF, 477.0 KB) Accessible version (DOCX, 3.1 MB)
- Beyond septics: Connecting more households to effective wastewater systems (PDF, 625.1 KB) Accessible version (DOCX, 3.1 MB)
- Collaboration lays foundation for effective domestic wastewater management (PDF, 467.2 KB) Accessible version (DOCX, 1.5 MB)
- Digitising historic records for effective domestic wastewater management (PDF, 401.7 KB) Accessible version (DOCX, 1.7 MB)
- Penshurst rides the winds of change to test adaptive wastewater solutions (PDF, 556.3 KB) Accessible version (DOCX, 2.1 MB)
Revised Regulatory Framework
The new Environment Protection Act 2017 (the Act) introduced the general environmental duty (GED) which changed how EPA will regulate pollution, waste and contamination in Victoria. The GED focuses on preventing harm from waste and pollution rather than managing impacts after harm has already occurred. For on-site wastewater systems, the GED requires owners to reduce risks from their on-site systems. On 1 July 2021, the Environment Protection Regulations and the Environment Protection Transitional Regulations came into effect, which provides subordinate legislation relevant to Councils’ management of on-site wastewater systems.
The Environment Protection Transitional Regulations saved three clauses in SEPP (Waters) for two years from the commencement of the new environment protection legislation (1 July 2021), New framework for protecting water quality which means these obligations are still in effect until 1 July 2023:
- clauses 28(1) obligation on Councils when considering planning applications and 28(2) obligations on council to use Land Capability Assessments
- clause 29 obligation on Council to prepare a Domestic Wastewater Management Plan
- clause 30 obligation on Water Corporations to plan sewerage services
EPA and DELWP will consult with Councils and Water Corporations on how the issues addressed in these clauses are best managed on a longer-term basis.
Page last updated: 09/12/21