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The Water is Life: Traditional Owner Access to Water Roadmap provides an important framework to create and maintain a careful and considered balance between Traditional Owner self-determination in water access and management and the rights and entitlements of irrigators and landholders, environmental groups and the community.

The Victorian Government is working with Traditional Owners to increase their access to water and their involvement in water management. Water is Life will support Traditional Owners to Care for Country in ways that benefit Traditional Owners, the natural environment, and wider communities.

Implementing Water is Life

The Victorian Government proposes a staged and iterative approach to implementing the actions in Water is Life. Implementation will be informed by pilot projects and an adaptive approach that supports:

  • the water sector
  • existing entitlement holders
  • Traditional Owners
  • the broader community.

The development of implementation options for Water is Life will be informed by wider engagement with Traditional Owners, key stakeholders, and the Victorian community. This will include wide consultation if any new legislation is proposed.

Our approach is consistent with Water for Victoria’s commitment to strengthen local relationships and put community at the centre of decision-making.

Water is Life will not affect existing water entitlements

Aboriginal water access through Water is Life will not affect irrigators’ entitlements or allocations.

Water is Life does not propose to change permissible consumptive volumes or diversion limits – that is, the volume of water that can be removed from rivers and aquifers.

Water is Life does not propose to:

  • change or buy back existing entitlements
  • change the government’s strong support for regional communities
  • minimise negative socio-economic impacts of the Basin Plan.

Increasing access to water for Traditional Owners is intended to deliver benefits for Traditional Owners and the broader Victorian community.

Water shares or licences held by Traditional Owner organisations are subject to the same rules and rights as when farmers hold them.

Statutory bodies will still have the same responsibilities

This work does not change the existing statutory responsibilities of existing water agencies nor the requirements for agencies to consult with the community when making decisions.

Victoria’s existing environmental water and waterway management frameworks have been developed with communities over the past 25 years and are delivered through regional partnerships between the Victorian environmental water holder (VEWH) and catchment management authorities (CMAs).

There will continue to be an essential role for the VEWH and CMAs as state agencies delivering environmental water and waterway management.

Traditional Owners as waterway managers

Water is Life proposes a process that may lead to recognising Traditional Owners as waterway managers for specific functions in certain locations.

Traditional Owners are already participating in environmental water planning and management. As this role increases, further barriers to self-determination will be identified and addressed.

Any potential future legislative changes will involve engagement with Traditional Owners, water users, wider stakeholders and the community.

Irrigators will not have to pay costs for Traditional Owners’ fees and charges

Existing water users will not be responsible for Traditional Owner water fees and charges. Where water is extracted for cultural purposes, the Victorian Government will pay the fees and charges of water rights held by Traditional Owners.

If Traditional Owners use water for commercial purposes, they will pay an increasing proportion of fees and charges over time, until full cost recovery is reached.

Increasing Traditional Owner access to waterway management

Water is Life develops a pathway to genuine, meaningful outcomes for and in partnership with Traditional Owners. It takes a critically important step to reduce barriers and increase access to water and management of water landscapes for Traditional Owners.

Caring for Country

Caring for Country, including its waterways, is the custodial obligation of Traditional Owners. Traditional Owners have managed land and water sustainably for thousands of generations. Keeping Country and water healthy can deliver thriving cultural economies and benefits for all Victorians.

Water is Life represents actual and symbolic respect for the importance of Aboriginal connections to Country. Water is Life involves changing the approach as it has operated for generations, but this change is necessary, and it can and should be achieved in balance with existing interests.

Bringing Traditional Owner values to waterway management

Traditional Owners hold less than 0.2% of all water access entitlements across Victoria. It is time to recognise that their communities have thrived here for thousands of years and honour their relationship with land and waters.

Water is Life is a key deliverable from Water for Victoria – a policy that was developed by working with communities around Victoria to understand what they wanted to see from a sustainable and secure water supply future. In addition, in 2019, legislation was passed to enshrine Aboriginal cultural values and knowledge in water and catchment management into law for the first time and to include Traditional Owners in these processes.

Cultural water benefits Traditional Owners

Cultural water means water entitlements controlled or held by Traditional Owner Nations to benefit a range of outcomes, as determined by each Nation. This can include environmental as well as economic uses. Cultural water respects existing water entitlement structures while still providing Traditional Owners rights equal to existing holders.

Like other users, any conditions on use, such as volumetric limits, will continue to apply to any water entitlements issued to Traditional Owners, and use of water entitlements by Traditional Owners will need to comply with the requirements of the Water Act 1989.

Managing the flow of water over country

Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation is planning to use its recently issued section 51 take and use (consumptive) water licence within the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, which was inscribed in 2019 for its cultural values to the Gunditjmara community.

Managing the flow of water over country is an essential aspect of the cultural values, including the iconic aquaculture of Kooyang (short-finned eel).

In some circumstances, Traditional Owners may work with environmental water holders and waterway managers to achieve shared ecological and cultural outcomes from environmental watering.

While these shared benefits are culturally and environmentally valuable, they are not cultural water, because the entitlement is held by the environmental water holder rather than Traditional Owners.

Water is Life factsheets

Page last updated: 19/09/23