Our coast and bays — along with rivers, streams, estuaries, groundwater and wetlands — are some of Victoria’s most valuable natural assets. Healthy, productive waterways are vital for household supplies, industrial and agricultural use, aquaculture and recreation, and to support our tourism industry. Good quality water, healthy plants and animals, as well as suitable flows in the waterways, are essential to maintain the many demands placed on our water environments.

colourful bathing boxes at sunset

Image courtesy EPA

Government, industry and many businesses in Victoria are familiar with the operation of State environment protection policies (SEPP) under the Environment Protection Act 1970. SEPP (Waters) has been an important tool in helping protect the environment by setting clear standards and expectations. It provided clarity and certainty to duty holders and regulatory decision-makers in EPA, planning authorities and other parts of government. It helped us address water quality requirements across Victoria by setting out the beneficial uses of water and the environmental quality indicators and objectives to protect them.

From 1 July 2021, the Environment Protection Act 2017 as amended (the Act) replaces the Environment Protection Act 1970. It establishes the new framework for environmental protection. It is underpinned by the general environmental duty (GED) and duties for waste, contaminated land and incident notification and management.

The Act is designed with a different mix of subordinate instruments and regulatory tools to support and work with the Act. This framework focuses on the prevention of waste and the impacts of pollution, rather than managing those impacts after they have occurred.

SEPP (Waters) will not continue as a subordinate instrument under the Act, and its formal statutory role ended on 1 July 2021, except in some limited circumstances.

Much of the content of SEPP (Waters) has been replaced by the Act, its Regulations and the Environment Reference Standard (ERS), or through new guidance published by EPA. Content in SEPP (Waters) that has been translated include:

  • The Environment Reference Standard 2021 (ERS) includes environmental values, indicators and objectives. These are similar to the beneficial uses, indicators and objectives in SEPP (Waters).
  • Clauses that are intended to be enforceable are included (with changes) in the Environment Protection Regulations 2021 (for example, where they set a clear requirement on a type of industry activity).
  • Clauses that contain decision-making rules are included (with some changes) in the Environment Protection Regulations 2021 (for example, rules that EPA must follow when assessing a permission application).

A limited number of clauses in the SEPP (Waters) will remain in force for up to two years from 1 July 2021 under the Environment Protection Transitional Regulations 2021. This allows more time for the Department and EPA to consult with duty holders and identify the most suitable replacement instrument to address the issues in these clauses.

Where content is not directly replaced under the new legislative framework, or EPA has not yet published new guidance, the information in those clauses of SEPP (Waters) may continue to provide a useful source of information to aid duty holders and regulatory decision-makers.

SEPP (Waters) as a state of knowledge resource

A key principle of the Act is to ensure that EPA and duty holder actions and decisions are based on the best available, relevant and reliable evidence in the circumstances. This includes information that can and should reasonably be considered about the risks of harm arising from activities and the reasonably practicable ways of minimising those risks.

This information is referred to as the ‘state of knowledge’ - the body of accepted knowledge that is known or ought to be reasonably known about the harm or risks of harm to human health and the environment and the controls for eliminating or reducing those risks. It is a dynamic concept that changes over time as knowledge of risks and the ways to minimise those risks improves.

State of knowledge can come from any reputable source, including research institutions, other regulators, other jurisdictions, professional standards bodies, industry associations and even well performing duty holders. What’s important is the relevance of the knowledge to the issue and integrity of the source of knowledge.

When general SEPP (Waters) clauses may contribute to the state of knowledge

The Act, its Regulations and the ERS expressly replace many of the clauses in SEPP (Waters). Where they are not expressly replaced, the content of some clauses may remain useful and relevant to informing the state of knowledge. This will be relevant particularly in the early stages of implementation of the new legislation, as appropriate:

  • to provide information on the risks of harm to human health and the environment from pollution and waste
    as guidance on ways of eliminating or otherwise reducing risks of harm to human health and the environment
  • as EPA policy statements on its role in environment protection and expectations of protection agencies and local councils regarding their role in environmental protection
  • to guide sound and consistent regulatory actions under the Act (for example, under section 54 when setting permission conditions)
  • to inform decision-making under other Acts that require consideration of environmental protection. For example, planning permits under the Planning and Environment Act 1987
  • as reference documents to ongoing compliance requirements under other State schemes, such as environment performance requirements agreed to under an Environment Effects Act 1978 process.

More information

Page last updated: 09/09/21