Know your natural resources - Water

Why water matters

Proper management of water is an essential part of rural living. Efficient use of water can minimise costs and maximise benefit to you, your property and to downstream users.

Protection of riparian land and their associated natural values can enhance and protect your property and provide valuable habitat for a range of native plants and animals.

Rural living places additional pressure upon water resources. It is important that residential and agricultural activities are carried out in a way that minimises impacts on water quality.

Water conservation will become more and more important as we face the growing pressures of climate change and growth in further residential areas.

Improved management techniques and household activities are essential moving forward.

Threats to healthy waterways

Waterways are sensitive areas and there is a lot you can do to protect them.

Land management decisions have a direct impact on these significant areas. Key things you can avoid that can degrade our waterways include:

  • removal of vegetation within the catchment
  • removal of riparian vegetation
  • unmanaged point source pollution
  • channel disturbance
  • digging in the creek bed
  • floodplain drainage
  • obstructions to fish movement.

Maintaining sufficient groundcover and maintaining effective riparian buffers are crucial steps to reducing erosion and maintaining good water quality in waterways.

Water law - be across it

WaterNSW is responsible for managing access to water and ensuring equitable sharing of water.

There are three types of basic landholder rights in NSW under the Water Management Act 2000:

1. Domestic and stock rights. All landholders in NSW with property frontage to any river, estuary or lake have a basic right to take water for domestic use and to water stock.

This basic right does not apply where the property frontage is Crown Land, or where there is a reserve between the property frontage and rivers or creeks (you may need a licence from WaterNSW to extract water in these situations).

2. Native title rights. Anyone who holds native title with respect to water, as determined under the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993, can take and use water for a range of personal, domestic and non‑commercial purposes.

3. Harvestable rights – dams. Harvestable right water allows landholders in most rural areas to collect a proportion of the runoff on their property and store it in one or more farm dams up to a certain size.

WaterNSW manages applications for licences and other approvals (such as building structures in streams) and investigates illegal activity. To find out more visit the WaterNSW website or call 1800 353 104.

For water licensing and water management enquiries and driller’s licences call WaterNSW on 1800 353 104.

Protecting rivers and creeks

Many activities can impact on water quality in nearby rivers and creeks, and on other water users.


Any excavation or work in or within 40 metres of the bed or bank of a watercourse may be classed as a “controlled activity” and may require a license from WaterNSW.

Visit the WaterNSW website for more details.

Removing native vegetation

Approval may be required to remove native vegetation and exotic trees within or immediately next to a waterway. If you are considering these types of activities, contact your Local Land Services Office for advice.

Habitat and wildlife

Blockies and small landholders can play an active role in protecting and enhancing local aquatic wildlife. This can be as simple as planting or adding more habitat to water areas on your land, or fencing out stock.

To find out more about the range of actions you can take to improve your local water habitat, read the NSW DPI publication Fish Friendly Farms.

There are laws around protecting aquatic fauna and habitat so if considering activities that may impact on native aquatic animals, consult NSW DPI (Fisheries).

Read more about protecting aquatic habitat

Riparian zones

The riparian zone is the area directly influenced by a river, creek, watercourse or drainage line. The zone generally extends from the normal water level to the floodplain.

Healthy riparian vegetation (trees, shrubs and groundcovers along waterways) will make creek banks more stable and help prevent erosion. The vegetation will also filter out nutrients from surrounding paddocks, and support and create habitat for native wildlife.

Degraded native vegetation can make riparian zones vulnerable to erosion and weed infestation, which can in turn affect ecosystem health and economic function.

Where stock rely on streams and rivers to access water, disturbance to the soil and vegetation can be avoided by actions such as:

  • limiting where stock access creeks
  • providing stable stock crossings or access points
  • pumping water to troughs.

Some methods to control degradation and loss of riparian vegetation include:

  • encouraging the re-growth of a native vegetation along the riparian zone
  • minimising the number and careful placement of farm tracks leading to your riparian area
  • minimising ground disturbance during weed removal activities in the riparian zone
  • using the riparian area within its capabilities
  • minimising herbicide and pesticide use in the riparian zone
  • protecting riparian areas from stock with fencing and providing alternative water and shade areas
  • repairing degraded and eroded riparian areas.

Contact your Local Land Services office for advice on potential funding options to assist with increasing biodiversity and protecting your riparian zones using revegetation, fencing and alternate stock watering options.

Livestock management near creeks and rivers

Why should stock access to waterways be managed?

  • they can compact the soil, making plant growth difficult
  • they disturb steep banks
  • they create tracks, which can concentrate the flow of water down the banks causing erosion
  • they may injure themselves falling over steep banks.
  • they eat, trample and destroy native vegetation, water plants and reeds that filter runoff, control erosion and provide fish habitat
  • they stir up mud and may get trapped
  • they can transfer and receive diseases
  • they contaminate the water with excess nutrients and pathogens from manure
  • they destroy instream habitat critical for tadpoles, native fish and crustaceans.

Alternatives for livestock drinking water

  • install a paved gravel ramp down to the water, on the inside of a bend
  • construct a dam in the paddock
  • install a pump, tank and trough in the adjacent paddocks.

How do you manage a fenced-off area?

When fencing an area from livestock, it is still important to actively manage these areas, including short-term strategic grazing once native vegetation is established (at times that don’t impact on native plants flowering & seeding).

On-going weed and feral animal management activities are also important tasks to be carried out in these areas.


If you are considering drilling a bore for access to groundwater, contact WaterNSW. You are required to apply for a licence, with the licence conditions specifying how much water you can use and for what purpose. Further information can be gained by calling 1800 353 104 or visiting the WaterNSW website.

Farm dams

Landholders use farm dams to provide water for stock and domestic purposes. If not properly managed, farm dams can impact on the water quality on your property and downstream.

Under the NSW Farm Dams Policy, landholders have a ‘harvestable right’. This allows landholders to capture 10 per cent of the rainfall runoff from their properties and use it for any purpose without needing a licence from WaterNSW.

The amount that you are entitled to, in megalitres or dam capacity, is calculated by a formula known as the Maximum Harvestable Right Dam Capacity. This formula considers your property size, area specific rainfall and run-off calculations.

Any existing dams have to be factored into your overall entitlement.

You can calculate your own specific capacity by visiting the WaterNSW website.

There are specific conditions where you need a licence to build a dam and we encourage you to do more research on the WaterNSW website.

All dams, new and existing, should be managed to maximise the benefits to stock safety and health and minimise the impacts on the environment.

Read more about managing and maintaining farm dams.

For more information about farm dams and their management, you can refer to The Farm Dam Handbook.


Many agricultural practices require irrigation to be viable. However, you are unable to pump water from a stream or groundwater source for the purpose of irrigation without a licence from the WaterNSW.

Some properties may already have an irrigation licence entitlement. Contact WaterNSW for more information on 1800 353 104.

Further reading

To find out more about best practices in managing water, check out the following resources: