Building better water norms in the ACT with Shane Rattenbury

Originally from Batemans Bay, the Australian Capital Territory’s Minister for Water, Energy and Emissions Reduction has worked tirelessly to build a better normal for the entire Territory. Inside Water Magazine spoke to Shane Rattenbury.

Originally from Batemans Bay, the Australian Capital Territory’s Minister for Water, Energy and Emissions Reduction has worked tirelessly to build a better normal for the entire Territory. Inside Water Magazine spoke to Shane Rattenbury.

Shane Rattenbury first moved to Canberra in 1984. He attended Canberra Grammar School and gained a BEc and LLB (Honours) from the Australian National University (ANU). The start of his career saw him land a job with the Australian Government Department of Industry, Science and Tourism (now the Department of Industry, Science and Resources). He later worked in the non-government sector on a range of environmental issues.

“I have been campaigning on environmental issues for many years,” Rattenbury said. I continue to be inspired by the beauty and complexity of nature. From a young age, I was interested in environmental issues, including ozone depletion, Antarctic protection, and forest conservation. I worked for Greenpeace in Australia, South East Asia, and Greenpeace International. As ACT Minister for Water, I enjoy the opportunity to look after and restore our local waterways that provide valuable habitat for many species.”

The water industry in the ACT

The water sector in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has many different players, roles, and responsibilities. These include the Territory Government, industry, the water utility (Icon Water), and water users, both industrial and residential.

“The ACT Government is working to improve governance and clarify roles and responsibilities,” Rattenbury said. We are all working towards a vision of improved water security and water health, and we welcome the water industry to support the work of the Office of Water to build robust policy and deliver contemporary programs that result in well-informed users and the efficient use of water.”


As well as being the Minister for Water, Energy and Emissions Reduction, Rattenbury is also the Attorney-General, Minister for Consumer Affairs, and the Minister for Gaming. In the water portfolio, he can point to a series of positive achievements during his tenure.

“We have established the Office of Water, which is on a pathway to deliver on its core aims,” he said. “That includes strengthening the ACT’s water security through holistic and coordinated water management and policy. It’s also been improving engagement with the public on ACT water resource management issues and continuing to deliver the Healthy Waterways program, which delivers infrastructure, research, education, and catchment planning to improve waterway health.”

The Office respects the multiple roles and responsibilities across the water sector. As an advocate for improving regional water management, it is building stronger regional partnerships.

“We are playing an active role in the Murray Darling Basin reforms that aim to promote transparency and accountability in implementing the Basin Plan,” said Rattenbury.

He was heartened by the recent announcements for investment in improving water management in the upper Murrumbidgee River and the progress made in response to efforts to raise this issue with Federal counterparts, which comes after many years of work by community advocates.

The Healthy Waterways program has been the cornerstone of water quality management across the ACT.

“The findings and lessons learned in the Healthy Waterways program have changed how the ACT Government views water quality management,” he said. “It’s also helping the Office approach solutions to stormwater problems. We are much better able to tackle water quality problems now than a decade ago.”

Water quality

The latest Catchment Health Indicator Program (CHIP) report released by Upper Murrumbidgee Waterwatch in March 2023 gave a tick of approval. The CHIP report was drawn from 2000 surveys from more than 200 volunteers at 237 sites in the Cooma, Ginninderra, Molonglo, Southern ACT, and Yass sub-catchments.

“The ACT Government’s investment in and delivery of a large program of constructed wetlands is helping to improve water quality within the ACT,” Rattenbury said. “This is in addition to significant work by catchment groups to re-naturalise and maintain these waterways, as well as changes in community behaviour in managing grass clippings, leaves and fertiliser runoff.”

The higher rainfall rates over the past few years have also provided flushing flows and steady baseflows. That’s been good for the health of waterways across the ACT.

At the same time, the Murrumbidgee River has been closed on occasion due to higher bacterial levels. Rattenbury has continued working with departments and agencies to solve the problem.

“The ACT Government is in the early stages of researching in more detail the sources of bacterial contamination in some ACT waterways,” he said. “The focus up until now has been on studying the more immediate problem of toxic blue-green algal blooms. However, reducing bacteria levels in our waterways is also a high priority.”

One potential source of bacterial contamination is livestock accessing the waterways higher up in the catchment. Rattenbury believes that once the sources of the bacteria levels are better understood, the catchment plans will be developed to address the problem.

Murray-Darling Basin

It’s regularly forgotten that Canberra is located in the Murray Darling Basin, with the Murrumbidgee River running through the ACT and before flowing inland to meet the Murray River near Balranald. As such, the ACT is one of the Basin partners to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Rattenbury believes that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan can provide improved water resource management.

“It was established to transcend jurisdictional boundaries,” he said. “The Murray-Darling Basin Plan allows these significant rivers to be managed in the national interest. The Plan has made some progress. However, there is much more work to do. Implementation has been slow.

Rattenbury believes that further reforms are required to deliver the Basin Plan, such as lifting the scale of water management to provide a holistic approach to water catchment management, improving water accounting and water information, incorporating climate projections into water planning and decisions, and incorporating cultural values and interests of First Nations in water planning.

“There are also significant issues in the upper Murrumbidgee River,” Rattenbury pointed out. “Around 95 per cent of the river’s natural flow is diverted to the Snowy Hydro Scheme, where the Basin Plan has yet to take effect. The health of the Murrumbidgee River would benefit from increased environmental flows from Tantangara Dam and the protection of these flows from extraction. We are working towards this aim, and I would like to explore whether it can be achieved through Basin Plan mechanisms.”

Sustainability and resilience

The ACT’s location has given rise to it being called the Bush Capital. That has given rise to it being at risk of bushfires on a regular basis.

“Bushfires pose multiple risks to the resilience of our communities in the ACT,” said Rattenbury. “It can have significant impacts on the environment, including water resources. Runoff after fires can taint reservoir water, making it undrinkable or expensive to treat, which happened after the 2003 Canberra Bushfires. The reservoirs eventually recover their good water quality, but this can take some time.”

He notes that the changing climate also poses risks to waterway health. Heavy rainfall after hot fires can strip hillsides of soils, smothering pool-riffle streams with sand, which happened after the 2019-2020 Bushfires. When burnt organic matter is washed into streams, it can lead to oxygen stress, killing sensitive aquatic fauna. Both processes can lead to long-term impacts on waterways.

“Icon Water has contingency plans for when water in a reservoir becomes tainted,” he said. “It works closely with the ACT Government to mitigate problems. For example, in 2003, Icon (then ACTEW Corporation), the ACT Government and the University of Canberra collaborated to release tainted water in Bendora Reservoir to avoid impacts and benefit the downstream waterway health.“

Stormwater management

As part of the ACT Healthy Waterways Project, considerable work is being done to manage stormwater entering Lake Tuggeranong. It’s become a bigger issue, with the highest levels of pollution coming from the Kambah and Wanniassa stormwater drains. A network of older stormwater pipes and concrete-lined channels is also designed to move run-off into Lake Tuggeranong as quickly as possible. That’s an older method compared to the nature-lined creeks common in other parts of Australia.

“We are focusing a lot of research and monitoring in the Lake Tuggeranong catchment,” said Rattenbury. “We want to understand the source of plant nutrients driving the algal blooms in the lake. We are also trialling new kinds of water quality infrastructure to reduce pollution. This includes a major channel re-naturalisation in Calwell, bioretention swales around sports fields, roadside drain outlets into green spaces in Kambah, and stormwater treatment and recycling to irrigate sports fields in Kambah.”

Three pilot public education programs have already been undertaken to ensure leaves and grass clipping do not enter streetside drains.

“These programs have delivered promising results,” he said. “Over the next year, we will use lessons from these and other projects to create a Healthy Waterways plan for Lake Tuggeranong that will canvas options for reducing or eliminating algal blooms from the lake.”

Healthy waterways

The ACT Government has recently invested $28.5 million in the Expanding Healthy Waterways program. It builds on previous investments by the ACT and Australian governments that represent a commitment to finding the right long-term solutions to ongoing water quality problems.

“At a community level, we have seen that residents enjoy both the amenities of the constructed wetlands and the opportunities created to be a part of the solution to a problem through caring for their local wetlands,” Rattenbury said. “Encouraging community involvement will remain a key priority as Healthy Waterways plans are developed and solutions to water quality problems are implemented.”

He acknowledged that it would take time to improve at a catchment scale. The goal is to achieve the long-term goal of water quality in the lakes and ponds materially improved. Ideally, it would also see problems like blue-green algal blooms having either been eliminated or greatly diminished.

“We are considering several interim in-lake measures while the catchments adjust to deal with problems like blue-green algal blooms and faecal coliforms,” he said. “The National Capital Authority is responsible for Lake Burley Griffin, and the ACT Government will engage with them in preparing the Healthy Waterways plan for the lake.

The future

Rattenbury has a positive outlook for the future of the Territory’s waterways. He has completed a lot of work within his portfolio and is looking to continue that work.

“I would like to continue our work to improve the health of waterways and catchments throughout the ACT through our on-ground programs, new water quality assets like wetlands and creek naturalisations, and community engagement and education programs,” he said. “We are so fortunate to have this beautiful network of waterways through the ACT, and I look forward to continuing to protect and restore their health and provide great outdoor places for Canberrans to enjoy.”

“I will also be working to improve the health of the upper Murrumbidgee River by delivering increased environmental flows,” said Rattenbury. “I will continue to highlight the need for delivering the MDB Plan in full, ensuring we are measuring the outcomes of the MDB Plan through improved on-ground auditing and working collaboratively with First Nations peoples to deliver cultural flows, protect cultural values and manage waterways across the Basin.”

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