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NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment
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Protected water environment and heritage

The New England North West has a wealth of environmental and heritage assets that underpin the economy and create a unique lifestyle for residents and visitors.


The region boasts diverse landscapes, including rainforest covered volcanic plateaus and escarpments, alpine communities on the Great Dividing Range, remnant inland forests, wetlands of national and international significance and a variety of grasslands and forest ecosystems. These landscapes and their remnant vegetation provide important habitat for threatened flora and fauna species.


Healthy ecosystems are better able to recover from drought, pests, wildfire and climate change, support the economic prosperity of agriculture and tourism, and contribute to community health and wellbeing. The natural environment is important to the identity, spirituality and resource base of the region’s Aboriginal peoples. Growth needs to be managed sustainably to protect environmental and heritage values for current and future generations.


Water catchments and groundwater aquifers provide water for urban areas, agriculture and industry, and they help to sustain the environment, economy and lifestyles. Protecting water quality, managing access to water supplies and managing activities that interrupt natural ecological processes are essential for the health of water catchments and to support population and economic growth.


The NSW Government recognises the conservation, social and economic values of the region’s environment, heritage and water catchments, and the importance of managing them sustainably. A holistic management approach is required to maximise productive capacity, while preserving environmental and heritage values.


New England North West Reserve System48

Reserve Hectares
National Parks 622,794
Nature Reserves 84,185
State Conservation Areas 153,643
Aboriginal Areas 21,179
World Heritage Areas 152,455


The draft Plan:

  • protects water catchments, waterways and riparian lands to secure long term water quality, biodiversity, recreation and economic outcomes; 
  • identifies and protects areas of high environmental and heritage value; and
  • promotes adaptation to climate change and natural hazards.

The majority of the region is located in the Murray-Darling Basin. The main river systems are the Namoi, Gwydir and Macintyre and the upper reaches of the coastal river systems of the Clarence, Macleay and Manning Rivers (see the map below). The main sources of groundwater are the Great Artesian Basin and various alluvial aquifers. The region also contains some major floodplain wetlands, including the internationally significant Gwydir Wetlands (Gingham and Lower Gwydir [Big Leather] waterways) and Little Llangothlin Lagoon.


Water is a limited resource and must be carefully managed. Groundwater and surface water are vulnerable to the pressures of urban growth, increasing climate variability and growing agricultural and natural resource needs. Water extraction from rivers contributes to economic prosperity; however, too much extraction may severely affect aquatic ecosystems, especially during periods of low river flows.


Water for irrigation is sourced from regulated river systems (water released from large river dams), groundwater production bores and unregulated river and overland flows captured or pumped into on-farm storages. These sources are particularly important for irrigated cotton around Moree and Narrabri. Groundwater and surface water support the livestock sector.


Responding to changes in water allocation and climate change will be a major challenge for the region. Improving water use efficiency will help to maximise this limited resource and support the ongoing growth of the economy.


Councils have an important role in improving water efficiency through water sensitive urban design and planning controls that avoid or mitigate impacts of development on drinking water catchments.


Water Sensitive Urban Design45

Water sensitive urban design techniques can be incorporated into homes, streets, parking areas, subdivisions and multi-unit, commercial and industrial developments, and public land. The techniques include:

  • permeable paving of footpaths, common areas and parking spaces above underground water storage facilities;
  • water-efficient fittings and appliances;
  • maintaining fixtures (for example, stopping leaks and drips from plumbing and taps);
  • green roofs and living walls (that is, planting on roofs and down walls);
  • appropriate landscaping (for example, efficient irrigation, mulching, wind and sun protection, minimising lawn area and selection of suitable plants);
  • wetlands to capture and treat run-off water;
  • capture and storage of rainwater and stormwater for residential re-use, or to irrigate parks, sporting fields and other open space; and
  • capture, treatment and re-use of wastewater.


Water Management in the New England North West

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan (2012) guides water resource management in the Murray–Darling Basin. The Basin Plan outlines the water that must be returned from each catchment to meet environmental needs.


The Department of Primary Industries, Water is recovering water in the Great Artesian Basin by capping and piping free-flowing artesian bores. The Cap and Pipe the Bores Program provides landholders in the Great Artesian Basin with financial incentives to cap and pipe their bores. This increases artesian pressure, while establishing reliable and efficient supplies of good quality water to properties across the North West.


New England North West river catchments

Click to enlarge.

New England North West river catchments map


Action 5.1.1 Manage water access and trading across the region

The Department of Primary Industries’ water sharing plans establish important water access, trading and accounting rules. They affect the type of licences required, the entitlement, and the source of the water. The plans protect the health of rivers and groundwater while providing water users with perpetual access licences, equitable conditions and increased opportunities to trade water. The Department will develop water sharing plans, in accordance with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, for all major river and groundwater systems.


Access to water and favourable soil conditions have helped the agricultural sector to grow and prosper. The scale of potential changes in the region from water trading and sharing associated with the Basin Plan is not yet fully understood. By monitoring the impacts of these changes, the effects on river health, agricultural land use and settlements, will be better understood.

  • Finalise water sharing plans in accordance with the Murray Darling Basin Plan for rivers and groundwater systems.
  • Investigate ways of monitoring the long term impacts of water sharing and trading on river health, agricultural land use and settlements.


Action 5.1.2 Identify measures to improve the efficient use of water

The Rebuilding NSW – State Infrastructure Strategy (2014) identified the Gwydir catchment as a high priority for the $1 billion Regional Water Security and Supply Fund due to its low drought security and the low water delivery efficiency of existing infrastructure. The NSW Government will investigate projects that deliver the most efficient and sustainable outcomes in the Gwydir catchment.


Many farms rely on dams and onsite water storages to undertake routine agricultural activities. Poorly built farm dams can be structurally unstable, have inadequate compaction, use unsuitable soil types or are too shallow. This can lead to dam failure and unnecessarily high water loss. With climate change and limited water resources it is important that dams and onsite water storages are constructed to best practice standards.


The NSW Department of Primary Industries manages water access and licences, however some dams and onsite water storages may not require a licence depending on the ‘maximum harvestable right dam capacity’, which takes into account rainfall and variations in rainfall pattern.


Improving the water efficiency of buildings in urban areas can help to extend the life and reliability of water supplies. Councils should promote water sensitive urban design techniques to improve water use planning, efficiency and supply. Councils can also apply water sensitive urban design through wastewater re-use, for example, by substituting water currently used for watering parks and reserves or to supplement agricultural uses near settlements.

  • Investigate projects that will deliver the most efficient and sustainable outcomes in the Gwydir catchment.
  • Work with councils to prepare construction guidelines for dams that do not need a licence.
  • Encourage councils to incorporate water sensitive urban design in new land release areas.
  • Encourage councils to use alternate water sources on local government assets such as playing fields.


Action 5.1.3 Maintain healthy waterways and wetlands, including downstream environments

Water quality influences the ability of waterways and aquifers to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems. The NSW Government’s Water Quality and River Flow Objectives represent the agreed environmental values and long term goals for the State’s waterways. Councils can use them as a resource in their catchment and local strategic plans to achieve healthy waterways.


New development will be located to minimise impacts on aquatic habitats, such as waterways and wetlands, including potential downstream impacts. The Department of Primary Industries’ Guidelines for Fish Habitat Conservation and Management outline how to maintain and enhance fish habitat. Additionally, the Controlled Activities on Waterfront Land – Guidelines for riparian corridors on waterfront land (2012) outline the requirements to ensure no more than minimal harm is done to waterfront land as a result of carrying out a controlled activity.46

  • Use appropriate provisions to protect water catchment areas and groundwater sources from the potential effects of development. (Any development should have a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality).
  • Minimise the impacts of development on fish habitat, aquaculture and waterways (including watercourses, wetlands and riparian lands) and meet the Water Quality and River Flow Objectives.

The region has unique environmental values. Around 882,000 hectares, or 9 per cent of the region, is protected in the public reserve system.47 This permanently conserves the land and protects areas of natural and cultural heritage significance to Aboriginal people.


The Office of Environment and Heritage has mapped areas of potential high environmental value in the region (see the map below).


This mapping shows regionally important conservation and habitat areas and the potential location of biodiversity offset areas. It is a useful tool if a new development is likely to have an environmental impact that cannot be avoided or mitigated and a biodiversity offset is considered. Mapping will be routinely updated as better information becomes available.


Some areas not identified on the map, including terrestrial and aquatic environments, may also contain high environmental values.


The data used to identify high environmental values in this draft Plan is intended to provide a regional-level overview for the purposes of strategic planning. This data will continue to be updated as new information becomes available. Planning authorities should contact the Office of Environment and Heritage to obtain the most recent spatial data.


The future legislative and policy framework for biodiversity conservation and native vegetation management in New South Wales will be guided by the outcomes of the biodiversity legislation review.


Biodiversity Certification

Conservation planning tools can help proponents, communities and decision-makers protect or manage biodiversity that is subject to development pressure.


Biodiversity certification offers planning authorities a streamlined biodiversity assessment process for areas marked for development at the strategic planning stage. The process identifies areas of high conservation value at a landscape scale. These areas can be avoided and protected while identifying areas suitable for development.


Biodiversity certification offers a range of secure options for offsetting impacts on biodiversity, including aquatic biodiversity protected under the Fisheries Management Act 1994.


Potential high environmental value

Click to enlarge.

Map of potential high environmental value in New England North West


Explanatory Note: High Environmental Values map

A range of criteria was used to map high environmental values land including:

  • existing conservation areas, including national parks and reserves, declared wilderness areas, Crown reserves dedicated for environmental protection and conservation, and flora reserves;
  • native vegetation of high conservation value, including vegetation types that have been over-cleared or occur within over‑cleared landscapes, old growth forests and rainforests;
  • threatened ecological communities and key habitats;
  • important wetlands and lakes; and
  • sites of geological significance.


Action 5.2.1 Protect areas of high environmental value

Many of the region’s natural features and environmental values are already protected through existing legislation. The high environmental values map (See the map above) can be used to inform council planning strategies and local environmental plans and to consider opportunities for biodiversity certification for areas of high environmental value.


Groundwater-dependent ecosystems and aquatic habitats also have high environmental values. Maps identifying fish community status, aquatic threatened species distribution and key fish habitat are available from the Department of Primary Industries, Fisheries.

  • Work with councils, when they are preparing planning strategies or local environmental plans for new or more intensive development to:
    • identify and implement appropriate planning controls to protect areas of high environmental value;
    • implement the ‘avoid, minimise, offset’ hierarchy, by striving to avoid and minimise impacts on areas of high environmental value, and where impacts cannot be avoided, identify and secure appropriate biodiversity offsets through an offset strategy; and
    • consider the use of biodiversity certification.
  • Continue to refine the potential high environmental values mapping as new information arises.


Action 5.2.2 Identify areas of potential high environmental value in new land release areas

The areas of potential high environmental value map has been produced at the regional-scale to provide general strategic guidance. Areas proposed for urban release will need further detailed, site-based studies to identify areas of natural and cultural significance.


The Office of Environment and Heritage will review proposals for new urban development to identify significant environmental issues that may constrain development. Their advice will also be used to consider opportunities for biodiversity certification and to inform council planning strategies and local environmental plans.

  • Review proposals for new land release to identify areas of potential high environmental value.
  • Assist councils to achieve biodiversity certification and identify any potential offset requirements in new land release areas.

The region has significant Aboriginal and historic heritage assets. The State Heritage Inventory contains 65 items listed under the Heritage Act 1977 and 1,315 items listed by councils and State agencies, including iconic sites such as Thunderbolt’s Grave, the Myall Creek Massacre and Memorial Site and St Peters Anglican Cathedral at Armidale.49 Aboriginal and historic heritage items are generally protected by the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, the Heritage Act 1977 or local environmental plans.


Aboriginal cultural heritage includes places and objects that are of significance to Aboriginal people because of their traditions, observances, lore, customs, beliefs and history. It is dynamic and may comprise physical (tangible) or non-physical (intangible) elements. Aboriginal cultural heritage also relates to the connection and sense of belonging that people have with the landscape and with each other.


It is likely that objects and sites of Aboriginal heritage significance in the region are under‑recorded, which makes them more vulnerable to accidental damage or destruction and consequently improper conservation management. This is particularly the case for sites associated with pre-contact habitation and usage, burial sites, battle sites and camping, hunting and fishing sites.


Action 5.3.1 Identify and, where appropriate, map areas of Aboriginal and historic heritage in new land release areas

The Office of Environment and Heritage will review proposals for new land release to identify Aboriginal and historic heritage issues, and their advice will be used to inform council planning strategies and local environmental plans.


Local places and objects and items of Aboriginal and historic heritage should be identified, protected and preserved. Local cultural heritage studies should be prepared in consultation with local communities, to identify places of Aboriginal and historic heritage significance. Where impacts on Aboriginal and historic heritage from agriculture, natural resource development and urban and rural residential development cannot be avoided, appropriate heritage management mechanisms should be implemented.

  • Provide information, where available, to identify sites, objects and items of potential Aboriginal and historic heritage in areas proposed for new land release.
  • Encourage councils to review or prepare local cultural heritage studies to identify and protect sites, objects and items of Aboriginal and historic heritage significance when preparing planning strategies or local environmental plans, and appropriately manage any unavoidable impacts from development.


Action 5.3.2 Identify appropriate and innovative opportunities to preserve heritage assets

Adaptive or sympathetic use of heritage items can give them a new purpose and promote heritage conservation and appreciation. Where impacts from new development near heritage items and areas cannot be avoided, proposals that reduce any impacts through sympathetic design should be developed in accordance with relevant statutory processes.

  • Encourage councils to regularly review and update their planning controls and heritage studies so that opportunities for the adaptive or sympathetic use of heritage items are promoted and available.

The potential impacts of climate change will be a major challenge for the region. The NSW Climate Impact Profile (2010) forecasts increased temperatures, more hot days, fewer cold nights and decreased winter rainfall by 2050. This is expected to increase the risk and severity of natural hazards.


Planning strategies need to reflect and respond to the potential risks of climate change. Local environmental plans, development control plans and council planning strategies can do this in a number of ways, including:

  • providing controls that allow for innovation in farming practices and new emerging industries as a result of climate change;
  • creating more liveable conditions by developing building standards and urban design approaches that create resilient environments for the future such as thermal efficient building designs and creating greenways; and
  • introducing policies that permit large‑scale renewable energy projects.


Between 2004 and 2014, 57 natural disaster declarations were made due to bushfires in the region (see the graph below).51 Reduced rainfall increases the risk of bushfires. The conditions for large and intense fires – low humidity, high wind, extreme temperature – are likely to become more common further inland.


Flooding is a major hazard in the region due to its topography and climate. The NSW Floodplain Development Manual outlines the NSW Government’s Flood Prone Land Policy. The manual promotes the use of a merit-based approach to Flood Risk Management Plans that balances social, economic, environmental and flood risk parameters to determine the appropriate and sustainable use of the floodplain. These plans should consider the risks associated with climate change.


Land that is prone to hazards should not be developed unless it can be managed appropriately. To reflect the risks associated with the hazard and the limitations of the land, local environmental plans will apply appropriate provisions to areas subject to natural hazard events.


Projected climatic changes in the New England North West50


Maximum temperatures in the region are projected to increase by 0.4 to 1 degree in the near future (from 2020 to 2039). The greatest maximum temperature increase is projected for the North West, which will experience an additional 10 to 20 hot days in the near future and an additional 40 hot days each year by 2070.


Winter rainfall is projected to decrease over most of the region, while rainfall is projected to increase in autumn. Droughts are forecast to become more severe because of higher temperatures.


The CSIRO and Department of Primary Industries are undertaking research on adapting agricultural production to climate change, including breeding and evaluating new plant varieties for agriculture and forestry, to cope with changed climatic conditions.


Natural disaster declarations from 2004-05 to 2013-14


Action 5.4.1 Assist the community to adapt and build resilience to climate change

The New England North West Enabling Regional Adaptation Project being led by the Office of Environment and Heritage will build community resilience to climate change. It will give stakeholders access to scientific data on the changing nature of natural hazards, identify regional vulnerabilities and plan collaborative responses to the emerging risks. The project uses local knowledge to identify potential threats and possible options for decision‑makers to enhance government service planning and delivery.

  • Work with councils to incorporate new knowledge on regional climate projections and related potential impacts into planning controls.
  • Complete the New England North West Enabling Regional Adaptation Project and assist communities to implement resilience outcomes.
  • Assist communities to undertake Climate Change mitigation initiatives.


Action 5.4.2 Minimise the potential impacts of flooding

Councils have a number of opportunities to minimise the potential impacts of flooding on the community by:

  • improving and updating flood mapping including local overland flooding;
  • using new information to better avoid development in high risk areas or development that increases the impact or risk of flooding elsewhere; and
  • improving long term flood resilience by rebuilding to a higher standard of flood immunity. Options include redesigning, upgrading and/or relocating infrastructure and communities.
  • Work with councils to develop flood risk management plans, consistent with the NSW Floodplain Development Manual, and include appropriate controls in local environmental plans to minimise the potential impacts of flooding.


Action 5.4.3 Minimise the potential impacts of bushfires

Bushfire hazard across the region is variable, with typically higher hazard ratings on the steeper topography around Armidale, as well as State forests and national parks throughout the region. The NSW Rural Fire Service’s Planning for Bush Fire Protection (2006) outlines the Bush Fire protection measures for development applications located on land that has been designated as bushfire prone. It is also applicable to the subdivision of land for residential and rural residential purposes and to developments such as schools, hospitals, tourism developments and developments under State Environmental Planning Policy (Housing for Seniors or People with a Disability), 2004.

  • Require that new land release areas are not within a bushfire hazard area or can be managed in accordance with the Planning for Bush Fire Protection 2006 guidelines.


Action 5.4.4 Minimise the potential impacts of naturally occurring asbestos

Within the New England North West, the Great Serpentine Belt from Tamworth to Bingara is identified as one of the main areas in NSW for naturally occurring asbestos. This type of asbestos only poses a health risk when elevated levels of fibres are released into the air, either by human activities or by natural weathering, and these fibres are inhaled by humans.


Local Government NSW has developed a Model Asbestos Policy on behalf of the Heads of Asbestos Coordination Authorities. The policy has been developed to help councils formulate an asbestos policy and to promote a consistent approach to asbestos management.

  • Require that councils affected by areas of naturally occurring asbestos use appropriate approaches to manage the risks of disturbance.

Page last updated: 09/10/2019