May 12 - 18, 2024: Issue 625


Beachwatch Consultation Reinstated


On May 4 2024 the NSW Government announced it is giving Sydney coastal councils an additional 12 months’ consultation before the implementation of the Universal Beachwatch Partnership Program which provides information on water quality at our beaches and waterways.

In July 2022, the former government decided to expand the cost sharing partnership model which has been in place across regional New South Wales since 2002, to include 14 Sydney coastal councils which currently do not pay for water quality sampling and laboratory analysis.

Under the current Beachwatch program, Sydney coastal councils do not share the costs with the NSW Government, but regional councils do. The proposed changes were designed to make the system equitable and manage growth of the Universal Beachwatch Partnership Program to more areas.

Consultation was supposed to start in late 2022 to give councils 18 months’ notice before the decision came into effect in July 2024. However, the consultation was deferred until December 2023. Sydney coastal councils have provided feedback on several issues regarding the proposed changes, including that 6 months' consultation is not sufficient for them to plan for and consider the transition.

The NSW Government has listened to this feedback from councils, and is reinstating the 18-month consultation period, which will now run through to June 2025.

''This will allow for further consultation on changes to the funding model and design of the program.'' the government states

''Minister for the Environment Penny Sharpe is writing to the 14 affected coastal councils to inform them the proposed changes will not go ahead until mid-2025, following further work on the program design.''

The 14 Sydney coastal councils are Bayside, Canada Bay, Georges River, Hunters Hill, Inner West, Lane Cove, Mosman, North Sydney, Northern Beaches, Randwick, Sutherland, Waverley, Willoughby and Woollahra.

Minister for Climate Change and the Environment Penny Sharpe stated:

'Beachwatch is an important program for those who visit our beaches and waterways, and for councils that work with Beachwatch to detect and respond to emerging pollution problems.

'The NSW Government is committed to ensuring an equitable service and good program design for all councils across the state.

'We are dedicated to genuine partnerships with councils, and look forward to working with them to ensure Beachwatch can give the community confidence to swim in more waterways across New South Wales.'

Background information:

Beachwatch provides daily advice on swim site suitability for people to choose if and when to swim.

In response to pollution from Sydney’s ocean-wastewater outfalls, in 1989, Beachwatch commenced providing water quality monitoring at no cost to Sydney coastal councils.

At present, Beachwatch monitors 97 swim sites within 14 local government areas in the Sydney coastal area at no cost.

Since 2002, regional councils and wastewater managers have participated in the Beachwatch Partnership Program. Currently there are 10 regional NSW councils and two wastewater managers (Hunter and Sydney Water Corporations) who have funded their own sampling and analysis across 128 swim sites.

The 2022–23 budget provided $18.5 million over 10 years to deliver the Universal Beachwatch Partnership Program statewide and support all NSW councils to be able to opt in from July 2024.

Under this model, the Universal Beachwatch Partnership Program will provide a centralised coordination, data management, technical support, quality control, audit, and reporting services, while local council partners provide water quality sampling and analysis for priority swim sites in their local government areas.

At the March 26 2024 Council Meeting Councillors voted to Respond to the NSW Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water advising that:

a. Council supports the continuation of the NSW Beachwatch Program.

b. Council strenuously objects to the decision to shift the cost of the Beachwatch Program to Sydney councils and on that basis will not be signing up as a partner.

2. Support the Sydney Coastal Councils Group in its advocacy on this matter.

3. Write to the Minister for Climate Change, Energy and the Environment, the Minister for Water, the shadow ministers for those portfolios, as well as all leaders of the crossbench in the Legislative Council conveying Council’s concerns as to the decision to shift the cost of the NSW Beachwatch Program to Sydney councils and that this matter also be referred to the state and federal parliamentary inquiries examining the ability of local government to fund infrastructure and services.

The government offered NBC two options: either council collects water samples and sends them to DCCEEW for analysis at a cost of $198,800; or council engages DCCEEW to continue collecting and analysing samples at $129,383.

The Sydney Coastal Councils Group (SCCG), to which NBC belongs, is leading opposition to this latest attempt at cost shifting to councils.

After being advised about the government’s decision in December, the SCCG obtained legal advice that indicates Councils do not have responsibility for water quality below the mean high water mark. It then informed councils, also pointing out that Sydney Water, which is a major polluter, had not been asked to contribute to the cost of Beachwatch. Then at its March Executive meeting, it approved letters to the Environment and Water ministers opposing the new payment scheme.

SCCG has stated:

''The NSW Government is attempting to shift the costs of its successful and long-running NSW Beachwatch program to coastal councils in Sydney.  The NSW Beachwatch program helps people make informed decisions about when and where to swim.

Sydney Coastal Councils Group (SCCG), representing nine coastal and estuarine councils in Sydney, supports the program’s value to not only local residents but to the broader NSW community and international tourists that visit our world-renowned beaches.  However, it rejects the NSW Government’s attempts to shift the cost of the program to local councils for what is a state government responsibility.

Generally, Councils have no control over the land or waterways below mean high water where Beachwatch monitoring is conducted.  Councils also have no control over sewers which is the primary source of bacteriological contamination of waterways that impact on swimming.

Costs for the service provided by the NSW Government to coastal councils represent a significant financial impost on councils that are already grappling with increasing community expectations, constrained budgets and other forms of state government cost-shifting.

In light of this, the SCCG calls on the NSW Government to maintain the NSW Beachwatch program as a fully-funded state program without shifting costs to Sydney coastal councils.

SCCG also calls on the Minister for the Environment, in consultation with the Minister for Water, to request Sydney Water, as the provider of sewerage services in Sydney, to take a role in water quality monitoring at Beachwatch sites.''