Australian Heritage Rivers: a major new policy proposal

Posted 9 July 2007

Professor Richard Kingsford

This drought, like no other, has exposed the fundamental weakness of Australia's water management.

We've had more than two centuries to get it right, yet our big city dams are disturbingly low and the Murray-Darling is a mess - there's no water for irrigation and the Basin's empty dams will ensure zero allocations for some time. Out in the desiccated wetlands, red gums die and waterbirds have long gone. The rivers have been worked too hard, and in many places we are just as excessively mining the groundwaters that feed them. That's why the Prime Minister's $10 billion dollar, federal authority circuit-breaker has so much traction, leaving aside Victoria's rightful concern about the detail.

Present debate about the state of our rivers is like a bedside conversation between specialists in a hospital emergency ward. The prognosis for the Murray-Darling will not be full recovery. There is just too much at stake - too many thirsty irrigators and towns - and not enough of the liquid gold to go around. And if the climate-change models prove right, it is only going to get worse. Not only will things get drier but surface water will evaporate faster as things heat up, so the resource won't stretch as far for agriculture or the environment.

Something has to give and, in the past at least, it's usually been the environment that has been forced to yield. The sorry results are plentiful and obvious.

Many of the most important wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin are internationally recognised and lie at the extremities of its rivers. They are showing acute ecological stress with dying red gums, declining native fish and waterbird populations. The mouth of the Murray River, south of Adelaide, is now almost permanently closed because the trickle that once was the mighty Murray can no longer sweep the sand plug out to sea. Native fish populations are now about 10% or less of pre-European levels and some species are facing extinction. Yet the same over-regulation of the river environment that is killing them is just the ticket for the thriving exotic European carp, the rabbit of our waterways. Waterbird populations on most of the major wetlands have plunged, due to fewer floods and reduced opportunities to breed. One of Australia's most important waterbird breeding sites in the Gwydir wetlands had up to 750 ha of its floodplain trees cleared, the traditional nesting sites for hundreds of thousands of birds in a good flood.

There are also worrying signs of blue-green algal blooms increasing, as water stagnates. Perhaps once again Australia will record the world's longest blue-green algal bloom as it did in 1991 when a 1,000 km stretch of the Darling River turned toxic and foul. Arguments that these blue-green algae incidents and present river droughts are part of the natural cycle of Australian rivers are bunkum. They have never been more severe. A river red gum that has lived happily for about 500 years in the middle of the Macquarie Marshes has not just suddenly thrown in the towel because of this particular drought. It is the combination of drought, dams and over-extraction of the waters that once periodically flooded the marshes that has taken the true heart-breaking toll on the environment.

Extending the medical analogy further, the fact that so many Australian rivers and wetlands are in the intensive care unit is costing us dearly as well. The Murray-Darling system is the neediest patient: it is consuming a considerable proportion of the $2.7 billion available under the Natural Heritage Trust; the lion's share of the $1.4 billion under the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, plus up to $1 billion on the Living Murray Initiative. The next phase of the treatment will be the most expensive so far, given the $10 billion price tag under the Prime Minister's latest plan.

This mounting bill takes little account of the sunk costs for building large dams, the ongoing investment for their maintenance, and the cost of delivering and managing water or other rehabilitation costs that replace what nature did for free. The Murray, for example, once regularly flooded the red gums and black box eucalypts along its lower course but now three-quarters of these vital trees are either stressed or dead.

It's now costing up to half a million dollars to pipe water to some of these trees just to keep them alive. To rebuild self-sustaining populations (seeding, recruitment and survival) of these long-lived trees will require ongoing spending of this order for many years. Surely there will come a time when taxpayers object to throwing money at the problem to keep such trees alive year in, year out. Further down the River Murray at its mouth, dredges maintain a channel open to the sea through the sand plug at a price tag of more than $100,000 a week.

Australia's rivers, creeks and streams meander across our continent, forming a network of 'landscape arteries' that are no longer functioning properly in the Murray-Darling Basin. Our rivers sustain floodplains, lakes, swamps, estuaries and other wetlands and provide the water and nutrients for the floodplain eucalypts, native fish, waterbirds, frogs and many more plants and animals that live in our estuaries and wetlands. 'Underground rivers', groundwater aquifers, also play a crucial role in filling wetlands and providing habitat of their own. Australians have strong connections to our rivers, whether through indigenous or our more recent cultures.

Despite their vital importance, rivers have long regarded by Australians as assets that will look after themselves. Now we know this is not happening. Most people agree on the diagnosis for the Murray-Darling patient and most treatments involve more water. And the sooner this treatment phase starts the better.

But the Murray and Darling are just two of Australia's major rivers. Happily, many others around the continent are in good health, even with the severity of this drought. Australia probably has fewer degraded rivers than most other continents. One of these, the Georgina-Diamantina, gushed down the centre of the continent earlier this year after an intense rain depression and delivered enough precious water to reach Lake Eyre. Now, with water flooding its bed, it has been transformed from its poorly deserved reputation as the 'dead heart' of Australia into one of the more spectacular places on this continent, brimming with life. The banded stilts may soon breed and the pelicans have arrived. Should the flood be large enough, they too will breed. Perhaps they may reach the astounding number of nearly 100,000 nests seen during the floods of the early 1980s.

In this election year, public debate inevitably revolves around the future - health, the economy, climate change, water resources and education are core policy issues. Apart from rescuing the Murray-Darling, the prime strategic challenge for our rivers is how to avoid leaving another hefty bill for future generations on other waterways. How many other Murray-Darlings will we have over the decades and centuries to come? There should not be any: we've learnt the hard way and it would be irresponsible, self-defeating and even more costly to repeat the mistakes of the past. Four years ago the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council argued that it was 10 to 100 times cheaper to maintain ecosystems than to repair them. Despite this, the nation invests almost nothing in the protection of our remaining, undisturbed, functioning and diverse wetlands, estuaries and rivers.

Our spending priorities seem bizarre. We have happily spent more than $7billion a year over the past decade or so on road links, yet we have virtually ignored the rivers that are the ecological connective links for the continent. We are paying a heavy price for that neglect. We have a world-class national parks system but no systematic national approach to protection of aquatic ecosystems. We cannot even be sure where our most important aquatic ecosystems lie; even where they are identified, it is clearly evident many are poorly protected.

Meanwhile, other countries and communities have forged ahead - Canada, the countries of the European Union, New Zealand and the United States. These countries have long recognised that national parks systems largely fail to protect rivers and wetlands because, on their own, such parks cannot protect the foundation of any sustainable management for a river - the catchment and its water.

We clearly need a new way of thinking. We need to set about strategically building a foundation for the future, one that can secure the ecological values of our river systems as a priority, but not exclude the social and economic demands we place on them. A strategic approach that protects the country's most important estuaries, wetlands and rivers first has to identify what is important. Protection would focus on sustainably managing them, not on locking them up. How do we decide what is "important"? There's unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all answer. It will depend, for example, on whether a river is still predominantly in a natural state; whether it is representative of a certain type; if has habitat for rare or threatened species, or provides an important breeding or staging site for wildlife; or if it supports unusual biological diversity, or exhibits evolution of our biodiversity. A strategic plan would determine relative importance by comparing across rivers in Australia, using criteria like these along with objective analyses based on credible science.

At present, we have more than 60 wetlands identified as internationally important based on their conservation values under the Convention on Wetlands (known as the Ramsar Convention, after the town in Iran where it was signed). However, many wetlands that are more significant than some of the Ramsar-nominated sites are not identified or protected in any way.

For highly regulated rivers like the Murray-Darling Basin, we know the key wetlands and they are called the icon sites. The Living Murray Initiative has five icon sites (plus the main channel): the Barmah Millewa Forest; the Gunbower and Koondrook-Perricoota Forests; Hattah Lakes; Chowilla Floodplain; and the Coorong. Elsewhere, the Macquarie Marshes and Gwydir wetlands are the iconic sites for their respective rivers.

The icon approach is necessarily fragmented because significant shares of water in regulated rivers are appropriated for our use, mainly for irrigation. Water that once was all environmental flow is now diverted. Yet, many other rivers of high conservation value around Australia are not seriously damaged. Much of their flow and dependent environment is still bouncing between the boom and busts that are quintessentially Australian and mark our rivers as the most variable in the world. These are variously called the free-flowing, unregulated, pristine, wild or natural rivers of our land mass but few are effectively protected.

The protection of a whole river system is not easy, but it is possible. Protection should not mean locking people out of rivers. The fundamental challenge is to protect their flows, not just in quantity but to retain the variability to which our unique plants and animals are so well adapted.

We also need an effective national framework. What legislative or policy mechanisms exist in Australia? Various States have taken the first tentative steps, often stumbling and falling along the way. Victoria's Heritage Rivers Act (1992) produced a declaration for 18 "heritage rivers" but management planning subsequently languished. New South Wales opted for the easy option to declare only parts of rivers within national parks as "wild rivers". Queensland has taken the boldest step of any jurisdiction so far in declaring six of an original 18 wild river areas promised before the 2004 election. These included Settlement River, Gregory River, Morning Inlet, Staaten River, Fraser River and Hinchinbrook, all in relatively remote areas. The original 18 rivers were pared back after significant community opposition to this top-down legislative approach.

Such State-based approaches offer little appreciation that rivers pay no heed to political lines on maps. This striking mismatch between river policy and legislation and hydrologic reality is why the 'one-authority' for the Murray-Darling Basin is a must. Large though it is, however, the basin is only one part of the continent. We still lack a national approach to river protection elsewhere in Australia. The National Water Initiative - grand though it aims to be, relative to past efforts - does at least recognise the importance of protecting and managing Australia's high-conservation-value surface and groundwater systems but there is little movement beyond the word 'recognise'.

Is there a successful national model elsewhere that we could follow? Yes. The approach taken in Canada offers considerable promise. Like Australia, it is a large land mass with many rivers still in good condition and a federal political model. The Canadian Heritage Rivers System has now been in operation for more than 20 years and boasts about 40 declared heritage rivers. It costs peanuts to administer, with a total budget of $174,000 and about three staff. Half of this funding each year is provided to communities for background studies, while the rest is for administration across all jurisdictions, marketing and communication. A study in the late 1990s estimated that the system delivered about $35 million to the economy each year, mainly through tourism. Its most important outcome, though, is that whole communities now associate strongly with their rivers, with increasing commitment to long-term sustainability.

In Canada, governments play only a coordinating role helping communities identify candidate rivers through background studies. Management planning is primarily about building capacity in the river community for sustainable river management and not unnecessarily restrictive. What the scheme might lack in legislative and regulatory punch, it more than makes up in terms of community cohesion and commitment. The experience from Canada is extremely positive with community festivals centred on rivers and most importantly degraded rivers restored and protected.

An Australian Heritage River System would have major advantages over current state models. It would be a truly national and strategic approach but its essential, most important and most powerful characteristic would be that the nomination and management of rivers under such a scheme would be in the hands of the people who live on the rivers, not the water or conservation bureaucrats. It's the bottom-up, grassroots element that has been sorely missing in the past.

Communities identify strongly with their rivers and they, after all, have to live with them. Their history, their lifestyles, their recreations, their spiritual and cultural connections, their economies and their futures depend on them: water is life. All those powerful bonds mean that communities are best placed to watch over this most valuable of their natural assets.

There are two potential stumbling blocks in Australia: what to call this thing and a legislative framework. A river by any name may flow just the same, but every description is loaded. Take "wild", "pristine", "unregulated" and "natural". Only 'unregulated' - meaning no dams, diversions or levee banks - can be objectively determined (and most Australian rivers experience diversions of some kind, however small). The other labels are value-laden and carry an implicit assumption that humans are not part of the river environment.

No river in Australia is untouched by human influence. All of them have been fundamental to Aboriginal existence. Most of our country towns lie on the floodplains, close to water. Human life revolved around and continues to depend on the flows of our rivers and the bountiful food and useful resources or they provide - the fish, waterbirds, reptiles and waterplants. Law, lore and legend are woven around the sinuosity of the Australian river - the original dreamtime serpent, so often associated with powerful creative forces.

Graziers from the Macquarie Marshes to the Cooper in central Australia depend every bit as much as the environment on the services of rivers that provide their grazing. As a Channel Country grazier once remarked: "You could fatten a stick on the Cooper." Nor should we under-estimate the strong sense of personal connection people have for their rivers: social and lifestyle issues play their part just as strongly. We all depend on our rivers.

We should remember that their beneficial effects - on the environment and the economy - are not confined to the land. Just as the periodic floods of the inland-flowing rivers bring the flush of life to Central Australia, the gushing northern rivers during the monsoon season pour nutrients and freshwater out into the Timor Sea, the Gulf of Carpentaria or the Coral Sea to support marine and prawn fisheries.

Looking ahead, the effects of climate change make it unlikely that any river could be described as truly pristine or wild because all will be affected by changing rainfall and hotter temperatures.

So what label can we safely use? Heritage is the only one that could best describe a river of high conservation importance and/or of high cultural importance. A Canadian Heritage River can equally be recognised for its cultural importance to its aboriginal or European peoples.

The word 'heritage' does come with some superficial difficulties if applied to an Australian Heritage River system. The primary federal legislation for the environment - the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) - has provision for heritage listing. In theory, the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources can list an entire river under this legislation.

Non-government conservation groups have proposed the nomination of the Paroo River but it is unlikely to go anywhere. The process suffers from two weaknesses. First, the people who live on the rivers are not in charge of the process with nomination by any person or group in Australia and Ministerial recommendation, albeit after consultation. Second, nomination of a river under the EPBC Act could have serious punitive ramifications for any breaches. River communities are well aware of this potential and would likely fight tooth and nail to avoid nomination of their whole river under the EPBC Act. Similar problems were overcome in Canada 20 years ago.

Another potential drawback of the word "heritage" is that it has some skeletons in the cupboard when it comes to rivers. In the 1990s, there was a considerable focus on the potential nomination of the Lake Eyre Basin as a World Heritage Area. Some in this part of the world may feel apprehension that the word 'heritage' might be linked to international or national obligations and priorities. But an Australian Heritage River System would be primarily driven and run by the people who best know their rivers. Further, some communities who originally opposed World Heritage listing, such as Shark Bay in Western Australia, have supported the process after about a decade.

How would an Australian Heritage River System work? The people of Cooper Creek, for example, could carry out the background studies to determine if this river would be a candidate river for nomination in an Australian Heritage River System. They would also be involved in organising the consultation. Governments would simply coordinate the process and provide some funding. Similarly the last free-flowing river in the Murray-Darling Basin, the Paroo River, would depend on the support of this river community. These two are not arbitrary examples.

The rivers of the Lake Eyre Basin, principally Cooper Creek and the Georgina-Diamantina, are protected by the Lake Eyre Basin Agreement and the Paroo River is protected by the Paroo River Agreement. Both agreements were fundamentally driven by river communities and their concern that their rivers might follow the policy and development path of other Murray-Darling Rivers. But neither of these agreements have a national framework to sit underneath. There is no grand strategic plan. They are waving in the institutional wind with no real home. In fact, the Paroo River Agreement is not even underpinned by legislation, so there is nothing to stop a future Queensland or New South Wales Government developing this magnificent river and subsequently destroying downstream floodplains and internationally recognised wetlands.

Nomination as an Australian Heritage River would require a management plan. This step is the most likely to concern river communities. Both the Paroo and the Lake Eyre Basin rivers have management plans, reflecting their intention to protect flows. Management planning could be as simple as transferring these plans across to an Australian Heritage River System, if the river communities support it. The advantages of such an approach would be a national context and framework and broad support from the Australian public and the political institutions. State processes could easily fit into such a national framework.

Despite the ecological and cultural importance of Australia's rivers, we have generally failed to adequately protect their unique values. Unless we change this, future generations will have to pay increasing costs of rehabilitation, such as in the Murray-Darling Basin. Many ecological values we are now losing will never be replaced. History has shown that the major river decisions are made by strong water departments and powerful sectoral groups and it is time to put the decision-making in the hands of the people. An Australian Heritage River System coupled with objective assessment of rivers would provide a nationally strategic approach to protect our rivers and help ensure that future generations would not have to pay the costs of restoring future Murray-Darlings. Such a system would take the politics out of water for our undeveloped rivers.

All that is needed is the necessary political will and there is no better time in Australia's history for a grand decision in favour of a sustainable future for our rivers, especially one that hands the initiative back to the people who live with and care most about them.

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