Publications archive

Department of the Environment and Heritage annual report 2004-05

Volume one
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005
ISSN 1441 9335

Outcome 1 - Environment (continued)

Inland waters

The Department of the Environment and Heritage develops Australian Government initiatives to ensure that the management of inland rivers, groundwater and inland wetlands is ecologically sustainable.

Main responsibilities relevant to this output

Land, Water and Coasts Division

Supervising Scientist Division

Natural Resource Management Programmes Division

Objectives

Main results

Environmental aspects of water reform

Australia is the driest permanently inhabited continent. Evaporation rates are very high. Annual rainfall of less than 600 millimetres per year characterises 80 per cent of the land. Rainfall can vary enormously from one year to the next. Drought is a regular feature of our climate.

The Australian State of the Environment 2001 report found that about 26 per cent of Australia’s surface water management areas were close to or had exceeded sustainable extraction limits, with particular pressure in Australia’s south-east.

In response to these pressures Australian governments are working together to increase the efficiency of water use and to ensure the health of river and groundwater systems.

National Water Initiative

At the June 2004 meeting of the Council of Australian Governments the Prime Minister and most premiers agreed to establish the National Water Initiative. The National Water Initiative establishes actions, timelines and monitoring to implement major water reforms over the next 10 years.

Many of these reforms will help to protect the environment. For example, governments have agreed to identify and protect important conservation values for surface and groundwater systems, and return over-allocated river and groundwater systems to sustainable levels of use. Water allocated to meet agreed environmental and other public benefit outcomes will be given statutory recognition. Allocations for the environment will have at least the same degree of security as water allocated to consumers.

Several ministerial councils are overseeing implementation of the National Water Initiative, including the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council, the Environment Protection and Heritage Council and the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council.

To help implement the initiative, the Australian Government established the National Water Commission in the Prime Minister’s portfolio as a statutory agency under the National Water Commission Act 2004 on 17 December 2004 . The department advised the government on the commission’s work programme and coordination arrangements.

In signing on to the National Water Initiative governments agreed to put implementation plans in place by 30 June 2005 . These plans establish the roles, key tasks and timelines for government agencies to implement the reforms. The department contributed to the development of the Australian Government’s implementation plan. The department’s contribution focused on ways to implement the environmental components of the reforms, which are explained below.

See also: parliamentary committees (responses to inquiries into rural issues).

The Living Murray ‘first step’ agreement

The Murray–Darling Basin covers one-seventh of the continent and generates about 40 per cent of the national income derived from agriculture and grazing. Water storage and regulation has affected the natural cycles of rivers and groundwater in the Murray–Darling Basin. In response, the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council (a council of government ministers responsible for managing the basin’s water resources) set up The Living Murray initiative in May 2002 to analyse various options for action and consult communities across the basin. As a result on 14 November 2003 the ministerial council agreed to a ‘first step’ towards increasing the amount of water allocated for environmental goals.

The first step aims to achieve environmental objectives at six environmentally important features of the River Murray. The ministerial council has termed these areas ‘significant ecological assets’. Five of these features include Ramsar-listed wetlands and the sixth is the River Murray channel itself. The water will be recovered through a range of means, including improvements in efficiency and infrastructure, and possibly through direct purchase from willing sellers. The first step agreement also includes a $150 million programme of capital works and complementary actions to effectively manage the water and maximise environmental outcomes.

In August 2003 the Australian Government and the governments of New South Wales , Victoria , South Australia , and the Australian Capital Territory committed a total of $500 million over five years (2004–2009) to recover the water needed for the first step agreement. Of this, the Australian Government is contributing $200 million through the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. This commitment was given effect through an agreement to implement the Living Murray initiative first step that was signed at the Council of Australian Governments meeting on 25 June 2004 at the same time as the National Water Initiative (see www.coag.gov.au). The first water recovery projects are now under way (see First water recovery projects, below).

On 26 November 2004 the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council agreed to The Living Murray Business Plan. The plan sets out how the participating governments will achieve the actions and milestones in the June 2004 agreement. The plan came into effect on 1 April 2005 with the activation of the National Water Initiative.

During the year the department worked with other Australian and state government agencies, and the office of the Murray–Darling Basin Commission (the executive arm of the ministerial council) to implement the plan.

See also www.thelivingmurray.mdbc.gov.au.

First water recovery projects

In November 2004 the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council agreed to four packages of water recovery projects to help secure The Living Murray’s first
240 gigalitres for environmental goals. Victoria and New South Wales each proposed two of the packages:

The projects will cost around $179 million, and will be implemented over several years. The department is now working with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to negotiate the terms and conditions of the Australian Government investment in these projects.

Water management plans

The Murray–Darling Basin Commission is developing plans to make sure that water recovered for the environment achieves the environmental objectives of The Living Murray first step: Asset Environmental Management Plans for the six ‘significant ecological assets’; and a Living Murray Environmental Watering Plan to guide overall decision-making.

The commission has established the Environmental Watering Group to oversee the development of these plans. The department chairs this group. The ministerial council approved an interim version of the Living Murray Environmental Watering Plan in November 2004. The department consulted state agencies to ensure that the asset plans adequately address environmental matters such as Ramsar wetlands, migratory species and threatened species. The 2005–06 versions of all the plans are due for approval in September 2005.

Interaction between surface and groundwater

Groundwater, which sustains a range of natural habitats, is extensively used for urban water supplies, agriculture, irrigation, industry and mining. The National Water Initiative identified the need for more work to increase scientific understanding of groundwater. Specifically, more needs to be done to understand interactions between surface and groundwater, and in particular the water requirements of groundwater-dependent ecosystems. In response, during 2004–05 the department invested $0.3 million from departmental funds and the Natural Heritage Trust in the Environmental Water Allocation programme managed by Land and Water Australia , a research and development corporation.

National Guidelines on Water Recycling

The National Water Quality Management Strategy aims to protect the quality of water resources while supporting economic and social development. Part of the strategy is to develop the National Guidelines on Water Recycling - Managing Health and Environmental Risks. These guidelines will cover the recycling of treated sewage effluent, grey water and storm water for non-drinking purposes such as agricultural uses, garden watering, car washing and toilet flushing. They are needed to support the urban water reforms under the National Water Initiative.

The department has been working with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and state and territory agencies to develop these guidelines since October 2003. The guidelines are being prepared in two stages. The department expects to submit the first stage - the sewage and grey water component - to the October 2005 meetings of the Environment Protection and Heritage Council and the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council for clearance to go to public comment. Work on the second stage, covering storm water and water sensitive urban design, will start in late 2005 or early 2006.

Community Water Grants

(Administered item)

The Community Water Grants are part of the $2 billion Australian Government Water Fund. The grants will provide $200 million over five years (2004–2009) to promote a culture of wise water use in the community. During the year the department set up the Community Water Grants jointly with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. In a preliminary, demonstration round of funding $1.0 million was provided to show what types of community groups and projects could be funded. Ministers approved 27 applications from schools, local government, community groups and Indigenous groups across the country. The projects ranged from installing tanks and water efficient appliances, to using grey water for garden irrigation, to re-vegetating creek banks and wetlands to prevent erosion and improve water quality. The first full round of grants started in July 2005. See www.communitywatergrants.gov.au for details.

First round of Community Water Grants

First round of Community Water Grants

Wetlands of international importance

Australia ’s wetlands support large numbers of species of flora and fauna. They include species that are found nowhere else as well as species (particularly birds) that migrate between continents. However wetlands are under threat globally and nationally from expanding agriculture and urban settlement. Wetlands are often drained and cleared. Less water is available to flood naturally onto the remaining wetlands. Salts, nutrients or pollution may contaminate this water. The Australia State of the Environment 2001 report found that 80 of Australia’s important wetlands are affected by salinity and this figure could rise to 130 by the year 2050.

The Australian Government is a party to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat, commonly called the Ramsar Convention. The department represents Australia’s interests in international forums on wetlands including the Ramsar Standing Committee, which usually meets twice a year, and the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel. The department also works with state and territory governments to improve the quality and availability of information that can improve the management of wetlands. This information includes Ramsar Information Sheets, ‘ecological character’ descriptions, wetland inventories and maps, and maintaining the Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia.

Project expenditure during 2004–05 was $0.3 million from the national component of the Natural Heritage Trust, mainly on developing a method for describing the ‘ecological character’ of wetlands, supporting the management of four privately owned wetlands in New South Wales, and wetlands communications products.

Describing the ecological character of wetlands

The Ramsar Convention obliges member countries to protect the ‘ecological character’ of wetlands listed under the convention. In Australia this obligation is prescribed in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The department has funded the development of a standardised method for describing the ecological character of wetlands, putting Australia at the forefront of this work internationally. The department is now testing the method on a number of Ramsar sites and will continue to refine it over time. The method will help determine what actions could have ‘significant impacts’ on Ramsar wetlands under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Privately owned Ramsar sites
Shortlands Wetlands, Hunter River estuary

Shortlands Wetlands, Hunter River estuary

Photo: A Beard

Many wetlands listed under the Ramsar Convention are on private land. The department works with the landowners and managers to make sure the internationally recognised values of these Ramsar sites are protected. There are a number of dimensions to this work, including assessing the ecological character of the sites, assisting in the development and implementation of management plans, and promoting more understanding and awareness of the Ramsar Convention and listed wetlands. In 2004–05 work focused on four privately owned Ramsar sites in New South Wales:

An initial description of the ecological character at each of the above sites was completed in 2004–05. The final versions of these descriptions, including recommendations for monitoring and management planning, are expected to be available in 2005–06.

See also: report on the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in the second volume of this set of annual reports.

Tropical rivers and wetlands research

Australia’s northern river systems are poorly understood but are often cited as offering development potential, chiefly for agriculture, horticulture and mining. To increase knowledge about their environmental characteristics the department is investing in the tropical rivers research programme managed by Land and Water Australia, a statutory research and development corporation within the agriculture, fisheries and forestry portfolio.

The department’s Supervising Scientist Division includes the Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist. The institute advises on the management of the extensive wetlands in northern Australia. It is a partner in the National Centre for Tropical Wetland Research and publishes a wide range of scientific research on tropical wetlands and rivers. The institute is also a member of Land and Water Australia’s National Rivers Consortium.

During 2004–05 the department spent $0.3 million from the Natural Heritage Trust to commission a first year of research from the National Centre for Tropical Wetland Research. Land and Water Australia has agreed to provide resources for additional work and is seeking additional partners for this programme.

Other work through the National Centre for Tropical Wetland Research supported the Southern Gulf Environmental Information Programme, which is helping to assess marine and estuarine environments of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. The programme will identify pressures in key locations, review management responses, map wetlands, and benchmark data for biota in key river reaches.

Further information on the activities of the Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist and the National Centre for Tropical Wetland Research is included in the Supervising Scientist’s annual report at www.deh.gov.au/ssd.

Rivercare

(Administered item - part of the Natural Heritage Trust)

Rivercare is that part of the Natural Heritage Trust invested in improving water quality and the environmental condition of river systems and wetlands. Total expenditure under Rivercare was $52.1 million in 2004–05. Results are reported in the annual reports of the Natural Heritage Trust available at www.nht.gov.au/publications/index.html#annual-reports.

See also: administration of the Natural Heritage Trust.

Strengthening Tasmania - Tamar River pylons

(Administered item)

During 2004–05 the department managed a government programme of $0.5 million to install pylons at the edge of the North Esk River, a tributary of the Tamar near Launceston, Tasmania. The funding will help improve river health, boost flood protection and increase recreational opportunities on the North Esk River.

Results for performance indicators
Performance indicator 2004–05 results
Programme administration
Conservation of Internationally and Nationally Important Wetlands (See Natural Heritage Trust annual report)
Number of projects or activities approved under each programme (See Natural Heritage Trust annual report)
Number of agreements, plans and management arrangements put in place 1 Ramsar site management plan (provided input to 3 other draft plans)

10 draft maps of nationally important wetlands in Tasmania

2 spatial data sets (Queensland and New South Wales) consisting of 210 nationally important wetlands in Queensland and 178 in New South Wales

15 ecological character descriptions of Ramsar sites initiated
Degree to which projects, activities, agreements or plans contribute to the output High - contributed to the conservation of internationally and nationally important wetlands
Lake Eyre Basin
Number of projects or activities approved under each programme 3 projects (draft hydrological atlas for the Lake Eyre Basin; draft methodology for the Lake Eyre Basin Rivers Assessment; approval of a project to install and commission 3 stream gauging stations in the Lake Eyre Basin in 2005)
Degree to which projects, activities, agreements or plans contribute to the output High - contributed to the conservation of inland waters of the Lake Eyre Basin
Both programmes
Extent to which (self-imposed, ministerial or external) timeframes are met High - timeframes met in accordance with departmental standards
Accurate and timely approval, payment and acquittal of grants in accordance with legislation and guidelines Funding was provided under financial agreements that reflect accountability, reporting and acquittal procedures
Accurate and timely payment of monies 100% of payments made in accordance with terms and conditions of financial agreements
Rivercare (Administered item - part of the Natural Heritage Trust)
Statutory administration
Extent to which statutory timeframes are met under legislation 100%
Number of referrals considered under legislation See report on the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in the second volume of this set of annual reports
International
Percentage of written pre-meeting objectives at international meetings achieved 100% (Ramsar Standing Committee meeting)
Extent to which Australia’s strategic objectives are achieved through international forums High - strategic objectives developed for water outcomes of 13th session of United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development

Implementation of the Ramsar Convention remains a priority for Australia and is consistent with our strategic objectives
Stakeholder awareness
Information and education products distributed to stakeholders (measured by web site hits, information material distributed, etc) Wetlands communication products (postcard, poster, sticker series, fridge magnet and fact sheets) distributed across Australia for World Wetlands Day (2 February 2005) and national World Wetlands Day events calendar published online

5 consultative meetings for Lake Eyre Basin stakeholders (3 meetings of the Lake Eyre Basin Community Advisory Committee; 1 Indigenous forum; 1 Lake Eyre Basin Biannual Conference)

Average of 19 152 user sessions per month on the inland waters-related part of the department’s web site
Research, analysis and evaluation
Number of research reports, articles and papers prepared and publicly released 16 research reports, articles and papers on tropical wetland ecology and conservation

Other annual reports - more detailed results

Annual report on the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 included in the second volume of this set of annual reports

Annual report of the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality at www.nrm.gov.au/publications/#books

Annual report of the Natural Heritage Trust at www.nht.gov.au/publications. The department’s performance in administering the Natural Heritage Trust is reported at Administration of the Natural Heritage Trust.

Legislation

Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
Natural Heritage Trust of Australia Act 1997

Resources
Element of pricing Budget prices
$’000
Actual expenses
$’000
Departmental outputs
Sub-output: Rivers, groundwater and wetlands
Sub-output: Tropical wetland ecology and conservation
9 113
4 719
8 818
4 159
Total (= Output 1.7: Inland waters) 13 832 12 977
Administered items
Natural Heritage Trust – Rivercare
Australian Government’s Community Water Grants Programme
Strengthening Tasmania – Tamar River pylons
83 700
1 000
500
52 092
1 000
500
Total 85 200 53 592
Prices are the estimated full-year revenues for departmental outputs and full-year expenses for administered items that are shown in the 2004–05 portfolio additional estimates statements.

See also: summary resource tables.