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Department of the Environment and Water Resources annual report 2006–07

Volume one
Department of the Environment and Water Resources, 2007
ISSN 1441-9335

Executive summary

Secretary's review

David Borthwick

David Borthwick

I am pleased to present the 2006—07 annual report of the Department of the Environment and Water Resources. This year has been an exciting and challenging one for the department, with a number of major new initiatives announced, expanded responsibilities, and significant structural changes to the portfolio.

This year the department implemented major initiatives to deal with Australia's environmental, climate change, water and heritage challenges. We are developing catchment-wide approaches to water resource management and establishing a stronger, more coherent framework for climate change mitigation and adaptation. We are rolling out bioregional plans for the whole of the Commonwealth marine area, and implementing major amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to strengthen and streamline environmental impact assessment. All of these measures mark a move towards a more complete, landscape-scale approach to protection of the environment and heritage and to sustainable natural resource management.

Increasingly, the department's remit is to develop a cohesive and strategic set of policies and programmes that deliver environmental, social and economic outcomes. To this end, we place a high priority on working with other government agencies and with industry and community stakeholders. We invest in scientific and economic research to ensure that our policies and programmes are underpinned by the best available information, and we endeavour to find the most efficient and cost-effective approaches to addressing the issues under our charge.

I invite you to read on and learn more about the department's achievements in 2006—07 and our challenges for the future.

New national water responsibilities

The continuing drought in 2006—07 over large areas of Australia put water security firmly on the national policy agenda. In January 2007 the portfolio took carriage of national water resource policy, including the Prime Minister's National Plan for Water Security. The National Water Commission moved into the portfolio from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. A number of the government's other water programmes and statutory functions were also transferred into the department, and the department's name was changed to reflect its expanded roles.

A key priority over the next 10 years is to implement the $10 billion National Plan for Water Security. This includes major reforms to the management of the Murray-Darling Basin to ensure its long-term health, while sustaining a viable agricultural industry and thriving rural communities. The department has been working since January 2007 to develop the key elements of the plan, including negotiating with state governments and other stakeholders and putting in place the necessary implementing legislation (which was passed by parliament on August 2007 and received Royal Assent on 3 September 2007).

For the first time, the new legislation will enable the Australian Government to develop a whole of Murray—Darling Basin plan, covering assessments of the interaction between surface, groundwater and land-use practices that significantly impact on water availability. An important objective will be to increase environmental flows in many catchments. At the same time, we will be investing heavily in improving the efficiency of irrigation systems to put agriculture on a more sustainable long-term footing.

To help us deliver our new water functions a number of changes were made to the department's structure. Two new divisions, the Water Resources Division and the Water Assets and Natural Resources Division, were created, and the department's land, coastal and marine biodiversity activities were consolidated into one division, the Marine and Biodiversity Division.

New approaches to climate change

Public and business interest in international and domestic responses to climate change captured more attention in the media than ever before.

Climate change issues are central to the department's responsibilities but, because the effects are so pervasive, many other agencies also have a large role to play.

The Prime Minister's announcement that Australia will establish an emissions trading system by 2012 is a major step forward in implementing an overarching national framework to tackle climate change. The development of an emissions trading system is a major undertaking. It will bring about major long-term structural changes in the Australian economy and careful planning is required. Close cooperation between governments and industry will be needed. However, developing a world-leading emissions trading system is in Australia's long-term national interest, not least because it will be important to reduce emissions at minimum cost to the community and the economy.

International cooperation is crucial to addressing the issue of climate change. A senior executive in the department is co-chairing the United Nations' two-year dialogue on long-term cooperative action on climate change. This year, talks increasingly focused on an effective global response after the Kyoto Protocol targets expire in 2012.

Closer to home, the department continued to play a leading role in project development and implementation in the Asia—Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate and through a range of other bilateral and plurilateral partnerships. The department also played a central role in developing and implementing the Global Initiative on Forests and Climate to support and encourage practical action to help save the world's forests and reduce deforestation, presently the second largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In another key step in addressing climate change, the Council of Australian Governments adopted a new National Climate Change Adaptation Framework and the Australian Government committed $126 million to implement the framework and to establish the Australian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation. The new centre will commission science to increase our knowledge about the impacts of climate change and adaptation response options, and will work closely with relevant bodies to develop and implement practical adaptation response strategies.

Biodiversity and heritage protection

Australia is an ancient country with unique biodiversity and heritage, yet there are many threats. The list of threatened species and of extinctions is a long one over a short period. Arresting the decline in biodiversity requires the long-term application of well targeted policies at a landscape scale.

In this context, the department continued to support the government's efforts to establish new marine protected areas in Commonwealth waters to protect vital marine habitats and species. In June 2007 the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network was proclaimed following a successful consultation process with industry and other stakeholders. The network protects 226,000 square kilometres of the marine environment in 13 separate reserves off Australia's south-east coast. This is a forerunner to developing networks covering the five major marine regions around the continent. This will involve putting in place bioregional plans for entire geographic marine regions, taking into account the biodiversity, economic, social and heritage values of the region. The plans will ensure that a region's ecological assets are protected without compromising the viability of sustainable marine industries.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 has gained wide acceptance and achieved real results in protecting the environment during its seven years of operation. Nevertheless, the government and the department recognised that the legislation could be improved. Amendments to the Act, which were passed by parliament in December 2006, were aimed at strengthening environment and heritage protection, while streamlining administration and cutting red tape. Action can now be taken on emerging environmental issues on a regional basis, rather than case by case.

The department's objective is to protect and foster an understanding of our nation's heritage, as that tells us about 'the Australian story'. This requires balanced assessments that build public confidence in the integrity of what are often difficult judgements that the government has to make. Sometimes this involves weighing the interests of nationally important industries against environment and heritage objectives. Striking the right balance was integral to the government's decision to include Western Australia's Dampier Archipelago in the National Heritage List on 3 July 2007. After three years of assessment and consultation with industry, it is very pleasing that the renowned rock art of the archipelago, including the Burrup Peninsula, is now protected for future generations.

The inscription of the Sydney Opera House on the UNESCO World Heritage List in June 2007 recognised the Opera House's outstanding and visionary architecture. It now stands alongside such universally treasured places as the Taj Mahal, the ancient pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China.

Two of the Australian Government's flagship environmental initiatives—the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality and phase 2 of the Natural Heritage Trust—have already helped to protect over eight million hectares of wetlands, have treated over 600,000 hectares of land to reduce salinity and erosion, and have involved some 800,000 volunteers in on-ground conservation work. Theseprogrammes have laid strong foundations for an additional $2billion phase of the Natural Heritage Trust (phase 3), continuing this programme for a further five years from July 2008.

Through programmes such as these—increasingly undertaken at a landscape scale—the department is pursuing national environmental and heritage objectives in a sustainable development context.

State of the Environment report

The department recognises the importance of getting the best, most up-to-date information to support decision-making and policy development. The State of the Environment report, a five-yearly statutory obligation under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, is a major source of independent information on the state of the Australian environment.

The third national State of the Environment report was published in December 2006. The report identified many improvements made over the last five to 10 years. For example, air quality is better than 10 years ago, land clearing has decreased in many parts of the country, and there is greater protection for the marine environment and Commonwealth-owned heritage assets. However, the report also shows there is still work to be done to stop the decline in biodiversity, respond to the impacts of increasing populations on the coastline, adapt to climate change and manage water resources more effectively.

The State of the Environment report also highlighted the need for better quality baseline information to assess changes to the environment over time to equip us to measure progress identify priorities for action; make better investment choices; and implement sustainable solutions. The department is taking steps to improve Australia's environmental information base. We are supporting research to compile environmental baseline data and develop cost-effective and robust environmental monitoring methods. For example, the department signed contracts this year with seven multi-institutional research hubs under the Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities programme. The hubs will significantly improve the information base in such areas as taxonomy, and terrestrial and marine biodiversity.

Antarctic research and logistics

The department continues to advance Australia's Antarctic interests including by supporting and undertaking research to understand the role of Antarctica in the global climate system, protecting the Antarctic environment and maintaining Australia's influence within the Antarctic Treaty System. As part of this work, the Australian Antarctic Division is playing a key role in International Polar Year activities, being held over 24 months from March 2007 to March 2009. Australia is leading eight major international scientific projects, co-leading three, and participating in 46 other projects.

The new Wilkins Runway near Casey station in Antarctica will greatly improve access for scientists to conduct research on the continent. The runway was completed during the Antarctic summer, sometimes in freezing temperatures of around minus 40°C. Regular flights will begin next summer following a successful trial flight in February 2007. The flight between Hobart and Antarctica will take just under five hours, compared with more than a week by ship.

Workforce planning

The department moves into 2007—08 with a challenging agenda, with extra responsibilities and major new programmes.

To deliver on the new responsibilities as well as our ongoing work, we will need to ensure we have capable staff and the right tools and systems in place to deliver on the government's objectives. We are increasing our emphasis on workforce planning to ensure we build an appropriate skills mix to meet our needs now and in the future. In the coming year, we are aiming to recruit 70 high calibre graduates, compared with 32 in 2006—07.

Developing capable leaders is a high priority for the department. A new leadership development strategy began in 2007 with a series of dialogues to discuss our expectations of leaders and leadership behaviour.

It is important to have regular health checks to see how we are doing as an organisation, so this year we conducted the second broad-based staff survey. The results showed the department is in pretty good shape, and has made considerable improvements across the board compared to the last survey in 2004, particularly in relation to our information technology systems. We will continue to use staff comments and concerns from the survey to improve as an organisation.

The department places a high priority on good project management and this year we developed a new project management framework with tools and templates on the intranet to assist in all stages from planning through to implementation, monitoring, evaluation and reporting. New project management software is being trialled to support the project management framework.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the department's staff for their hard work and professionalism over the past year. The department has an enthusiastic and high quality workforce that is well placed to deliver the government's environmental, heritage, climate change and water resource management objectives.

[signed]

David Borthwick

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