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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Investing in our Natural Heritage

The Commonwealth's Environment Expenditure 1997-98
Statement by Senator The Honourable Robert Hill
Minister for the Environment
Environment Australia 1997

Chapter 5: Inland Waters

Key Points
  • The Natural Heritage Trust is providing $97 million to the National Rivercare Initiative and $163 million to Murray-Darling 2001 to the year 2001-02.
  • The National Rivercare Initiative will encourage sustainable management, rehabilitation and conservation of rivers outside the Murray-Darling Basin through the National River Health Programme, Waterwatch Australia and elements of the Fisheries Action Programme, while Murray-Darling 2001 will focus on improved water quality and ecologically sustainable land use in the Basin.
  • The National Wetlands Programme will receive additional funding from the Natural Heritage Trust of $11 million to the year 2001-02, to promote wise use of Australia's wetlands.
  • The above activities will be closely coordinated with the Coasts and Clean Seas initiatives to ensure a total catchment approach is taken.
  • Economic and environmental reform will continue for inland waters under the Council of Australian Government Water Reform Framework which will provide increased environmental flows for stressed rivers and sustainable management of Australia's rivers and water industry.

The Council of Australian Government in 1994 agreed on a range of approaches and measures aimed at reforming the Australian water industry by 2001. The reform agenda aims to provide a rationale and underpin the Government's water policy and programme initiatives.

In addition to this initiative, the recently released Wetlands Policy of the Commonwealth Government of Australia provides a set of objectives, guiding principles and action strategies for the Commonwealth's activities in relation to the wise use of wetlands. The new measures and programme and tax expenditure estimates relating to inland waters are summarised in Table 5.1.


The health of Australia's rivers and other aquatic ecosystems is declining due to a range of factors, which include unsustainable water extractions for agricultural production, poor land and vegetation management, agricultural and urban pollution, salinity, destruction of native habitat and the spread of exotic pests such as the European carp and the water weed Salvinia.

Table 5.1: Inland Waters - New Measures and Programme and Tax Expenditure Estimates

Image: Table 5.1: Inland Waters

Programme and tax expenditure estimates include the effect of new measures.

- denotes nil; .. denotes not zero but rounded to zero; na denotes not available;

(a) For 2001-02 and six year total expenditure see Table 1.3.

(b) Funds for this programme are included in Natural Resource Management Programmes in Table 4.1.

(c) This is the total of the figures against indented descriptions below.

National Rivercare Initiative

Through the Natural Heritage Trust, the Government is taking action to rehabilitate, conserve and manage Australia's rivers on a sustainable basis. The National Rivercare Initiative will complement other programmes aimed at identifying and addressing the causes of river degradation in areas outside the Murray-Darling Basin. The key outcomes from these activities will be improved water quality, increased natural flows and ecological health of river systems across Australia, yielding complementary benefits of environment protection and sustainable agricultural production.

With funding of $97 million to the year 2001-02, the National Rivercare Initiative will involve the community in developing responses and solutions to environmental and resource degradation issues affecting river systems. It will support on-ground actions and restorative measures and support implementation of integrated approaches consistent with key national and State strategies. The NRI will also incorporate new funding for the following activities:

The aim of the National Rivercare Initiative is to ensure progress towards the sustainable management, rehabilitation and conservation of rivers outside the Murray-Darling Basin. Together with Murray-Darling 2001, Rivercare will assist in ensuring that degradation is addressed, and that resources are effectively allocated to improving river environments. Expanding upon existing programmes, the Initiative provides additional resources for key river restoration and conservation works. Wherever practicable, assistance provided under this initiative is utilising existing structures and programmes.

The Government is continuing to develop and implement the national water quality management strategy (see Ch. 8), which aims to achieve sustainable use of the nation's water resources by protecting and enhancing their quality while also facilitating economic and social development.

Tasmanian Regional Environment Remediation Programme

The Tasmanian Regional Environmental Remediation Programme aims to address off-site environmental problems caused by historic mining practices thereby improving water quality in certain Tasmanian rivers. The programme commenced late in 1996 and has Commonwealth funding of $8.8 million to the year 1998-99, to be used for the Mt Lyell, Macquarie Harbour, Derwent, Huon and Tamar regions. Eight projects in the Derwent and Tamar regions have been recommended for funding in the first year.


In many parts of Australia, water resources have been often over allocated, which has lead to the deterioration of our rivers and wetlands. Environment problems associated with reduced flows in rivers include, blue-green algae outbreaks, large declines in native fish populations, increases in salinity and deteriorating water quality, loss of wetlands and the loss of the beneficial effects of small floods.

COAG Water Reform Framework

The 1994 Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Water Reform Framework agreement highlighted the need for concerted action at both the economic and environmental level to reform the water industry and to minimise unsustainable use. COAG agreed that, where they had not already done so, States should give priority to formally determining allocations or entitlements to water, including allocations for the environment as a legitimate use. They agreed that environmental flow requirements, wherever possible, should be determined using the best scientific information available, and appropriate allocations to the environment be provided by 1998 in over-allocated systems. They also agreed that a higher priority be given to research including consistent methodologies for determining environmental flow requirements. The Government's National River Health Programme will assist in the provision of the long term scientifically determined environmental flow requirements and an understanding of consistent methods for determining flows.

All States are working towards the implementation of the reforms by 2001, which include, in addition to water allocations and research, full cost pricing and the removal or transparency of cross subsidies, water property rights and trading, institutional reform, integrated catchment management, consultation and education and investments in new or extensions to irrigation schemes only if economically viable and ecologically sustainable. Implementation of the water reforms is a condition under which the States will be eligible for payments under the National Competition Policy agreement, except for the additional waste and storm water.


The sustainable use of groundwater resources has been identified by COAG as a priority in the Water Reform Framework. The main concerns relate to rising groundwater tables (especially in the Murray-Darling Basin), the drop in groundwater pressure in the Great Artesian Basin, salinisation of freshwater systems, and the need for further information on sustainable yields and environmental demands of the Great Artesian Basin. With the restrictions on the use of surface water in the Murray-Darling Basin it is expected that greater demand will be placed on groundwater. In the Basin, a salinity and drainage strategy exists which provides for salt interception works and land and water plans to tackle both river salinity and land salinisation. The forecast of the rising impacts of dryland salinity on stream salinity and the decreasing flows in rivers suggest a major reassessment and accelerated preventative works are required.

Programmes under the Trust such as the National Vegetation Initiative (see Ch. 3), Murray-Darling 2001, National Landcare Programme (see Ch. 4) and the National Rivercare Initiative will seek to reduce dryland in-stream salinity. A Great Artesian Basin Consultative Council is being established to coordinate policy and water resource management of the Basin comprising representatives of the community, industry (pastoral and mining), local government, traditional landholders, conservation and governments. Capping of free flowing bores will continue under the National Landcare Programme (see Ch. 4).

Design of Hydrological Structures

The Bureau of Meteorology, through its Hydrometeorological Advisory Service, provides advice to government and municipal authorities, standards association groups, engineers and others on a wide range of hydrometeorological problems related to the assessment, planning, development and operational aspects of water resources and building codes.


Murray-Darling 2001

Murray-Darling 2001 will receive $163 million to the year 2001-02 from the Trust. This funding is targeted towards accelerating activities which address high priority land and water degradation issues in the Murray-Darling Basin. This will build on and augment the Murray-Darling Basin National Resource Management Strategy. The four priorities of the project are to:

The key outcome sought from the project is that the land, water and other environmental resources of the Murray-Darling Basin are managed sustainably for the benefit of present and future generations. This will encompass:

A range of innovative activities are being considered, in consultation with key stakeholders, under Murray-Darling 2001. These include the establishment of integrated flow management plans for 20 major river catchments within the basin, the development and implementation of management plans for key wetland areas and the development of a strategy to deal with carp.

Funding will be provided in the context of COAG Water Reform Framework requirement that States provide water for the environment based on the best scientific information and the need to determine appropriate environmental flows following the recent capping of water consumption. Projects that may be funded include works to enhance in-stream and wetland flow requirements, fish ladders and associated in-stream works, carp control research, assistance to the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology research into environmental flows and fish habitat, and limited purchase of environmental flows in highly over allocated rivers.

Waterwatch Australia will be integrated into regional plans and continue in the Basin, through Murray-Darling 2001.

Murray-Darling Basin Water Cap

An audit of water diversions by the Murray-Darling Commission completed in 1995 concluded that under existing management regimes extractions could significantly increase from the current level of 80 per cent of total flow. This is because of the existence of unused irrigation licences and the effects of any widespread trading of water entitlements. The audit showed that water use had increased by 8 per cent between 1988 and 1994 and was projected to increase an additional 14.5 per cent above 1994 levels under existing water entitlements and management rules.

The current level of diversions has had an adverse effect on the health of the river. In the lower Murray River, drought flows in the river now occur in 61 per cent of years, when under natural conditions it occurred once in 20 years. In addition to reducing the quantity and variability of river flows, regulation and diversions have reversed the seasonality of flows in some parts of the Basin. High flows now tend to occur in summer and autumn when water is required for irrigation. These changes have contributed to the decimation of native fish and have been implicated in the proliferation of European carp.

The Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council (MDBC) implemented, in July 1995 an interim moratorium on further increases in diversions as a first step in establishing an appropriate balance between consumptive and environmental needs. Following Council's consideration in December 1996 of a independent audit group report on the water cap, a final cap is to be implemented from July 1997 based primarily on 1993-94 level of diversions. The cap for Queensland will be determined after the development and an independent audit of the water allocation and management plans used in the State for the allocation of flows. Strict monitoring of the cap is to be undertaken by the MDBC with initial assistance from the Audit Group. All Governments have acknowledged that the establishment of ecologically sustainable environmental flows will be a high priority.


Policy Development

In early 1997 the Commonwealth Government launched The Wetlands Policy of the Commonwealth Government of Australia. It provides a series of objectives, guiding principles and strategies for the Commonwealth Government's actions relating to the 'wise use' of wetlands in Australia and sets in place a framework within which the Commonwealth can work cooperatively with the State and Territory Governments. The policy is designed to implement the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and to meet Australia's obligations under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention) (see Box 5.1).

Box 5.1: The Ramsar Convention

The Ramsar Convention's broad aims are to halt the worldwide loss of wetlands and to conserve, through 'wise use' and management, those that remain. Countries which are Parties to the Ramsar Convention promote wetland conservation through a range of actions such as:

  • completing wetland inventories, preparing policies and promoting the wise use of all wetlands within their territory;
  • nominating specific sites to the list of wetlands of international importance which will then be managed to ensure that they retain their special ecological characteristics;
  • promoting capacity building and technology transfer through the training of wetland managers; and
  • consulting with each other, particularly in the case of shared wetlands, water systems or resources such as migratory waterbirds.

The policy and many of the Commonwealth's recent initiatives will complement the convention's strategic plan 1997-2002, which was adopted at the 1996 conference of contracting parties to the Ramsar Convention, held in Australia in March 1996. The implementation of the Commonwealth's wetlands policy will be addressed largely through the National Wetlands Programme (NWP), which will receive additional funding from the Trust of $11 million to the year 2001-02. The objectives of the policy are to:

Through the Trust, the Programme will seek to encourage the States and Territories to adopt their own wetland policies and strategies where these are not already in place so that Australia can move towards a national approach to the 'wise use' of wetlands.

Research and Inventory

The NWP in 1996 supported the production, in cooperation with State and Territory Governments, of the second edition of A Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia. The programme aims to support continuing work to establish, in conjunction with the national state of the environment reporting programme (see Ch. 2), a comprehensive national wetland inventory by the year 2000.

The Commonwealth has established a National Wetlands Research and Development Programme, which supports investigations into key threats facing wetlands in Australia and promotes feedback between researchers, on ground wetland managers and policy makers.

Management and Training

The NWP is supporting the development of management plans or reviews of management arrangements for 32 of Australia's 49 Ramsar sites. This will remain a priority for the programme in future years until all sites have plans in place. The NWP seeks to achieve nationally consistent monitoring at all Ramsar sites, East Asian Australasian Shorebird Reserve Network sites and other nationally important sites. Funding provided through the Trust, will support action by communities, private landowners and local governments. The NWP is developing the Asia Pacific Wetlands Managers Training Programme, which will help private and public land managers in Australia, the Pacific Islands and Asia practice wise management of wetlands.

International Cooperation

International actions include the provision of training opportunities for countries in the Oceania region, promotion of the Ramsar Convention amongst Oceania countries, support of Australia's role under the Japan/Australia the China/Australia Migratory Birds Agreements, and contributing to a multilateral approach to conservation of migratory waterbirds through the East Asian Australasian Shorebird Reserve Network. The network aims to promote a cooperative approach and training opportunities for on ground wetland managers at sites which are important stopover points for migratory waterbirds. It is hoped that this cooperative multilateral arrangement will eventually lead to formal multilateral agreements between countries in the flyway.

Australia's overseas aid programme is playing an important role in the sustainable use and conservation of wetlands in the Asia Pacific region. In 1996 the aid programme was supporting wetlands projects worth an estimated $20 million, including bilateral projects such as the $900,000 Water Hyacinth Control Project in Papua New Guinea. Australia's contributions to multilateral and regional programmes such as the Global Environment Facility, the South Pacific Biodiversity Programme and the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme also support activities which promote the wise use of wetlands.


The need for proper assessment of the ecological health of Australia's rivers and effective water quality monitoring was emphasised by the report Australia: State of the Environment 1996.

The National River Health Programme (NRHP) includes a national biomonitoring programme and database (ie the Australian River Assessment Scheme) and research on better management of environmental flows. Through the programme, a methodology and data management system has been developed, which will enable the ecological health of rivers and other waterways to be assessed using biological indicators.

National Land and Water Audit

A component of the National Land and Water Audit (see Ch. 4) is a National Water Resource Assessment (NWRA) which will provide a comprehensive report of the current status and trend of Australia's surface water and groundwater.

The Australian River Assessment Scheme

The Australian River Assessment Scheme (AUSRIVAS) bioassessment monitoring system and model will enable the First National Assessment of River Health at over 2,000 sites in 1997. This is expected to eventually increase to around 8,000 sites, and will be the first such assessment in the world at a continental scale. The Commonwealth is providing funding from existing NRHP funds for the AUSRIVAS First National Assessment of River Health and future funding from NRHP is also anticipated to continue this work. AUSRIVAS will assess pollution, assist water quality management and provide important data for the State of the Environment Report and the National Land and Water Audit. It will also help target funding under the Trust, through identification and prioritisation of rivers at risk. The Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology is assisting the NRHP.

A report Water Quality Monitoring In Australia outlining the scope of monitoring and recommendations for improvement has been produced with NRHP funds.

Floodplain Management

Through the joint efforts of Emergency Management Australia and the Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand, 'Best Practice Guidelines for Floodplain Management in Australia' are being prepared with input from the Bureau of Meteorology and State and Territory Governments. The Bureau of Meteorology, in cooperation with relevant State and Local Government agencies, provides forecasts and warnings of flooding in Australia. Under the National Landcare Programme, Trust funding of $3 million per annum will be available for three years for floodplain management activities.

Waterwatch Australia

Waterwatch Australia is an environmental education and awareness programme that promotes water quality monitoring as a means of creating and enhancing a broader community ownership ethic in land and water management. By encouraging community participation in monitoring water quality Waterwatch Australia aims to raise awareness of the importance of the long term health of natural waterways and river systems, promote a wise use of natural resources ethic and encourage appropriate on-ground actions. Since its inception in 1992, the number of monitoring groups has grown from about 200 in 16 catchments to nearly 1150 in 86 catchments. It is estimated that at present 50,000 Australians are participating.

Funding of $10.5 million through the National Rivercare Initiative over the period of the Trust will see Waterwatch Australia continue to work towards achieving a comprehensive national network of community based water quality monitoring sites.


The CSIRO is undertaking a number of projects that will underpin the Government's investment in sustainable natural resource management and the amelioration of water degradation. These activities, which are closely integrated with activities relating to land degradation (see Ch. 4), include:

Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist

The Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist, will conduct scientific research on tropical freshwater and estuarine ecosystems to provide advice on the conservation and sustainable development of the wetlands of northern Australia. The research will also test and refine protocols for assessing wetlands under the Ramsar Convention. Linked to the wetlands research programme is the establishment of a coastal monitoring node for the Alligator Rivers Region to investigate the natural variability of environmental responses to climate change and sea level variation, and to test predictive models in other parts of the wet-dry tropics.

Revision of the Australia Water Quality Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Waters for the Australia and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council is currently in progress. The guidelines will facilitate sustainable water quality management across Australia and New Zealand by recommending appropriate limits for a range of contaminants.


The Bureau of Meteorology will contribute $800,000 in 1997-98 towards objectives relating to inland waters, examples of which include:


Box 5.2: International Cooperation Projects

The $32 million Central Visayas Water and Sanitation Project in the Philippines will provide rural water and sanitation infrastructure to improve the health, living conditions and economic status of poor communities. Central to the project is the creation and training of 400 community-based 'water and sanitation organisations' which will own, manage and operate the completed systems. Australia's contribution to the project is $22 million, starting in 1991 and expected to be completed in 1997. In 1996, this AusAID project won an award of merit (the highest level of achievement) in the export category at the Association of Consulting Engineers Australia Excellence Awards.

With over 1 billion people worldwide lacking access to safe water, expenditure through Australia's overseas aid programme on water supply and sanitation activities has increased over the last five years from $10 million in 1990-91 to $76 million in 1995-96. The Commonwealth activities in this sector have increasingly incorporated environmental concerns such as integrated catchment management as well as the involvement of local communities in their design, construction and maintenance (see Box 5.2).