Part A - Wild River Values and Impacts

Australian Heritage Commission, 1998
ISBN 0 6425 4590 1

Conservation Guidelines for the Management of Wild River Values

1. Introduction


'Desert Watercourse', Mootwingee National Park, NSW. A wild river can be perennial, intermittent or episodic.

Photo: Robin Mitchell © 1998 Entry in 'Our Wild Rivers' National Photographic Exhibition.

The 1980s and 1990s have seen growing community concern at the rapid change to Australia's rivers caused by human impacts. Water use, high salinity levels, algal blooms, catchment changes and the impacts of growing cities are significant and widespread threats. Those rivers that do remain undisturbed and in a relatively natural state are becoming scarce.

The Wild Rivers Project commenced in 1993. Its work has comprised three concurrent programs covering:

  • systematic identification of Australia's wild rivers;
  • development of Guidelines for the sustainable management of wild rivers; and
  • communications and consultation.

A wild river as defined by the project is:

a channel, channel network, or connected network of waterbodies, of natural origin and exhibiting overland flow (which can be perennial, intermittent or episodic) in which:

  • the biological, hydrological and geomorphological processes associated with river flow; and
  • the biological, hydrological and geomorphological processes in the river catchment with which the river is intimately linked,

have not been significantly altered since European settlement.

This includes rivers that may flow underground for all or part of their length such as rivers flowing through karst environments.

This definition accepts the view that rivers and their adjoining lands generally have been modified by Indigenous Australians over time, but that they remain relatively undisturbed in comparison with the changes made since European settlement. It is recognised that much of Australia's landscape is a constructed artefact of Aboriginal land management practices, and that Indigenous involvement in management may be crucial to the management of wild river values.

In order to set thresholds for determining the level of disturbance above which a river can be classified as wild, a systematic assessment of all rivers in Australia has been carried out by the Wild Rivers Project. The Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (CRES) at the Australian National University carried out the initial task of determining, at a national scale, which rivers can be considered 'potentially wild' through the development of a database based on catchment naturalness and naturalness of flow. Using these two indices a river disturbance index has been developed using weightings for the type and scale of disturbance occurring within catchments (for example, a walking track has a lower weighting than a sealed road). Rivers identified as potentially wild by CRES have been re-examined by State and Territory Government authorities. A list of wild rivers was being compiled at the time the Guidelines were being finalised.

For this document the following definitions are also used:

  • the catchment is land that contributes surface water to the channel:
  • the riparian zone is the channel margin (or banks), which forms part of the floodplain; and
  • the floodplain, which includes the riparian zone, is that part of the land adjacent to the river that is subject to flooding and consisting of a mosaic of aquatic and terrestrial environments that are intricately linked with the river.

This document addresses the conservation management of wild rivers by:

  • discussing the impacts of a range of activities on wild river values;
  • outlining some draft principles for wild river management; and
  • providing a draft Code for wild river management.

Taken together, the principles and Code constitute guidelines for the management of wild rivers. The principles and Code for management of wild rivers have been developed with the objective of assisting management authorities to maintain the natural condition of those few remaining wild rivers, where a decision has been made to manage the rivers for their wild river values. It is recognised that this decision principally rests with the responsible Government (State, Territory or Commonwealth).

The Conservation Guidelines for the Management of Wild River Values do not provide for the identification or assessment of wild river values. They are not intended to be prescriptive nor do they provide for the total restoration or improvement of river conditions. However, in some instances where it is considered that an impact left unattended may cause ongoing degradation of wild river values, restorative measures are suggested.

The Guidelines recognise that States and Territories already have mechanisms in place for assessing and minimising the impacts of development. These Guidelines can assist in the implementation of these mechanisms by planners.

While the Guidelines may assist in the assessment of the environmental compatibility of a development proposal with wild river values, they do not attempt to address economic, social and other considerations which are relevant to development decisions. Such decisions are the responsibility of the relevant Commonwealth, State, Territory or local government management and planning authorities.

The Wild Rivers Committee emphasises the importance of recognising the role of Indigenous people in determining the management of their country. The Guidelines may not be appropriate in catchments where Indigenous groups have an interest, and where the conservation of wild river values may not be compatible with Indigenous interests and uses.

The discussion on impacts on wild river values and the statement of principles and draft Code have been kept to a broad level. They should be considered as generic statements which will assist the responsible management agencies prepare management plans tailored to individual rivers.