Integrated Water Resource Management in Australia: Case studies - Lake Eyre Basin Agreement

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Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004

Lake Eyre Basin Agreement - integrated cross-border river basin management and community engagement

Background

The Lake Eyre Basin (Figure 1) covers approximately 1,170,000 square kilometres of arid and semi-arid Central Australia, which represents 17% of the continent. It stretches, north to south, from just below Mt Isa in Queensland to Marree in South Australia, and, west to east, from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory to Longreach and Blackall in central Queensland. It encompasses the towns of Winton, Birdsville, Innamincka and Oodnadatta, and has been evocatively described as 'home to some of the last wild rivers in the world.'

The major rivers included in the Lake Eyre Basin are the Georgina, Diamantina, Thomson and Barcoo Rivers, and Cooper Creek, which flow from central and western Queensland into South Australia, as well as the Finke, Todd and Hugh Rivers in Central Australia. These waterways end in Lake Eyre, the world's fifth largest terminal lake. The Lake Eyre Basin is slightly larger than the Murray-Darling system, and is the world's largest internal drainage system (the Murray-Darling system drains into the ocean).

Unlike many other large river systems in the world, water flows in the Lake Eyre Basin are highly variable and unpredictable.

None of the rivers and creeks flows permanently. All experience short periods of flow following rain and extended periods of no flow. The volume of flow decreases downstream, reflecting increasing aridity towards Lake Eyre. The Lake Eyre Basin is part of Australia's arid zone and the ecosystems, plants and animals it supports are varied and often unique.

The Basin includes many areas of high conservation significance including important wetlands such as the Ramsar-listed Coongie Lakes, grasslands (such as Astrebla Downs National Park) and deserts (such as the Simpson Desert National Park).

The river systems of the Basin provide important habitat for wildlife and a breeding area for waterbirds from throughout Australia and as far away as Siberia and Asia. The Basin is also home to many rare and endangered species of plants and animals such as the greater bilby, the kowari and waddi waddi trees (Acacia peuce). Permanent waterholes scattered across the Basin are also important to towns, communities and pastoral holdings.

Land use within the Lake Eyre Basin, like water use, is varied, and includes pastoralism, mining, tourism, oil and gas exploration and production, conservation and Aboriginal activities. Mining and petroleum generate the greatest amount of income within the region, but pastoralism is the most extensive in terms of land use.

The Basin is also rich in indigenous and non-indigenous cultural heritage with many sites linked to the early exploration and development of inland Australia and of spiritual significance to indigenous people.

The Lake Eyre Basin Intergovernmental Agreement

In recognition of the need to maintain the important environmental, social and economic values associated with the Lake Eyre Basin, the Australian, Queensland and South Australian Governments signed the Lake Eyre Basin Inter-governmental Agreement on 21 October 2000.

The Lake Eyre Basin Agreement currently applies to the Cooper Creek system (including the Thomson and Barcoo Rivers) and the Georgina-Diamantina catchment systems within Queensland and South Australia, ending at Lake Eyre. The Northern Territory Government is expected to join the Agreement in June 2004, which should result in the Agreement Area being extended to include the entire Northern Territory portion of the Basin.

The Agreement provides for the sustainable management of the water and related natural resources associated with cross-border river systems in the Lake Eyre Basin to avoid downstream impacts on associated environmental, economic and social values.

The Agreement incorporates a number of guiding principles that recognise the significance of the Lake Eyre Basin for ecological, pastoral, cultural and tourism reasons, and the need to make decisions which will foster ecologically sustainable development using a precautionary approach and take account of the significant knowledge and experience of local communities.

Institutional Arrangements

The Agreement established the Lake Eyre Basin Ministerial Forum, comprising the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage (as Chair), the Queensland Minister for Natural Resources and Mines and the South Australian Minister for Environment and Conservation. The Ministerial Forum is the decision making body responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Agreement.

The Ministerial Forum has established a Community Advisory Committee to ensure ongoing community support for, and participation in, arrangements under the Agreement. The Ministerial Forum has also established a Scientific Advisory Panel to advise it on scientific and technical issues related to the sustainable management of the Basin. The Agreement does not affect States' constitutional rights to manage their natural resources, however, the States have agreed to use their best endeavours to ensure such statutory processes are consistent with the spirit and intent of the Agreement.

Mainstreaming

To ensure sustainability, the Ministerial Forum is required to develop and/or adopt policies and strategies dealing with river flows, water quality, management of water and related natural resources (eg floodplain/riparian vegetation); existing and new water resource developments and research and monitoring requirements.

The Ministerial Forum is also required to:

  • hold a Conference every two years to provide the opportunity for the Basin community, members of the Ministerial Forum's community and scientific advisory bodies, scientists, officials and other interested parties to exchange information and views in relation to the Agreement;
  • undertake a review of the ecological condition of all watercourses and catchments in the Agreement Area and repeat this every 10 years; and
  • undertake a review of policies and strategies after 5 years and thereafter on a 10 yearly basis.

The Ministerial Forum has established a Community Advisory Committee to ensure ongoing community support for, and participation in, arrangements under the Agreement. The Ministerial Forum has also established a Scientific Advisory Panel to advise on scientific and technical issues related to the sustainable management of the Basin.

Issues

  • The size and low population density of the Basin, its cross-border nature and its spatial and temporal variability present significant challenges for its sustainable management.
  • Despite supporting extensive pastoral development and an increasing outback tourism industry, the Lake Eyre Basin is considered to be relatively unimpacted compared to other large cross-border river systems in Australia (and the world) many of which are under threat from unsustainable water extraction, urbanisation, and a range of water quality problems, and have their flow modified by dams, weirs and other impoundments. As a result, management in the Lake Eyre Basin tends to be more focussed on opportunities for sustainable development and preventative measures rather than remedial actions.
  • Knowledge of the ecology and hydrology of the Basin's river systems is generally poor but improving.
  • The cross-border nature of the Basin requires effective coordination and cooperation between a number of jurisdictions with differing legislative and statutory processes.

Lessons Learned

  • Appropriate and comprehensive consultation with all stakeholders (particularly the local community) is essential.
  • As the Agreement does not override the statutory responsibilities of the States for natural resource management, it relies to a large degree on the good will and commitment of State Governments and the ongoing support and contribution from the Basin community for its success.
  • Having legislative approval of the Agreement in each jurisdiction strengthens its effectiveness.
Map of the Lake Eyre Basin, Australia

Figure 1: The Lake Eyre Basin, Australia.