Protecting Australia's rivers, wetlands and estuaries of high conservation value
RT Kingsford, H Dunn, D Love, J Nevill, J Stein and J Tait
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005
ISBN 1 920860 53 3
Australia has a rich variety of different rivers, wetlands and estuaries that support a significant amount of its biodiversity and industry. Important social values of Australia's Indigenous and European culture are also intimately linked to the integrity of our rivers. Despite this, compared with terrestrial conservation (e.g. national parks and reserves, and regional forest agreements), there has generally been a lessor focus on conservation of these ecosystems in Australia.
This report presents a conceptual framework for the protection of rivers, river reaches and estuaries of high conservation value. It was developed in conjunction with State and Territory agencies during 2003 and 2004 and provides an important foundation for developing future approaches to the conservation of these key areas.
Many of Australia's rivers, wetlands and estuaries are affected by river regulation, catchment disturbance and pest species, and opportunities to effectively conserve riverine biodiversity and landscapes are limited.. There are opportunities to protect Australia's most important aquatic areas so that future generations do not have to pay the high costs of rehabilitation (e.g. as has happened for the River Murray). This may begin with a comprehensive national framework that identifies and protects rivers, wetlands and estuaries that have high, national conservation value. States and Territories are primarily responsible for their protection, but a national framework could support consistent identification and strategic investment in the protection of nationally important aquatic ecosystems.
All Australian governments have invested in programs and projects aimed at protecting rivers, wetlands and estuaries. There is national recognition of the importance of this issue across all jurisdictions. In 1994, the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) agreed that the environment was a legitimate user of water. In 2004, CoAG agreed to the National Water Initiative (NWI), which will chart the future responsibilities and progress towards sustainable management of the nation's rivers and aquifers. Provisions in the associated intergovernmental agreement commit most governments to identify, protect and manage high-conservation-value rivers and aquifers and their dependent ecosystems.
To effect protection of high-conservation-value rivers and their dependent ecosystems, national conservation goals are essential. They may be used also to determine short-term and specific goals developed from a national vision statement for rivers. This recognises that it is not possible to single out high-conservation-value rivers or their dependent ecosystems and expect to protect only these and achieve conservation of their values. River conservation requires a network approach that recognises that many processes and organisms may use all parts of rivers and even different rivers during their lives. A protection framework focused on only high-conservation-value rivers will not work.
Rivers and dependent ecosystems with nationally high conservation values are a subset of the country's aquatic ecosystems. Conservation value is a relative measure, established through a comparison of all rivers and dependent ecosystems. This discussion paper focuses on ecological conservation values, but recognises that rivers also have considerable cultural, economic and ecosystem service values.