Professor Graham Harris, ESE Systems
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
While it is too early to judge the success of the National Water Initiative (NWI ), some statements can be made about the success of the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP). Overall, as in many other countries, there is a trend towards subsidiarity (the devolution of decision making to local communities), outsourcing, and the use of market instruments for the management of natural resources, especially water. Clearly, past water and land management practices have left numerous ‘externalities’—degraded rivers, poor water quality, and reduced biodiversity; particularly in Australia’s icon river basins. The NWI represents the shared commitment of the Australian, state and territory governments to water reform. The NWI goes some way to addressing the needs for institutions to manage rivers as riverine ecosystems as well as managing for all the other uses and values of the water. Robust water reform is underway through the Council of Australian Governments and, more recently, the NWI through the development and use of water markets and changes to titles and legal rights. It remains to be seen to what extent these reforms will be sufficient to restore the rivers and improve the evident loss of biodiversity. See Table 9 for water recovery targets set under the NWI (in the Intergovernmental Agreement on Addressing Water Overallocation and Achieving Environmental Objectives in the Murray-Darling Basin).
Assessment of past NAP and NHT investments and numerous catchment-based environmental flow allocation agreements show that they have been insufficiently strategic in nature and, while addressing local and regional needs, do not address the larger strategic needs for improved practices and sustainable solutions. To this end, there is a need for a fundamental rethink of many present practices because analysis shows that what are presently assumed to be ‘best management practices’ do not, in combination, achieve sustainability or the desired catchment management targets. This is partly a product of the small scale and fragmented nature of investments in managing inland waters, riparian zones and catchments. Innovation is therefore required, new solutions must be found and applied in the form of new land and water use patterns that are sustainable, financially viable and acceptable to the community, whose attitude to water is changing (that is, that water ‘left in the rivers’ and flowing past their ‘back door’ is not ‘wasted’ water). The scale of the problem requires larger-scale, integrated programmes with clear strategic objectives and an environmental outcome focus.
The water reform process in Australia has clearly led to improved efficiencies in allocation mechanisms, improvements in water use efficiencies and, progressively, more efficient use of water for environmental purposes . More effort needs to be made to ensure that profitable or cost-effective solutions are found for some of the problems outlined above, including land and water use patterns that sustain and improve the natural environment. Increased profitability is necessary so that sustainable investments can be made in financial, social and environmental capitals. It is widely accepted that the strategic needs are for sustainable rural and regional communities and for capacity building as natural resource management moves to more complex jurisdictional and governance policies. Rural and regional communities need assistance to operate in a new, and much more complex, regulatory and market environment. Local communities also require more (scientifically defensible) data and analysis upon which to make more robust rational and sustainable decisions about their environment and its future.
|Jurisdiction||New South Wales||Victoria||South Australia||Australian Capital Territory||Australian Government|
|Indicative Volumetric Target||249 GL||214 GL||35 GL||2 GL||–|
Source: Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council (2004, Table 3, p. 7 )
Largely through the efforts of the Council of Australian Governments , Australia has seen much water reform in the last decades as state, territory and Commonwealth natural resource management agencies have been restructured in an environment of subsidiarity and the introduction of water and other markets. While surface waters are better managed than they were, there is evidently still more to be done. Surface water and groundwater are still over-allocated in many places; and sustainable, conjunctive water use is still a matter to be addressed. The large-scale decline in groundwater levels in many of the nation’s major aquifers often continues unnoticed. A focus on profitability over other capitals and values (environmental, social, aesthetic) has led to an imbalance, and landscape and waterscape degradation has resulted. A new balance between often-incommensurate values is required, which will be defined in a new sense of ‘place’ and new management practices. This will be realised through new, more efficient and profitable crops and cropping regimes, new land use mosaics that incorporate a variety of annual and perennial crops, and new approaches to conservation areas and biodiversity preservation. Up until now, the Australian landscape has been remade in a European image—reflecting the historical roots of the culture and an overriding European sense of ‘place’. This is nowhere more noticeable than in the design of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, with a lake surrounded by parks and spreading shade from deciduous trees—a northern hemisphere urban design in the southern uplands. In all probability, sustainable landscapes and waterscapes in the Australian context of poor, shallow soils and climate variability will look and work differently.
Groundwater management continues to be a ‘poor second cousin’ to surface water management, as the intimate linkage between the two is generally not understood. In many catchments, the introduction of caps on surface water resources has occurred, while groundwater development is often controlled to a limited extent, if at all. The reduction in streamflows has been blamed on the 2002–03 drought, while the impact of groundwater pumping in catchments is generally not understood.
Policy and institutional reform is underway, but all the data on the state of the inland waters environment indicate that there is still much work to be done. There is a slow adoption of policies and practices that encourage increased water use efficiencies, water reuse and recycling, and reduced demand. Australia does not yet have in place policies and practices to ensure that saved water is effectively returned to the environment to produce environmental benefits. Price and regulatory signals are not yet ensuring rapid adoption of new water reuse and demand management policies. Advances are being made in public health and other requirements, but a major shift in public attitudes will be required before extensive water reuse is countenanced.
As in other parts of the world, changes in corporatisation, privatisation and outsourcing policies have led to quite marked shifts in the risk profiles of everything from individual farm enterprises to major water corporations. New intermediaries are appearing and risks are being shared and defined in new ways through partnerships, leasing arrangements, and insurance and risk management protocols. In the urban water industry, for example, many new entities have appeared to operate or lease infrastructure, manage supply and demand, and manage risks. What was once the sovereign risk of governments is now managed by privatised and corporatised entities through insurance and other financial structures. Outsourcing does not always cover all the risks, particularly those arising from extreme events or complex interactions between financial, social and environmental systems. Allocation policies and practices must be robust in the face of climate change and other unpredictable future events. Water pricing policies must take environmental flow requirements and other system level, environmental needs into account.
Above all, what is required is a process to define an accepted community-wide vision and set of objectives for environmental outcomes from water management in this country.
There is a growing interest in environmental flow allocations and managing them for maximum environmental benefit; the NWI is a major step in this direction. Unfortunately, the tools are restricted to a set of assumptions about linkages between catchment condition, flow management, physical habitat changes, and changes in aquatic biodiversity. Precise knowledge of the flow requirements of many key species and communities is lacking. It is known that ecosystems respond to the frequency and magnitude of extreme events more than to annually averaged flows, and that connectivity is essential. It is a major challenge to ensure a more natural regime of environmental flows in river systems that have been specifically engineered to retain high flows for later (slower) release. It may simply not be possible to return flow regimes to their required variability given the huge ‘sunk costs’ of Australia’s physical infrastructure, financial investments, and the requirement for water security. What is possible for what investments, and how Australia should balance the various values and capitals (human, social, physical, financial and natural) in new ways, remains to be determined and agreed.
For Australia’s major river systems, hydrological and ecological modelling is largely inadequate and incomplete (particularly in catchments where there is little hydrological data), leaving managers dependent on the use of expert judgements and other forms of anecdotal information. Uncertainties are large. The state-of-the-art of catchment and ecological science and modelling is such that it is not yet possible to provide many of the answers to urgent and significant questions. There is greater scientific understanding of the hydrology than there is of the ecology, but policy development is operating in an environment of a considerable lack of knowledge about key processes and linkages. This is not a recipe for doing nothing, but it is a situation in which some sophisticated adaptive and risk management is going to be required. Adaptive management will require greater flexibility on the part of many jurisdictions and institutions and also an ability to cope with time lags in environmental responses. Surprises, like the loss of the River Red Gums on the River Murray, will continue to occur. In many cases, nobody knows how to ‘put the rabbit back in the hat’ once it has jumped out, although the Living Murray initiative and the NWI are attempting to restore floods and overbank flows to selected ‘iconic’ sites on the Murray River floodplain. It is important to recognise the limited nature of the water allocations under the ‘First Step’ of the Living Murray programme and that only small benefits are likely. Political will must be sustained to address the ‘Second Step’ before too long an interval has passed. Trial and error, and an ability to rapidly learn from mistakes, will also be necessary.
There is now a legislative requirement to consider the health of groundwater dependent ecosystems in most states and to include groundwater dependent ecosystems in the water allocation planning process. This significant improvement has occurred only since 2001. With the general lack of scientific understanding of groundwater dependent ecosystems, this requirement is often difficult to achieve with any reasonable level of scientific confidence.
Habitat management programmes are underway in all states and territories. Much progress is being made with programmes such as the recovery and restoration of riparian vegetation, re-snagging programs and weed control and removal (for example, willows ). There have been advances in knowledge about the wetting and drying cycles that are necessary for the management and restoration of wetlands (including some examples of the recovery of the clear and aquatic plant dominated state with a consequent recovery in waterbird populations, such as Lake Merretti in South Australia). Wetland preservation under the Ramsar convention is monitored, although there are examples of Ramsar wetlands that continue to suffer highly salinised and dry conditions after the recent extended period of low rainfall and lack of overbank flows. Management plans are in place but some are difficult to fully enact because of a lack of water. Climate variability and change influence the ability to manage these important assets.
Most habitat management programmes are quite tactical, small scale and specific to particular threats. Integrated catchment management and integrated water resource management plans are rife and widely promulgated. Implementation is, as yet, mostly patchy because of lack of capacity and a lack of integrated policy implementation. The Victorian catchment management authority structure is an exception that should be highlighted. Integrated policy implementation will require the balancing of various forms of social, economic and natural capital to find a more sustainable pattern of water use and management than is presently practised. Under NAP, the NHT regional and catchment committees have set investment priorities and they are addressing habitat and biodiversity management requirements. Regional NHT plans should be more strategic and integrated to tackle the landscape-scale threatening processes discussed above.
The most significant threatening processes are clearly those that that operate at landscape and waterscape scales—land use change, water extraction, irrigation, flow regulation, draining of wetlands, and exotic species management; therefore there is a need to tackle these threatening processes at these larger scales. The NWI is a move in this direction. The real challenge is, therefore, to find a more sustainable mix of public and private investment on public and private land. This must be backed by the necessary institutional, regulatory, governance and market mechanisms that operate at scales that move the entire economic, social and environmental system towards higher sustainability and profitability, increased water use efficiency, improved environmental flows, and river restoration. Piecemeal habitat restoration programmes will not be effective if the landscape-scale threats are not addressed and the landscape-scale science is lacking. Similarly, unprofitable rural enterprises are not able to make sustainable investments in new practices and habitat restoration measures. There is, therefore, a need to tackle a number of system-level policy and management interventions in ways that deliver more sustainable and equitable environmental, social and economic outcomes. The trend is definitely in this direction but the rate of change is slow.
The sustainable future of Australia and its water resources lies in finding ways to balance numerous competing demands for water—the balance of the legitimate demands of people in nature. As Australians begin to understand the peculiarities and complexities of their unique continent, they are moving slowly towards better solutions. The challenge is to make these solutions act with sufficient speed and scale to allow an effective and proactive engagement with new emerging issues such as climate change.
While there are many recreational fisheries and fishers, particularly on stocked populations of introduced species such as trout, many inland fisheries for native species have been stopped because of the low catch returns and the endangered nature of key species. As noted previously, the population status of many species of aquatic animals and plants is not well known and there are few listings under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 or under state and territory legislation. Endemicity in Australia’s ancient river basins may be much higher than is presently assumed. Because of the strong link between habitat management and biodiversity management, the same comments apply here as were made earlier—there is an urgent need to address the landscape-scale threats to habitats and biodiversity. Restocking programs may maintain native species of fish and frogs, for example, but true population recovery requires larger-scale and longer-term policy and management initiatives.
There are indications that the need for larger-scale land and waterscape management is recognised and that policy and legislation will begin to address these larger-scale issues through ecosystem-based and regional-scale management of fisheries and other resources. Committees such as the Commonwealth Threatened Species Scientific Committee have, because of the piecemeal nature of threatened species nominations and the need to manage threatening processes at larger scales, begun to draft policy papers addressing ‘multiple species, multiple community’ management needs.