Inland waters: Investments in inland waters

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

7.3 Investments in inland waters

Investments such as the NHT and the NAP at a national and regional scale, the Living Murray (MDBC), Healthy Waterways Partnership (south-eastern Queensland), and the Clean Up the Swan Programme (Western Australia) are important to future progress. These programmes have addressed local and regional needs, but Australia needs a systemic approach that develops sustainable systems of land management that address fundamental environmental problems.

The National Water Initiative  represents a significant shift in this regard, with much support for the initiative having been galvanised by the recent drought. Whether these reforms will be sufficient to restore the rivers to an acceptable level and redress the evident loss of biodiversity remains to be seen. Indeed, there is concern in some quarters that the environment may not necessarily benefit from changes such as extensive interstate water trading (Jones 2005).

Much progress is being made with programmes such as the recovery and restoration of environmental flows, riparian vegetation and snags, and aquatic pest control and removal (such as of carp and willows ). Habitat management programmes are underway in all states and territories, as part of ‘Healthy Rivers’ programmes, although they are often underpinned by a view that isolated local action can remedy the problem. The most widely publicised and known of these river restoration programmes is the Murray–Darling Basin Commission’s ‘Living Murray’ programme. In 2004, the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council agreed to recover 500 billion litres of water for the Murray River environment. Other less well-publicised environmental flow agreements have been, and continue to be, struck elsewhere.

As important as these programmes are, they provide little ground for complacency—the magnitude of human impact often exceeds the scale of restoration programmes. For example, the 500 billion litres to be recovered for the Murray River represents only a small percentage of the water consumed every year by the people living along the river. It is likely that the Murray River will require at least three times this volume of water if there are to be significant improvements in the entire river environment, rather than just improvements to the parts that are targeted to receive environmental flows (Jones et al 2003).

Moreover, analysis shows that so-called ‘best management practices’ might not achieve sustainability or the desired catchment management targets. This is partly a product of the small scale and fragmented nature of various investments in inland water, riparian and catchment management. Past investments in these programmes addressed local needs, but did not often address the larger, strategic needs for improved practices and sustainable solutions. Investments in individual programmes must be coordinated from a whole-of-catchment perspective that is underpinned by strong principles and models of landscape hydrology and ecology.

Without criticising the efforts of extremely dedicated volunteers, it should be noted that the success of many excellent, small-scale habitat and species restoration programmes is easily compromised by unsustainable large-scale land and water use patterns.

Similarly, Commonwealth, state and territory programmes continue to address many of the issues, but in a fragmented manner and with a range of responses, although there are some signs that this is changing. In Victoria, the Murray–Darling Basin Salinity Management Strategy, for instance (MDBC 2001) has been used as a framework for basin communities and governments to control salinity and protect natural resources. The strategy establishes end-of-valley salinity targets for each tributary catchment and a basin target at Morgan in South Australia. Implementation is a shared responsibility between valley communities and governments and there is a commitment to the principles of the Integrated Catchment Management Policy Statement.

There are some heartening stories. One example is the broader water reform process in Australia, which has led to improvements in allocation mechanisms, water use efficiencies and more use of water for environmental purposes. Water use efficiencies in the irrigation sector are increasing, with improved irrigation practices and crops that yield greater returns per megalitre of water used (in the case of rice growing in the Murray Irrigation Area, see http://www.rga.org.au/environment/water.asp >). It is hoped that the National Water Initiative will continue to add incentives to positive reform in this area.

Controls on chemical pollution have been reasonably successful over the last decade, as shown by improvements in water quality in Port Phillip Bay (Harris 1996). Many state regulatory and licensing programmes have focused on eliminating industrial, agricultural and other chemicals from the aquatic environment. While some cases still exist where action is required, it can be said that, overall, such programmes have been reasonably successful in the last decade and that instances of problematic concentrations of such chemicals are not frequent. For example, during the 1990s, the Australian cotton industry undertook a coordinated programme to reduce the impact of pesticides on rivers and wetlands. They have made significant steps to reduce pesticide use and to improve the techniques by which it is applied and managed on-farm (Schofield et al in press).

Exceptions to this positive trend include waterways downstream of some irrigation areas, some industrial and mining sites, disused sheep dip sites and old waste dumps that continue to pollute groundwater. Increased emissions to inland waters have been reported to the NPI for a number of substances between 2001 and 2004, notably sulphuric acid, manganese, copper, ethanol, zinc and total volatile organic compounds, while reported emissions from facilities have declined for ammonia, total phosphorus, total nitrogen, fluoride and chlorine. Total nitrogen is the greatest NPI-reported pollutant of inland waters, followed by sulphuric acid, ammonia, manganese, total phosphorus and oxides of nitrogen.

Key points

  • River and wetland management activity has increased in the past five years, with environmental flow allocations, habitat restoration, and invasive species control programmes in many river systems. Nevertheless, Australia’s inland waters remain under significant development pressure and much remains to be done before the health of all Australian waterways is sustainable in the long term.
  • Increasing attention is being paid to the development of a national system of freshwater aquatic reserves to ensure that those river and wetland ecosystems that are still largely undisturbed can be protected into the future. Many of these ‘near-pristine’ rivers are in northern tropical Australia, and there is growing pressure for their agricultural and industrial exploitation.
  • The recent drought has placed additional pressures on already stressed river systems, leading to impacts on biodiversity in some regions. The recovery of rivers and wetlands will need to be closely monitored as part of the process of adapting to known and anticipated variability.
  • Increasing demands on surface water sources, combined with impacts of the drought, have led to often uncontrolled growth in groundwater use in many regions. Not only is this cause for serious concern from a water resources perspective, but the impact on groundwater-dependent ecosystems  is uncertain and little studied (Humphreys 2006).
  • Controls on point-source nutrient and chemical pollution have been reasonably successful over the past decade, with a few remaining areas of concern. The 2001 and 2003 bushfires in south-eastern Australia also led to massive inputs of sediment and nutrients to rivers and reservoirs in affected catchments, with consequent diminution of water and instream habitat quality; recovery from this natural disaster could take many years.
  • The National Water Initiative is set to revolutionise the way water is used, reused and managed in Australia. The impact on the aquatic environment of specific policies, such as extensive water trading, needs to be carefully monitored.