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Speech for the Hon Robert Hill MP,
Minister for the Environment and Heritage
It gives me great pleasure to be here today, to officially open the Conservation Centre for the Watervalley Wetlands. The Centre will be fitted with laboratory and accommodation facilities for people to learn about the values and importance of Watervalley Wetlands to the region, the state and the country. The Centre will be instrumental in fostering research into these wetland systems.
Let me begin by saying that I am heartened to know that private organisations such as Wetlands and Wildlife are working so enthusiastically towards developing a better understanding of wetlands and promoting wetland systems that are vital to the maintenance of our waterways for both economic and environmental reasons. Thanks to the generosity of Tom and Pat Brinkworth, the idea of a conservation centre has become a reality. The former shearers quarters will be transformed into a centre for learning and exchanging experiences, ready for action early next year.
Australia is increasingly coming to realise what an important national asset our wetlands really are. Wetlands are the vital link between land and water. They are essential to the healthy functioning of catchments and aquatic systems, and they provide a multitude of benefits to society. Wetlands, through the ecosystems they provide also make an important contribution to the economy. Unfortunately it is estimated that we have less than 50% of our wetlands left. If the rate of loss continues, we will see water quality continue to deteriorate. Fish, birds and other species will become more threatened, our economy will suffer and our standard of living will decline.
It is important now that we work together to overcome the problems created through our past carelessness. We can all participate in halting the loss of wetlands and the rehabilitation of degraded wetlands. This is why groups such as Wetlands and Wildlife are so vital. For it is only through a collective and cooperative effort between the community, the private sector, research institutions and all spheres of government, that we can overcome challenges facing Australia's wetlands.
Today in opening the Watervalley Wetalnds Conservation Centre, I would like to provide you with a brief insight into the role of the Commonwealth in the management and conservation of wetlands; the Convention on Wetlands, commonly known as the Ramsar Convention; new Commonwealth environment protection legislation and conclude by making a few comments on the role of the community and organisations like Wetlands and Wildlife in protecting wetlands.
Wetlands and the Role of the Commonwealth
The Watervalley Wetlands constitute the greater part of a formerly vast system of seasonal and permanent wetlands which once linked Bool and Hacks Lagoon and the Coorong. I am told that most of this linking wetland system was drained for agriculture between 1860 and the present. But in 1984 Tom and Pat Brinkworth began to restore and rehabilitate some of these wetlands. Now 12,000 hectares of wetlands have been rehabilitated and are owned and managed for conservation by Wetlands and Wildlife.
It is important to recognise the values of the Watervalley Wetlands. They represent a diverse range of habitats such as shallow lakes, swamps and ponds which may be permanent or seasonal, fresh or saline.
The tea tree swamps of the south east support breeding colonies of ibis, spoonbills, egrets and cormorants, with the red gum swamps providing significant breeding areas for chestnut teal and mountain ducks. Some species of waterbirds, such as the Musk Duck and Freckled Duck are threatened. All of the wetlands are an important drought refuge for the many species of waterfowl which breed on the ephemeral inland waterways. The Watervalley Wetlands also contain important communities of wetland vegetation which were once common in the region but are now reduced to about 10% of their original area.
The wetlands also support thousands of migratory shorebirds such as Red-necked Stints, Wood Sandpipers and Latham's Snipe. These birds make their annual journey from northern hemisphere breeding grounds, to summer in Australia. This round trip is in the order of 25 000 kilometres. Some of the birds making this extraordinary pilgrimage may weigh as little as 30 grams, the weight of an average muesli bar. Thankfully, many of these species are protected under agreements Australia has with Japan and China.
The China-Australia and Japan-Australia agreements, commonly known CAMBA and JAMBA, are two international bilateral agreements that protect migratory birds and their habitats. The Governments of Australia, Japan and the Peoples Republic of China, have agreed to preserve and enhance the habitats used by migratory birds listed under the agreements, engage in joint research programs and share information.
Delegates from Australia are currently in China attending meetings of the parties to these agreements. These discussions aim to develop cooperative projects and exchange information and research with the objective of further protecting these birds.
In an important development Australia is now leading the way to develop with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region a new and broader multilateral agreement to conserve migratory birds.
Wetlands, like many other parts of the rural environment, are under threat from increasing salinity. The Upper South East Dryland Salinity and Flood Management Plan, endorsed by South Australian Government in June 1995, recommends integrated drainage, wetland management, revegetation and saltland agronomic measures to address this threat. As many of you will know an important component of the Upper South East scheme, known as 'Wetlands Waterlink', has the ambitious aim of creating a corridor of wetlands from Bool Lagoon to the Coorong. This will link two of South Australia's wetlands of international importance. This Watervalley complex will be a critical component of this link. Success will require achieving a balance between the provision of water for the environmental needs of wetlands, and the protection of agricultural land from excessive flooding. This will be no easy task.
Within the Watervalley complex a native vegetation and fauna survey on two wetlands will investigate and trial methods of revegetating, restoring and rehabilitating wetlands and develop an up to date management plan for the Watervalley Wetlands. Monitoring programs will be extended to provide a scientific basis for management
I am pleased to say that Watervalley and Wetlands Waterlink projects have been supported by the Commonwealth Government in partnership with the Government of South Australia. Total funding of over $500,000 (Watervalley = $145,317 Wetlands Waterlink = $440,000) has been provided by the Natural Heritage Trust.
From a national and international perspective, Australia is at the forefront of protecting and better managing its wetlands. Since signing the Ramsar Convention in 1971, Australia has identified a total of 53 wetland sites which are considered to be of international importance. They are now listed under the Convention on Wetlands, more commonly known as the Ramsar Convention.
Four of the 53 wetlands listed under the Ramsar Convention were announced at the recent 7th Conference of Contracting Parties to the Convention on Wetlands in Costa Rica in May of this year. Three of these four new Ramsar sites are in NSW these being the Gwydir Wetlands and Narran Lake Nature Reserve in the north west of the State and Myall Lakes on the North Coast of NSW. The Great Sandy Strait in QLD was the fourth site nominated. We are very proud of this achievement.
The Gwydir site is of particular importance because it is the first privately owned site in Australia to be nominated by its owners for listing under the convention. This heralds the way of the future, as we rely more and more on improving conservation efforts on privately owned land that makes up most of Australia's land surface.
I am aware that nomination documents have been prepared for listing the Watervalley Wetlands under the Ramsar Convention and they are currently with the state government for consideration. I understand that the public has had the opportunity to comment on the proposal, and I look forward with great anticipation to receiving a nomination in the near future.
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act
For those of you that may not be aware, the new Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 was passed in July this year. The Act represents the most fundamental reform of Commonwealth Environment laws since the first environment statutes were enacted in the early 1970's. It is the first comprehensive attempt to define the environmental responsibilities of the Commonwealth and includes Ramsar wetlands as a matter of national environmental significance.
As a result there is now a direct role for the Commonwealth Government in ensuring the proper assessment of the impact of proposals on Ramsar sites or in approving any actions that have, will have or are likely to have a significant impact on the ecological character of a declared Ramsar wetland.
The Act includes provisions for the declaration, protection and management of Ramsar wetlands and in particular, provides that a person must not take, without approval, an action that has, will have or is likely to have a significant impact on the ecological character of a declared Ramsar wetland.
Wetlands and Wildlife
Australia's commitments to wetland conservation and management at the national and international level have been widely acknowledged. But this would be of little meaning if there were not matched by the important achievements being made at the local level by interested individuals and communities. As Australia's awareness of the importance of its wetlands rises so does the contribution being made by private organisations and community groups wanting to make a difference.
I am heartened to see how Wetlands and Wildlife are working so enthusiastically to conserve, protect and enhance wetlands. The organisation is achieving fine results through on-ground research and monitoring, land acquisition, community education and the operation of a public fund for conservation purposes.
I wish to commend Wetlands and Wildlife as an organisation, for its commitment to the conservation and protection of wetlands and flora and fauna for the benefit of the Australian public.
And now, it gives me great pleasure to officially open the Watervalley Wetlands Conservation Centre and to wish you every success.