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The Hon Dr Sharman Stone
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Federal Member for Murray

9 July 2002
University of Tasmania

Opening Speech - National Water Conference

What a great place to have the National Water Conference.

As you can see it is pouring with rain outside and isn’t it ironic as we are going through one of the worst droughts on record.

The thing about Australia is that we have always been very dry and prone to droughts.

The thing about Australia’s Rivers is that they are very variable in their flow. If we looked at the country almost 200 years ago, when the first settlement occurred along these rivers and streams, they went to Botany Bay and filled their tanks with fresh water.

If you look at pre history our aboriginal traditional owners, knew where to find water and that is where we now find the sacred sites and religious grounds.

So we need to ponder our precious waterways very hard and fast.

Everybody here knows that today in Australia we face this crisis of water quality. We have got everything from the feral fish, like European carp now in what were previously clear little streams, like the Goulburn in my area, and years ago you could see the bottom and it is now just chocolate, no hope of even seeing the bottom.

We have got stock access that destroys the river banks and puts more silt in the streams and the clearing of land contributing to the erosion of the streams but all of the rivers, especially in the more populated areas and the bigger weirs that have interrupted the flows.

So our streams are extremely hard pressed and there is absolutely no doubt that one of the most significant issues that we face will be the access to water.

It is no surprise to me that as ‘water watchers’ we have over 50, 000 volunteers, because the culture of Australians revolves around volunteerism and that this is one of the few societies on earth that depends on volunteers for such causes as blood donation, emergency services and aged care services, like meals on wheels.

The Bureau of Meteorology, which I look after also rely on receiving their climate data and daily observations from thousands of volunteers, in the case of some families for well over one hundred years. And usually they will give the blokes the credit on their certificate of appreciation but often when you get out there it is the women who are actually doing the observations.

No one else in the world has been doing that kind of observation for so long and the volunteers are doing a great job.
I was around in 1992 in Victoria when we developed salt watch, water and frog watch - I was employed as a social scientist to try and find the reason for the salinity problems.

My Master’s Thesis was on the impact of environmental degradation; no one here would be surprised about the things that I found. Human communities whose whole self esteem depended on the quality of their land.

And at that time, around 1989, there was 73 masters, PhD’s and doctorates on salinity issues in Northern Victoria, still there was no work that actually engaged in getting together on what they could do across catchment with salinity problems.

So in 1989 I set out in particular to look at salinity. It took about 2 years to get the plans together and only now can we say we are on top of the issues of salinity, but one of the critical things that bought about a change in the public’s views on salinity was the school kids who engaged in what we call the salt watch.

A man called Terry White had a lot to do with this. Terry White is from Victoria and I don’t know if you know him but he has a very baldish head, and what he used to do was to stand in front of class with a jug of water and pour it over his head, and he would say watch this water flow, see how fast it flows off the top of my head. Watch the water get caught up in my hair, just like vegetation.

He bought about salt watch, which involved a bore in the front of every school - about 500 hundred schools in total. There was a little hand held boar with a float in it and this would measure the salinity and water levels.

The kids would then take the records back to their parents and the maps were published and the whole community was involved in salinity in a very short space of time. And it moved the kids and their parents to get involved in the different environmental groups that we had running.

Now in Australia we could not employ people to do what these people do the 50,000 individuals that are monitoring. We just would not have the budget to cover the transport, the time and the health and safety. But secondly what a loss of that community knowledge. The most important things about water watch is that it is by the people, for the people, and it is about accurate data.

This new era that we are now moving into you could argue took us too long; all of our focus is on landscape work. We have to work on catchments so that the whole story is about working from the upper to lower catchment.

And that is where your work becomes so important to us. You already have the skills and the contacts to make sure that the critical part of that planning is happening right across Australia – to sustain the environment for the future.

We are just beginning that new process. Your local government have been fantastic here in Tasmania, but what you are doing I can’t stress enough is so important. You need to make sure that what is recognised and documented and available to the community.
I want to congratulate each and every one of you for your patience and your commitment and I hope this conference and the opportunity to network, proves worthwhile and valuable.

I have great pleasure in officially declaring this conference open.

Thank you.

Commonwealth of Australia