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
Australia is characterised by extremely variable rainfall and river flow regimes. Most lowland rivers are not only occasionally dry, but also flood from time to time and have large floodplains, with connected wetlands and billabongs. Rivers in Australia’s south have been dammed extensively to provide a reliable water supply for agriculture and urban use. In contrast, rivers in Australia’s tropics and subtropics, where two-thirds of Australia’s surface water is located, are largely unmodified by water resources development schemes apart from coastal Queensland and the Ord River in northern Western Australia.
The increasing demand for water is placing significant pressure on Australia’s inland water systems. The situation has been exacerbated by the recent drought, with uncontrolled growth in groundwater use in many catchments. Integrated management of surface water and groundwater is urgently needed in many catchments. This extra pressure on already stressed river systems has had serious impacts on biodiversity in some regions. Rivers, wetlands, lakes and billabongs were, and still are, sites of significant activity and value for Indigenous people—an important heritage value that is often overlooked. Significantly more needs to be done to monitor, preserve and protect important natural, cultural and aesthetic values of Australia’s inland waters.
There have been some positive moves in the past five years with environmental flow allocations, habitat restoration, and invasive species control programmes in many river systems. Controls on point-source nutrient and chemical pollution have also been reasonably successful over the past decade, though some concerns remain. Community attitudes to water are beginning to change, with water ‘left in the river’ no longer seen as wasted water, but as a valuable resource for Australia’s riverine ecosystems. Evidence of this is the increasing attention that 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 ‘pristine’ can be protected into the future, especially those in northern Australia (Nevill 2006).
In 2004, the Australian, state and territory governments initiated the second stage of a national water policy reform process that started in 1994. When fully implemented over the next decade, the National Water Initiative will revolutionise the way water is owned, used and reused in Australia’s cities and inland regions, whether for human consumptive purposes or for protection of the aquatic environment. This is a significant shift in water resources policy, and the impact on the aquatic environment of specific policies, such as extensive water trading, needs to be carefully monitored.