|Findings in brief
protecting freshwater ecosystems in the face of infrastructure development:
The degraded (and still degrading) circumstances of many of Australia's major waterways can in part be attributed to eleven important assumptions underlying Australian water management frameworks. Most of these assumptions were once valid. The first three of these assumptions relate to the cumulative impacts of incremental water infrastructure development:
While the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) water reform agenda signalled the death of some of these assumptions (concerning environmental flows, for example) others live on, to a large extent unscathed by the agenda. I argue below that, while all of these assumptions were probably correct many decades ago, this is no longer the case, and it is now dangerous to make any of these assumptions in the development of State water management frameworks. I believe that, as far as the freshwater ecosystems of Australia are concerned, it is a key challenge of the next decade to reverse all of these assumptions.
The focus of natural resource management within Western society has tended to focus on values as the starting blocks on which management objectives and procedures rest. These values tend to be defined in terms of human use: agricultural, landscape, industrial, recreational, cultural It has been argued that management frameworks need to move beyond these values to encompass intrinsic values. This issue is also considered in passing in this paper.
The paper concludes that there is a need to review Commonwealth and State freshwater biodiversity policies, and re-examine opportunities available for managing freshwater resources in ways which protect biodiversity. The paper focuses on four key issues:
The lack of comprehensive State-wide inventories of freshwater ecosystems (and the strategic planning which such inventories would allow) is seen as inhibiting existing environmental assessment mechanisms, particularly relating to the cumulative effects of incremental water infrastructure development (or "cumulative effects" for short).
In order to manage cumulative effects, catchment plans must be developed which include precautionary caps on water development, set well ahead of water demand. This is the reverse of the existing situation, where caps are only considered in catchments under serious stress; here it is already too late. These catchment plans must take into account ecosystem inventories on a strategic basis, using both river basins and IBRA regions. Additionally, catchment plans must integrate the management of both surface and groundwaters, and must include effective quality assurance processes. Effective integrated management (of surface / groundwater) is not currently occurring anywhere in Australia, except in a few highly-stressed catchments in New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia (see discussion below).
Options for the creation of representative freshwater ecosystem reserves, in particular, need careful re-examination. In this regard, although Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory are committed (by way of State policies and strategies) to the development of reserve systems including representative freshwater ecosystems, only Victoria and the ACT have made serious efforts to implement these commitments. In Victorias case, that attempt failed to achieve its full objective.