Freshwater ecosystems

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Protecting Australian freshwater ecosystems in the face of infrastructure development

Jon Nevill

Water Research Foundation of Australia

Australian National University; Canberra

23 February 2001



Freshwater Biodiversity: protecting freshwater ecosystems in the face of infrastructure development.
© Jon Nevill, February 2001
Keywords: freshwater ecosystems, freshwater biodiversity, freshwater reserves, protected areas, cumulative effects, environmental impact assessment, catchment management.
Publisher: Water Research Foundation of Australia, Australian National University, Canberra.

For further information about this report, contact Jon Nevill, phone: (Australia) 0418 550 265; or email

Copyright: Information presented in this document may be reproduced in whole or in part for study or training purposes, subject to the inclusion of acknowledgment of the source and provided no commercial usage or sale of the material occurs. Reproduction for purposes other than those given above requires written permission from the publisher. Requests for permission should be addressed to Jon Nevill, c/o Only One Planet, PO Box 106, Hampton, Victoria 3188, Australia.
Citation: this report may be cited as: Nevill, Jon (2001) Freshwater Biodiversity: protecting Australian freshwater ecosystems in the face of infrastructure development. Water Research Foundation of Australia, Australian National University; Canberra.
ISBN: 0-646-40891-7

As an environmental scientist, I have spent many years working on water management issues: on the development of the East Gippsland Water Management Strategy (in Victoria), on the implementation of Queensland’s water quality policy, and in Tasmania working on the environmental assessment of water infrastructure proposals. These experiences left me convinced that, in spite of the best intentions of governments and water users, the programs which we have put in place are NOT effectively protecting freshwater biodiversity.

Given the scope of major strategies which have general support throughout Australia (such as the national biodiversity strategy, the National Water Quality Management Strategy, and the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Water Reform Agenda) – why is this happening? This paper is my attempt to answer the question, and to suggest ways in which the situation might be improved. While it takes a broad overview, the paper focuses on four key issues, of which the most important two are:

  • the management of the cumulative effects of incremental water developments, and

  • the creation of systems of representative freshwater reserves.

I anticipate that this document may have a sequel, which may contain updated information on State water management programs. At this stage it could have the citation: Nevill J, and Phillips N (eds)(2003) Protected Areas for Managing Rivers, Wetlands and Aquifers: the policy background, role and importance of protected areas for Australian inland aquatic ecosystems. Australian Society for Limnology Representative Reserves Working Group; Hampton Melbourne.

Check my website ( if you are interested in this document.

Many people have contributed to the preparation of this paper. In draft form, its availability was circulated widely through the Australian Society for Limnology email forum, and the Inland Rivers Network newsletter. A variety of freshwater experts provided information and comment. I would particularly like to thank1:

Abel Immaraj, Alan Harradine, Alena Glaister, Alex Gardner, Andrew Boulton, Andy Spate, Angela Arthington, Anthony Burnell, Bart van der Wel, Barry Hart, Bill Humphreys, Bill O'Connor, Bill Phillips, Bill Williams, Bob Ford, Brendan Edgar, Brian Wilkinson, Bruce Cummings, Bruce Fitzgerald, Christine Jones, Chris Robson, Chris Walsh, David Dettrick, David Forsyth, Deborah Stevenson, Doug Hooley, Frederick Bouckaert, Gary Mavrinac, Gerry Bates, George Wilson, Helen Dunn, Hilda Nevill, Hugh Jones, Ian Mansergh, Ian Wallis, Ian White, James Maguire, Jane Lloyd, Janet Holmes, Jay Gomboso, Jenny Dyring, Jim Puckridge, Jim Tait, Jo Bragg, John Knowles, John Russell, Kathy Hicks, Keith Walker, Ken Thomas, Kerryn Richardson, Luke Pen, Lyall Hinrichsen, Margaret Brock, Mary Maher, Marnie Leybourne and team, Naomi Wright, Neil Hughes, Ngaire Phillips, Nick Gartrell, Paul Bennett, Paul Fitzsimons, Paul Swan, Peter Komidar, Pierre Horwitz, Robert Walsh, Robyn Saunders, Rocelle Lawson, Rod Banyard, Sally Bryant, Seamus Parker, Sean Hoobin, Simon Molesworth, Simon Ransome, Stephen Perris, Stewart Blackhall, Stuart Blanch, Stuart Halse, Stuart McCallum, Susan Cunningham, Tim Fisher, Tim Bond, Warwick Nash, and Winston Ponder.
I thank the Water Research Foundation and the Australian Conservation Foundation for providing financial support covering publication of this document. The costs of the research were met by Only One Planet.

Responsibility for the views expressed, and any inadvertent errors or important omissions in the document, are mine alone. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the Water Research Foundation or the Australian Conservation Foundation.

The document's coverage of State freshwater legislation, policy and on-ground programs is incomplete. A recent Land and Water Australia project has provided more detail on water management frameworks in four States: WA, SA, Victoria and Tasmania. Information on this project can presently be found at a temporary website: .
Jon Nevill.




1. Abstract 6

2. Introduction 6

2.1 Australia’s track record 6

2.2 Scope and terminology 7

2.3 Threatening processes 8

2.4 Commonwealth and State roles: overview 11

2.5 Findings in brief 11

3. International and national context 13

3.1 The cornerstone: good management of utilised ecosystems and protected reserves 13

3.2 The development of a national biodiversity strategy 14

3.3 The COAG Water Reform Agenda 16

3.4 Freshwater biodiversity programs: an important “gap” 16

3.5 International agreements relating to wetlands 17

3.6 Ecosystem reserves: definition and management 18

4. Cumulative impacts and the need for strategic planning. 19

4.1 Cumulative effects: overview 20

4.2 Cumulative effects: background 20

4.3 Failure of existing strategic planning frameworks 20

4.4 The tragedy of the commons 21

4.5 The tyranny of small decisions 22

4.6 The need for new directions in strategic planning 23

4.7 Linking the management of groundwater and surface water 25

4.8 Quality assurance: auditing and enforcing implementation 27

4.9 An example: capping water extraction 28

4.10 Managing cumulative effects: summary 29

5. Freshwater biodiversity : Commonwealth programs. 31

5.1 The Commonwealth’s role. 31

5.2 Commonwealth Wetlands Policy 32

5.3 Commonwealth environmental assessment 33

5.4 Commonwealth reserve programs 34

5.5 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 36

5.6 Freshwater reserves; the National Heritage framework 36

5.7 The National Wild Rivers Program 37

5.8 The Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation (Land and Water Australia) 38

5.9 The National Land and Water Resources Audit 38

5.10 National River Health Program 40

5.11 The Murray-Darling Basin Commission 40

5.12 The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation 41

5.13 AFFA and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality 42

5.14 National Rivers Consortium 43

6. Freshwater biodiversity : State programs. 44

6.1 Overview 44

6.2 Freshwater environments in the States 47

6.3 Victoria 48

6.4 New South Wales 55

6.5 Queensland 63

6.6 South Australia: 70

6.7 Western Australia 72

6.8 Tasmania 80

6.9 Northern Territory 87

6.10 Australian Capital Territory 89

6.11 Summary tabulation 91

7. Essential elements in State programs 93

7.1 A natural resource accounting framework 93

7.2 Environmental assessment requirements 94

7.3 A system of State-owned protected areas complemented by private reserves; 95

7.4 A natural resource management framework (legislation and infrastructure) 96

7.5 Land use planning (LUP) requirements 97

7.6 Coordination of programs 97

8. Conclusions and recommendations 98

8.1 The current situation needs urgent review 98

8.2 What needs to be done? 100

9. Government agreements relating to wetlands 105

9.1 International 105

9.2 National 105

10. Bibliography 105

11. Abbreviations 113

12. Appendix 1:

Methods for waterway classification and assessment 115

13. Appendix 2:

Model statutory objectives and principles 120

14. Endnotes 127

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