Freshwater Protected Area Resourcbook

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7. Protecting high value rivers:
elements of a national framework:

7.1 Introduction:

Australia has hundreds of rivers, but only a handful are well protected (Nevill 2005a). The National Audit reports 2001 show extensive and continuing degradation of Australia's rivers and estuaries. Inventories of river and estuarine ecosystems remain incomplete in all States except Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. Even where such inventories have been completed, they lack current information on value and condition (see Chapter 5 above). Existing water planning, land use planning, and development assessment frameworks are not providing adequate protection for Australia's freshwater ecosystems (Nevill 2001, Wentworth Group 2003). The need for additional protection for the nation's rivers and estuaries is urgent and long overdue. The advantages (and disadvantages) of a national approach to protecting high conservation value (HCV) rivers and estuaries needs discussion.
The protection of rivers and their catchments has received a good deal of debate worldwide, but little action. In the USA, for example, protected rivers were advocated as far back as 1889 (Lichatowich 1999:136-138). Amongst hundreds of major rivers in Australia, only a handful are already protected, and none of these are pristine. At least five major Australian rivers are highly protected, with almost all of their catchments lying in protected areas, no dams or weirs, and no significant water extraction.  These are the Shannon River (Shannon River National Park, Western Australia), the Prince Regent (Prince Regent River Biosphere Reserve, WA), the South Alligator River (Kakadu Ramsar site and Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory), the Jardine River (Jardine River National Park, Queensland), and the Franklin River (Southwest World Heritage Area, Tasmania) (Nevill 2005).
Dunn (2000), Nevill (2001) and Georges and Cottingham (2001) called for the establishment of systems of representative reserves for freshwater ecosystems, in line with Australia's international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992. Morton et al. (2002) and the Wentworth Group (2002) called for special protection for Australia's major rivers where ecosystems remain substantially intact. Cullen 2002 recommended the establishment of a four-tiered river classification, including 'heritage rivers' and 'conservation rivers' which would both receive special protection. These views were taken up by the Wentworth Group (2003)232. Mark Latham, the leader of the Opposition in federal parliament, supported this initiative during the election campaign in May 2004233. Any discussion of a national framework for the protection of Australia's high conservation value rivers and estuaries sits against this backdrop.
The purpose of this chapter is twofold:

  • firstly to draw attention to the fact that a framework already exists, but is under-used (the Ramsar convention framework), and

  • secondly, to present a broad description of how an expanded hypothetical national framework might work, briefly describing significant possible elements.

A national framework would have the advantage of encouraging a ‘best practice’ approach to the conservation of special rivers across Australian’s eight States and Territories. Such an approach should produce efficiencies where mapping and classification methods were harmonised across jurisdictions. From the Commonwealth’s perspective, such a national framework would enable effective application of funding programs targeted at aquatic biodiversity. A similar comment applies to the Commonwealth’s use of the EPBC Act (discussed further below) in that could provide direction to application of the Act. A national framework without adequate flexibility could have disadvantages for States already undertaking conservation programs if a significant change of direction was required in order to comply with the framework. Additionally, some States might be uncomfortable if a framework was perceived to be unduly restrictive, particularly if significant Commonwealth funds were not made available.

7.2 Summary:

‘Rivers’ in the discussion below are defined as including estuaries. At the simplest possible level, a national framework for the protection of HCV rivers will consist of three essential elements:

  • agreement by Australia governments on how HCV rivers234 should be identified and selected;

  • a list of HCV rivers developed from that agreement; and

  • ways of linking that list with environmental assessment, control and planning mechanisms, as well as protected area reservation programs235.

Australia’s endorsement of the Ramsar convention on the protection of wetlands has provided a national framework for the protection of high conservation value inland aquatic ecosystems, including rivers. An advantage of expanding this framework (rather than developing a new one) is that it is already accepted by all Australian States, and to some extent protective mechanisms already exist in both Commonwealth and State legislation.

In a more general context, a framework needs to relate to threats facing rivers and estuaries236. While a wide variety of threats exists, the three most important are probably: (a) invasive species (pests and weeds), (b) water extraction, drainage and diversion, and (c) catchment land use changes.
A framework also needs to meet certain criteria: it needs to be logical, cost-effective, simple, and flexible. It should also be responsive to issues of scale. As well, a staged approach may be necessary: if the proposed framework contains elements which are entirely new, or which require considerable community debate, such elements need to be developed in a second phase.
Both on-reserve and off-reserve protection will be important. The framework should extend the concept of aquatic protected areas past the current river programs in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. Aquatic reserves protecting wetlands are well accepted across Australia, and some small marine reserves protecting parts of estuaries have been established by most States; however most States have not established riverine protected areas, or protected catchments (Victoria and the ACT being notable exceptions).
In conclusion, there are strong arguments for (a) expanding the existing Ramsar frameworks in States to include rivers, and (b) developing additional river protection initiatives modelled either on Canada’s Heritage Rivers System, or Victoria’s Heritage Rivers Act 1992.

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