The last comprehensive examination of freshwater ecosystems in Victoria was the Land Conservation Council (LCC) inquiry into rivers and streams in 1991.
This inquiry lead to many important measures to protect rivers and streams including the Heritage Rivers Act 1992, identifying representative rivers as examples of different stream types and the establishment of environmental flow recommendations. These were vital steps in the development of the first Victorian River Health Strategy in 2002.
While the investigation made important recommendations, there has been no follow up and many have been forgotten over time. The river health strategy has morphed into a Waterway Management Strategy with a focus on social, cultural and economic values and weak environmental goals. The Heritage Rivers Act is a toothless tiger and environmental flow recommendations have not been fully implemented. The investigation did not cover wetlands, estuaries or groundwater dependent ecosystems and the management of these remains fragmented across multiple Acts and authorities. As a result, most of our rivers and wetlands are locked into moderate to poor health.
It’s time for a fresh look at freshwater.
The government recently appointed a new Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC). The Council is currently engaged in a state-wide assessment of public land in Victoria. Its next assignment should be a state-wide investigation into freshwater dependent ecosystems, including rivers, wetlands, estuaries and groundwater. The investigation should assess the management and level of protection afforded to freshwater dependent ecosystems and make recommendations for improvements. It should look at the adequacy of both land-based reserves and the Environmental Water Reserve to protect and restore the health of these neglected ecosystems.
Freshwater dependent ecosystems are grossly underrepresented in the national system of ecological reserves. Only about three percent of wetland area is within the land reserve system and many existing reserves are too small to mitigate the impacts of poor land management on wetland and river health. Even internationally recognised wetlands such as Westernport Bay and Port Phillip Bay remain poorly protected. Water and land management still lack coordination despite decades of ‘integrated catchment management’. Responsibilities remain fragmented and catchment management authorities, the ‘caretakers of river health’, are starved of long-term funding and lack capacity to fulfil their obligations.
The Andrews Government should commission a VEAC inquiry to examine these and other issues. The inquiry should provide recommendations for ecologically sustainable management of freshwater dependent ecosystems and any additions to land or water reserves necessary for their protection.