Queensland's Plan to Control Wetland Ignores Expert Advice

BRISBANE, Queensland, Australia, September 29, 2000 (ENS) - Years of heavy water use have taken their toll on Narran Lakes, an internationally significant wetland whose ecological fate lies with an imminent decision on water allocation by Australia's Queensland state government.

ibis

Many of the birds within the Murray-Darling Basin are waterbirds, such as ibis. (Photo by Anne Jensen, courtesy Conservation Council of South Australia)
Narran Lakes are fed by the Condamine and Balonne rivers and are home to breeding waterbirds such as ibis and egrets. The lakes are listed under the Ramsar Convention as an internationally significant wetland.

The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and use of wetlands and their resources.

Since Australia is essentially a dry continent, its freshwater resources are limited and vulnerable to human exploitation. This is particularly true in the Murray Darling Basin, the country's most intensively farmed catchment, which is partially fed by the Condamine and Balonne rivers. The basin is often referred to as Australia's "food basket."

It covers about 14 percent of Australia and three million people depend on its water supply. Connected by the Condamine and Balonne river catchment, the fate of Narran Lakes is inextricably linked to the Murray Darling Basin.

According to environmental groups such as Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), the wetland's last chance for ecological recovery rests with the Queensland State Government and its draft Water Allocation and Management Plan.

The plan will determine how much water will be returned to the Condamine and Balonne rivers and how much will be kept for the irrigation industry. Intense debate on the issue has led to the period for public submissions being extended to December 15. The government will release a final plan shortly after.

Five years ago, other Australian states implemented the Murray Darling Basin Cap, a moratorium on increased diversion rates from rivers in the catchment. The cap was designed to further prevent ecological and land degradation impacts and held diversion rates at 1993-94 levels.

But Queensland refused to be bound by the cap and has since seen diversion rates soar as property owners rush to maximize water allocation before controls are introduced.

According to WWF figures, the average natural flow of water reaching Narran Lakes from the Condamine and Balonne rivers had dropped to 26 percent, from 60 percent in 1993-94. WWF accuses the Queensland government of allowing development to charge ahead at the expense of Narran Lakes and the rest of catchment's environment.

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Narran Lakes supports a diverse range of plant and wildlife. (Photo courtesy Ozprojects)
The level of water diversion has resulted in the reduction of 100,000 breeding pairs of birds at Narran Lakes in the last decade, says WWF. National salinity audits estimate that in just over 20 years, water in the system will exceed the salinity levels for drinking, most of the time.

The group is particularly upset that the recommendations made by an independent Technical Advisory Panel set by the state government have been ignored. The panel found that the ecological damage resulting from extraction and in-stream infrastructure in the Condamine and Balonne river catchment is some of the worst in the state, with the full impacts yet to be realized.

The panel recommended increased river flows to protect the health of the Condamine and Balonne river catchment and Narran Lakes but so far, this has not happened. It will under the government's Water Allocation and Management Plan but by how much remains open to question.

Speaking at the release of the draft plan in June, Queensland Minister for Natural Resources, Rod Welford stressed the importance of protecting Narran Lakes by improving environmental flows. Welford said the plan tightened up the specifications of all existing water licences, secured entitlements for 10 years and created a water trading system as the way to assess allocations.

"The science is telling us it's time to act," said Welford. "It's time to put into place actions which ensure the river's survival and sustain primary production in the basin."

Welford said future water allocations would have to be consistent with plan's objectives of increased water flow. "The main option for people seeking additional water in the future would be through temporary or permanent transfers of allocations."

The government's recognition of excessive water extraction and its pledge to redistribute some of the water back to the environment does not go far enough for the WWF. The plan does not meet the environmental flow limits recommended by the independent Technical Advisory Panel and will only lead to more ecological damage, says the group.

"The result will be significant environmental and productivity losses, and the degradation of internationally significant sites such as Narran Lakes," says Sean Hoobin of WWF. "The Queensland government is consciously planning to cause significant ecological damage."