[ASC-media] Media Release: Australia's rivers

CRCA Media crca-media at starclass.com.au
Tue Jul 1 07:25:43 EST 2003

Co-operative Research Centres Association Media Release - CRCA 25

July 1, 2003


Australia's rivers should be classified according to their agreed level of human use, one of the nation's leading water scientists has proposed.

"We set social, economic and environmental goals for our rivers which are commendably aspirational but which are, for many rivers, unrealistic.  
This is a recipe for irresolvable trade-offs and on-going disagreement", Professor Gary Jones, Chief Executive of the CRC for Freshwater Ecology (CRC FE) warns.

"From a strict scientific view, a river may be significantly degraded from its natural condition - yet still have enough fish, trees and wetlands, to be seen as healthy by its local community."

If Australia is to create truly "healthy working rivers", which deliver for the community, the economy and the environment, it must be realistic about the rivers it has today, Prof Jones argues.

"We need to break the 'triple bottom line' trade-off log jam.  To do this, as a community we all should first agree on what level of human use is appropriate for a river.  Then river managers should work with the community to achieve the best possible ecological outcomes."

"River classifications could range from no or minimal human use (so called 'Heritage Rivers'), to unregulated rivers with limited irrigation, to those with large dams and major irrigation development.  Rivers running through large cities could also have their own classification level."

Prof Jones says the role of science under such a system would be to predict and measure changes in the health of rivers, and to work with river communities and managers to develop 'ecological best practice' strategies for each category.

To create healthy working rivers will require Australians to become more "water literate", says Professor Rob Vertessy, Chief Executive of the CRC for Catchment Hydrology (CRC CH).

"We have been profligate in our use of water to the point where, in large parts of southern Australia, we have allocated over 80 per cent of the water in our rivers. When a dry sequence of years comes, like the one we are experiencing now, this places rivers, industries and communities under severe stress."

Prof Vertessy believes that if Australians want healthy working rivers, then society must develop a shared understanding of catchment water cycles and the multiple services we expect water to perform - household use, irrigation, recreation, the environment, industrial uses, hydroelectricity and so on.

"As Australia approaches a time in our history when there is no longer enough water for all the uses and values we attach to it collectively, we are seeing more squabbles breaking out.

"A key reason for this is that most people don't have a good appreciation of how water cycles operate and sustain ecosystems, industries and communities.  

"The science community and management agencies are partly to blame for this because they have failed to articulate a holistic view of how water moves and is utilized within catchments to deliver ecologic, social and economic services."

Prof Vertessy believes that the increasingly divisive nature of water debates is serious enough to warrant a major national awareness campaign, and programs to boost the implementation of Integrated Catchment Management strategies.

"Public education in water literacy is essential if we are to have sustainable catchments and healthy working rivers.  However, the scientific community and management agencies need to lift their game too and partner more effectively with industries and communities to promote a holistic view of catchment function."

The acting Chief Executive of the new CRC for Irrigation Futures, Professor Wayne Meyer, predicts there will be an increase in the intensity and efficiency of irrigation in Australia, although less water will be used to achieve it.

However he warns a focus on water use efficiency alone will not help the rivers - measures to ensure that water saved is returned to rivers and ecosystems are essential.

"We also know that in some situations the more water efficient farmers become, less water eventually drains back into the river - so, unless you're careful, greater efficiency can have an adverse impact on river health."

Prof Meyer says research has shown great scope still exists to improve the economic yield from Australian water.  "The gap between the best irrigators and the average is nearly 100 per cent in many industries.  Also, most of our water is still used to grow pasture to feed livestock, rather than high-value food crops - and this represents a big opportunity to improve returns."

However irrigators today are far more efficient than they were ten years ago, and he warns that simply reducing their water allocations will have an adverse economic impact on the nation.  Creating new options for irrigation is vital.

Prof. Meyer considers that a major step forward in managing water would be to mandate the measurement of all water extracted from Australia's rivers.  At present only half the water extracted is actually measured, and the real volume is quite uncertain.

"You can't do much to create healthy rivers if you don't know how much water you're actually taking out," he observes.

"It is equally important that we improve the efficiency of urban irrigation on our parks, gardens and ovals, which consumes up to fifty percent of our potable water supplies in some Australian cities and towns."

Finally, Prof Meyer says that healthy Australian rivers will necessarily be far more variable - in flows, volume and water quality - and this will affect many users besides irrigators.  There will be a need for the whole community to make adjustments.

More information:
Professor Gary Jones, CRC FE, 0408 411 033
Professor Rob Vertessy, CRC CH, 02 6246 5746
Professor Wayne Meyer, CRC IF, 08 8303 8683

Julian Cribb, CRCA media, 0418 639 245

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