The Fitzroy River is of outstanding value to Western Australia and the nation. This value is not reflected in the suite of regulatory tools for managing development that are presented in this discussion paper as a substitute for protection. The river should not be opened up for the benefit of a small, super-wealthy minority at the expense of Traditional Owners, recreational fishers, the broader community, and the river's outstanding natural and cultural values. An adequate protection mechanism for the river is needed.
The approach outlined in the discussion paper Managing water in the Fitzroy River Catchment fails to provide a mechanism for adequately protecting the National Heritage-listed Fitzroy River or its critically endangered species such as the Freshwater Sawfish. It also fails to provide Native Title holders with the full consultation, consent and ongoing role in management that they have called for.
This paper does not in my view outline an adequate pathway for the protection and sustainable development of the Fitzroy River.
Specific points I would like to raise:
- I support the government’s ‘no dams’ commitment, but this is not adequately reflected in the discussion paper. To the contrary, large dams are considered that would capture surface water from the river and floodplains via overland flow, pumps and channels. These types of dams are known to have had major impacts in the Murray–Darling and elsewhere. The definition of prohibited dams should cover all dams larger than stock dams.
- The proposed methodology of using water allocations to manage the river is designed to facilitate extraction for irrigation, not to protect the river. This is the methodology that has failed to protect the Murray–Darling and many other freshwater systems. Instead, spatial land-use restrictions such as a legally enforceable buffer zone are necessary to prevent water extraction and dam construction beyond those needed for stock and communities.
- Pollution from agricultural development is not considered in the discussion paper. This would be a significant likely risk, especially to dry-season pools.
- The Fitzroy River is Western Australia’s longest listed Aboriginal Heritage site and there are numerous listed sites along the river and on the floodplains. These are not mentioned in the paper; nor is protection of this heritage considered.
- The health of the river is essential to the survival of a remnant population of critically endangered Freshwater Sawfish. The extreme risk to this species and other threatened and endangered flora and fauna from water extraction and pollution from agriculture on the floodplains is not reflected in the discussion paper. Recent research shows that sawfish recruitment is dependent on peak flood years, and yet these are the flows that are targeted for extraction.
- The National Heritage-listed cultural values of the river are dependent on the relationship between Traditional Owners and water. This relationship is not adequately dealt with in the discussion paper, nor are mechanisms to incorporate it into protection and management frameworks presented.
- The health of the river is essential to a recreational barramundi fishery that is of significant social and economic value to the region and to WA. This is not discussed or considered in the paper.
- The paper has failed to capture the input of scientists, Traditional Owners and the broader community over the past four years, specifically: the Fitzroy River Declaration; the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council Statement; the Fitzroy River Science Statement from100 leading scientists; recreational fishers’ public comments; and environment groups’ submissions supporting protection of the river and opposing irrigation development on the grounds of the low chance of economic success and high risk to the river’s health
- Surface water extraction is not a sustainable development pathway and not needed for economic development; and the volumes of water suggested in the discussion paper are excessive and unnecessary. 300GL is more water than Perth and the South West use in a year. Prior studies by CSIRO and UniSA show that development based on water would be high risk and unlikely to make profits or provide many jobs.
- Traditional Owners have proposed a Statutory Authority be set up to protect the Fitzroy River. The Discussion Paper fails to mention this proposal and instead offers to engage with Traditional Owners through a poorly defined advisory group.
I strongly urge the WA Government to recommit to a co-design process with Traditional Owners as the driver of the management of the Fitzroy River; and to protect the river and floodplains through a mechanism for spatial land use restrictions and rather than a technical water planning process that has failed to protect rivers and wetlands elsewhere.