Back to All News

Saving our dying wetlands: The Macquarie Marshes

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 20 Jun 2007

I rise to speak on what I believe is a matter of great national public importance-that is, our dying wetlands and the inaction by both state and federal governments which seems to be making this happen even faster. In this instance, I am going to talk about water theft from the Macquarie Marshes because it typifies some of the bigger problems that are occurring around water management. This highlights the major problems that need to be addressed if we are to have any hope of recovering our wetlands and rivers. It goes directly to the future of water management in the Murray-Darling Basin and directly relates to the legislation on the future governance arrangements for the Murray-Darling Basin which is out for public comment at the moment.

An important report is about to be released on the findings of the continuing investigation by the Inland Rivers Network into alleged water theft in the Macquarie Marshes. This builds on preliminary evidence that was provided not that long ago to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport inquiry into water policy. The report details investigates of allegations of environmental water theft in the Macquarie Marshes-and I have to say that its findings are damning. We all know that the Macquarie Marshes are an icon in Australia. In 2005, most of the water in the Macquarie Valley was diverted and extracted for cotton irrigation. With the small amount of water that was left at the end of the year to wet a tiny area of the internationally significant Macquarie Marshes, the evidence strongly indicates that a small number of landholders siphoned off some of it for their own use. By the time the remaining environmental water reached the parched marshes, the quantity was significantly diminished, denying the wetlands the water they so desperately needed. River red gums died and bird breeding failed last summer because there was not enough water.

Professor Kingsford, who is probably one of those knowledgeable people on the Macquarie Marshes, says that they are 'probably the most important site for the breeding of colonially nesting waterbirds in Australia, and colonies in the marshes are among the largest and most diverse in New South Wales'. The marshes once supported 20 million birds that bred every year, and the wetlands provide a major drought refuge for waterbirds and other wildlife. The marshes also have the largest river red gum woodlands and reed beds in northern New South Wales. For these reasons, the marshes have been listed as an internationally significant wetland under the Ramsar convention.

However, according to the State of the environment report 2006:
… there has been a significant long-term decline in river flows as a result of river regulation and subsequent diversions upstream. There are now fewer waterbirds, and fewer species of waterbird, than ever before.

It is estimated that at least 40 to 50 per cent of the wetland has already been lost, and what is left is sick and dying-for example, around 2,000 hectares of river red gums are dead or dying due to lack of water. Overall, less than 10 per cent of the original wetland is considered to be healthy. The lack of water has led to the longest recorded period without a colonial bird-breeding event. There has been no such event since 2000.

Currently Macquarie Marshes has an allocation of 160,000 megalitres, which is held in the Burrendong dam. This is general security water, which means that the marshes only receive that amount of water in 50 per cent of years. Current estimates are that the marshes need almost twice that-around 300,000 megalitres of water, which would mean that in 50 per cent of years they would receive about 150,000 megalitres of water. This volume is negotiated and it is required to provide a core of the marshes with only a moderate chance of survival. It is not anticipated that the entire marshes can be returned to health, even with a better water entitlement.

The fact is that our wetlands are dying and they desperately need some water back.

Currently there is not enough water for the wetlands and when water does get released it appears it is getting diverted. The report that I am talking about provides clear evidence of this. Some of this evidence has been presented before.

Investigations have been undertaken and they indicate there are huge problems, but unfortunately it appears that nothing is happening. No-one is paying attention. There appears to have been no action to date from either the state government or the federal government to protect these wetlands and their water.

Investigations have revealed a range of evidence that strongly indicates that some of the environmental water has been taken illegally. I understand that officers of the New South Wales Department of Environment and Conservation flew over the marshes when the water was released to monitor the spread of the environmental water into the wetland. They took a range of photos during these flights, which indicated that water specifically released for the benefit of the environment was being diverted by landholders above and in the marshes. The photos show banks and water diversion channels cut into the flood plain, and it is clear that the water was part of the environmental release because it has tannin stains from passing through part of the wetland. This evidence led to several freedom of information requests to the New South Wales Department of Natural Resources, and State Water, to determine whether or not this water was indeed stolen. On the information provided, there is no evidence that this water was ordered by the landholders or that any approvals existed for the works in question.

I would note that, even if the dams, banks and channels were authorised and the owner had a water licence, it is still illegal to take environmental water. It is worth noting that water licences are usually for taking water directly from the river channel and that in many of these cases the water was diverted from a wetland, not from the river channel, which is again not likely to be legal. Evidence has also been corroborated by local landowners. The locals have also been helping to clarify local rules and water management rules. It is fair to say that one of the sayings up there is that you know when the environmental water has been released because you can hear the pumps humming.
Even though there was very little water available at the time all this happened, the decision was made to release it in a desperate attempt to keep the core wetlands alive at a time of severe stress. If this water had not been diverted it would have spread through the wetlands and improved the health of the river gums, the vegetation and the marshes, giving the fish and birds a better chance of survival until the next big flow event, whenever that may be. The health of the Macquarie Marshes is in dire straits, with river red gums dying and bird breeding failing last summer because there was simply not enough water. As I said, birds have not bred in that area since the year 2000.
Not only has this information and evidence been presented and collected, but no action has been taken. Now we hear, almost as I am speaking, that this is happening again.

There has been some rain in the region in recent weeks, which has led to small flows into the Macquarie Marshes. It appears that environmental water is again being diverted by one or more of the alleged offenders listed in the report in relation to the previous diversion of water.

Triggers for release of the environmental water in the dam have been met, but the locals have been informed that the water will not be released. Why? Because it is being used for other purposes. Flows below the dam are meant to meet legislative environmental requirements and other basic rights before they are available for irrigation. Clearly, at the moment environmental requirements have not been met, as the core amount of environmental water in the dam cannot even be assessed.

However, it appears that at the same time a number of irrigators have been allowed to extract water. I believe this is outrageous. If the marshes were a person, right now we would be turning off the power to the life support.
What is the Commonwealth doing about this? It raises very large questions, because this is both a state and a Commonwealth issue. What guarantee can the government give that water purchased for the environment will not be illegally diverted, as is being investigated in the case of the Macquarie Marshes in New South Wales? How will the National Plan for Water Security and the draft water bill guarantee that water theft and flood plain harvesting are properly dealt with? Will the government do anything?

When I have raised this issue before I have been told
(a) it is not a Commonwealth issue, it is a state issue; and
(b) the Commonwealth had put money into environmental flows-for example, into the Gwydir and into the Macquarie Marshes-so, 'We are doing our thing.' I am sorry; you do not get off that easily-the Commonwealth cannot get off that easily.

For a start, this is a Ramsar wetland and therefore the Commonwealth has clear obligations. The Commonwealth government has clear commitments under Ramsar. It appears that there has been no progress or work by either the Commonwealth or the state to try to stop this happening. This is a Ramsar wetland. It is dying. The Commonwealth has international responsibilities to look after this wetland. When I have been pursuing the Commonwealth over Ramsar management-not only of this site but others-I was given to understand both in this place and in estimates that the Commonwealth was going to undertake a review of Ramsar wetlands. I have subsequently heard that all they are doing is reviewing the management plans. It is critical that this government reviews the conditions of our Ramsar wetlands.

On top of that-and, at the moment, even more importantly-the government has a bill, which is out for consultation with stakeholders at the moment, on how it is going to take control of and look after the Murray-Darling Basin. For a start, the plan on which that is based does not have any targets in it. While you could be forgiven for thinking that, for the Murray, they already have a target, inadequate as it is-and that is 500 gigalitres for environmental flows-in the Darling, which is dying, there is no such commitment. That is problem No. 1.

Secondly, the Commonwealth wants to assume control of the Murray-Darling Basin, yet it cannot even act to protect the Macquarie Marshes. There is very clear evidence that environmental flows are being stolen and diverted and that no action is being taken by the New South Wales government. Despite the Commonwealth having obligations to ensure management and protection of our Ramsar wetlands, it is not doing it. If it cannot take action to ensure that an icon site like the Macquarie Marshes is being protected, how on earth is it going to protect the Murray and the Darling systems? Why isn't the government taking action?

A classic example happened just weeks ago-clearing occurred in the Gwydir wetlands.

That is another Ramsar wetland of international value. It is listed as being of international significance. Up to 500 hectares or more were cleared. The Commonwealth knew nothing about it. To date, as I understand it, it has taken no action on that site. It is looking at investigating whether illegal clearing did occur and what sort of clearing occurred.

The point is that that clearing should never have happened in the first place. How can the government be thinking that it can take control of the Murray-Darling Basin if it cannot even stop the theft-and this is theft-of water from our icon wetlands?

This then goes to what action the Commonwealth is taking in other areas as well. For example, in South Australia they are currently temporarily disconnecting water supply to Ramsar wetlands. I have noticed that this action has been referred to the Commonwealth under the EPBC Act.

But, in the meantime, the South Australian government is cutting off water to these wetlands. Again, these are wetlands of international significance. Their water is being cut off. In many cases, that will result in irreparable damage. Lake Bonney will not recover from that sort of reduction of environmental flows.

We believe that the Commonwealth need to indicate what they are going to be doing about protecting environmental flows and environmental water provisions under the new act that they are bringing in. They need to be able to enforce the provisions to protect environmental flows. At the moment in that bill there is no detail on how they will protect these environmental flows and how they will deliver on their Ramsar obligations to protect wetlands and deliver adequate environmental flows. There is no detail on how they will ensure that floodplain development and harvesting are adequately managed under the bill and where responsibilities will lie between governments. This is absolutely critical information that will go to the very heart of whether the Commonwealth will be able to adequately deliver on their commitment to ensure a healthy Murray-Darling system.

Back to All News