Great news for one Wild River, but others still threatened
The Wenlock River, one of Cape York Peninsula's most beautiful and intact wild rivers, has been earmarked for ongoing protection. Alarmingly, the Wenlock, as well as the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve which the Wenlock flows past, were on the cusp of being turned into a large bauxite mine. Not anymore though - the Queensland Government backed down and announced that both the Wenlock and the Reserve will be spared from mining. While this is a great outcome for one of Queensland's Wild Rivers, there are many more which are still threatened with having their declarations stripped away anytime now.
What are Queensland's Wild Rivers?
Queensland is lucky enough to retain some of the world’s healthiest natural river systems. These rivers underpin regional economies and support unique and diverse wildlife. Over 10 years ago - in recognition of the critical role of healthy hydro-ecological processes to a whole range of river and landscape conservation outcomes, the Wilderness Society identified sixty Queensland rivers for permanent protection. Many of these river systems were directly threatened by a range of activities including mining, dams, irrigated agriculture, cattle grazing, weed infestation and feral animal impacts.
Between 2007 and 2011, a total of thirteen of these important river systems were protected under the groundbreaking Wild Rivers Act 2005. Free of dams, weirs, polluting irrigation schemes and industrial development, the natural and cultural values of these 13 declared Wild Rivers remain largely intact. However, the Newman Government in Queensland is now in the process of removing ongoing protection of the rivers on Cape York and in western Queensland's Channel Country, whilst the remaining rivers we put identified as needing protection will remain completely open for development and many have had their values further degraded in the years since they were first identified for protection by the Wilderness Society.
Where are Queensland's Wild Rivers?
Cape York Peninsula
Cape York Peninsula is unlike any other place on Earth, and the free-flowing rivers that meander through the many diverse landscapes of the Cape are at the heart of the natural values which make it such a unique place.
Currently declared Wild Rivers on Cape York Peninsula:
- Archer River (declared 2009)
- Stewart River (declared 2009)
- Lockhart River (declared 2009)
- Wenlock River (declared 2010)
Large scale bauxite, coal, sand mining as well as intensive irrigation and future industrialisation.
The pristine wetlands, grasslands, and savannah of the Gulf Country create a truly diverse set of natural landscapes. The sensitive river deltas and tributaries of the Gulf are home to hundreds of species of waterbirds and aquatic life, with many new species still being discovered by science.
Existing Wild Rivers in Gulf Country:
- Gregory Wild River (declared 2007)
- Morning Inlet Wild River (declared 2007)
- Settlement Wild River (declared 2007)
- Staaten Wild River (declared 2007)
Large scale irrigation, coal seam gas mining.
The Channel Country is the lifeblood of the arid plains of Western Queensland. The current Wild River declarations on the Channel Country rivers support sustainable activities and allow the rivers and floodplains to feed vital water into delicate ecosystems and crucial underground aquifers.
Existing Wild Rivers in Channel Country:
- Cooper Creek Basin Wild River (declared 2011)
- Georgina and Diamantina Wild River (declared 2011)
Coal seam gas, mining and industrial irrigation
Both listed as World Heritage Areas, the equally stunning Fraser and Hinchinbrook Islands are pictures of contrasting beauty. Fraser, the largest sand island in the world with towering eucalypt forests boasts crystal clear creeks and rivers, while Hinchinbrook, set in the Wet Tropics, receives over two metres of rain per year and features robust tidal estuaries, mangroves and rainforests. Both islands include Ramsar-listed wetland systems.
- Fraser Island Wild Rivers (declared 2007)
- Hinchinbrook Wild Rivers (declared 2007)
How Wild Rivers legislation works
The Wild Rivers Act 2005 was carefully designed to strike an appropriate balance between environmental protection and development. It does not “lock up land” and it does not stop development as some opponents of will tell you. The Act, Wild River Code, and related river-specific declarations merely proscribe certain highly destructive activities within comparatively small areas in and close to pristine waterways.
The Wild Rivers Act allows the Queensland Government to protect healthy river basins through a “wild river declaration”. A declaration is like a planning tool — it regulates new developments in defined wild river areas, setting a baseline for ecologically sustainable development. This is achieved by applying different management areas across the river basin, with higher protection, including buffers, for main river channels, wetlands, floodplains and springs.
This effectively means that destructive developments like mega-dams, intensive irrigation, and mining cannot occur in sensitive riverine and wetlands environments, while a range of other risky developments have to meet sensible requirements outlined by a planning code, however existing mining tenements are not affected. At the same time, a declaration supports the continuation of existing activities, including grazing and fishing, as well as the establishment of smaller scale commercial uses, tourism, and other sustainable activities. The declaration also protects traditional activities and cultural practices, and allocates specific Indigenous water reserves for community economic purposes, a first in Australia.
Wild Rivers under threat
The Queensland Government is now in the process of removing Wild River declarations in Cape York Peninsula and the Channel Country. The Wilderness Society strongly opposes this roll back of environmental protection.
Healthy river systems are increasingly rare. Many of the world’s major rivers are severely degraded or on the brink of collapse. These rivers are plagued with environmental problems caused by dams, irrigated agriculture, mass water diversions, destructive mines, dramatic loss of wildlife and fish, and encroaching invasive weeds and pests.
Degraded and collapsed river systems lead to aquatic species decline as well as an irreversible breakdown in ecological function. This breakdown in freshwater ecological function can have much wider domino effects on terrestrial flora and fauna and downstream estuarine and marine processes causing long-lasting damage to our terrestrial and marine environments.
Our failure to properly protect our rivers also has social, economic and cultural implications for our regional and urban communities. The future of our fisheries, agriculture, pastoralism and tourism industries - not to mention the health and security of our urban water supply - all rely on maintaining the health of our river systems. Water resources are also particularly important for Indigenous groups. Indigenous people are intimately connected with rivers and wetlands, and water is seen part of the living cultural landscape, inseparable from land and people.
In Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin is our own stark example of river management gone terribly wrong. Large-scale agriculture and poor water management is destroying this river, and climate change is compounding the problem. It is costing Australian taxpayers $12 billion to try and restore the Murray-Darling Basin.
Australia cannot afford another Murray-Darling Basin, which is why The Wilderness Society is fighting to save Queensland’s last free-flowing wild rivers.