Environmentalists’ working on the banks of the Snowy River say the once mighty river is regenerating after years of neglect. Flat sheets of sediment are prickling with signs of new life and the community can finally see the physical changes. But campaigners fighting to restore the river say the legislation that promises increased water flows is not legally binding.
The Snowy River is said to be one of three most important rivers internationally, with a long history of threatening processes and interventions. At the completion of the Jindabyne Dam wall in 1967, the river was left with 1 per cent of its annual natural flow.
Enormous amounts of immobile sediment filled the river channel, creating a hostile environment that became a breeding ground for willows, blackberries and other noxious plants. These threats not only destroyed the natural habitat, but the willows in particular acted as a water pump that removed copious amounts of water from the river.
In the last decade, the Southern Rivers Catchment Management Authority, a New South Wales Government initiative, has undertaken a “killing phase” to remove many of these physical threats. Brett Miners, landscape manager of the project, says the rehabilitation initiative has seen the reintroduction of 200,000 Australian Bass as well as the planting of thousands of native plants along the banks of the river.
“This means as we continue to rehabilitate the river, and engage communities in the rehabilitation of the river, at least people can see that the river is not going backwards,” said Miners.
In a state where 74 per cent of the land is in drought, many rivers across NSW are currently experiencing heavy restrictions on water flows. With hotter and drier conditions predicted there is increasing uncertainty in communities that depend on regular water patterns. It is a bitter sweet moment for a national icon that spans more than 300km, winding from Jindabyne in south-east NSW, piercing the Victorian border before it is emptied into the Bass Strait.
Locals say the river has the potential to generate more that $21 million in economic activity per year, which would certainly make its mark on the money that has been channelled into restoring the river.
In 2002, the Commonwealth, Victorian and NSW Governments made a commitment to return 21 per cent of the rivers annual natural flow by 2012, and 28 per cent thereafter. The intergovernmental investment has had more than $400 million thrown at it to secure water savings that, one would hope, will eventually be transferred into the Snowy River increased flows account.
The Snowy River Alliance, a longstanding river campaign group, recently sought legal advice from the Environmental Defenders Office that says the “open-ended legislation” that promises increased water flows for the Snowy imposes no legal obligation on the NSW government or Snowy Hydro Ltd to meet the water targets for 2012.
John Gallard, chair of the Alliance said:
We are seeking to use the current Five Year Review process as a way of changing the legislation into a more binding set of agreements …
The use of the open-ended legislation is the cause of most of the [current] problems. What we are talking about is connectivity of water from the snow melt to the sea, which is being held up by the Jindabyne Dam and Mowamba weir. This [connectivity] is critical to the whole biology of the river system and river dynamics.
The “First Five Year Review of the Snowy Hydro Water Licence” from the NSW Government, apart from being two years late, indicates that it will continue diverting water from the Snowy. The report comes amid recommendations from the NSW government’s elected Snowy Scientific Committee, which indicates that the river is closer to systemic failure than ever.
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