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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
22/05/2018
Estimates
ENVIRONMENT AND ENERGY PORTFOLIO
Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder Office

Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder Office

[11:15]

CHAIR: Welcome, officers from program 1.3, Commonwealth Environmental Water. We will proceed straight to questions. Senator Urquhart.

Senator URQUHART: Can you tell me how many Ramsar wetlands there are in Australia?

Ms Swirepik : There are now 66 wetlands.

Senator URQUHART: Can you tell me how many are important wetlands or wetlands of national importance?

Ms Swirepik : I might pass to my colleague there. I think there are verging on thousands, and I guess a bit of extra information, after introducing myself, about the Ramsar wetlands is: we have just had one listed, which is the first listing in five or six years. It is in Victoria. I will pass to my colleague Mark Taylor.

Mr M Taylor : There are 66 Ramsar sites in the country but there must be something like 10,000 or so other wetlands across the country which are either listed locally or at a state level for their significance.

Senator URQUHART: They would be sort of classed as important or of national importance?

Mr M Taylor : Yes, that is exactly right.

Senator URQUHART: Is the trend for wetland health improving?

Mr M Taylor : In a general way it is difficult to describe that because obviously each wetland is subject to the conditions in its own area. Many wetlands are facing challenge, though, from drought. Some wetlands are facing challenge from development. So I think it is fair enough to say that wetlands across the country are facing real challenges in a general sense, without being more specific.

Senator URQUHART: But it is just areas, depending on where they are?

Mr M Taylor : That is right, depending on where they are.

Senator URQUHART: Are there areas where things are better or not? Are there particular areas that sort of stand out that are better?

Mr M Taylor : Within the Murray-Darling Basin where we are able to actually use Commonwealth Environmental Water to support outcomes for wetlands and where we are able to work with colleagues in the statessay, for example, the Macquarie Marsheswe are often able to get much better outcomes. As an example, the Macquarie Marshes currently sits under what is termed in Ramsar an article 3.2 listing. What that means is where you are concerned that there has been a change to the ecological character for the wetland. That was placed on a number of years ago. We are now hopefully close to the point where we are able to lift that because we think that the condition of the wetland has been essentially remediated. So that is a sort of a good outcome. That is in one area there.

Ms Swirepik : If I might just add a detail, I would not say that geographically there are states, for instance, that do better at maintaining their wetlands than others. It is really reliant on the type of land tenure that is apparent and then if any efforts have been made to restore the wetlands. So you would find vast variability across the whole of Australia.

Senator URQUHART: The sorts of examples that Mr Taylor gave earlier. How much funding goes to wetland health?

Mr M Taylor : It is probably important to draw a distinction between what we do federally and what the states do. The very large majority of Ramsar wetlands are, in fact, managed by states. So they manage all that. They would be the ones to put the funding towards it; so I could not really give you a global figure, if you like.

Senator URQUHART: What about from a federal perspective?

Mr M Taylor : From the federal perspectivethat money that we put towards wetlandswe do not have a specific program, although more recently there have been announcements made in relation to the second phase of the National Landcare Program which will see funding going directly towards on-ground work to support outcomes in Ramsar sites. That has not yet been announced. I think the rough quantum of that was somewhere in the vicinity of about $9 million per annum over about three years. I would need to check back on that. It has not yet been formally announced but that was the rough breakdown.

Senator URQUHART: Not including the Murray-Darling Basin, how much funding is there? If we take the Murray-Darling out?

Ms Swirepik : I do not think that that statistic is actually aggregated anywhere across the Commonwealth. We have a small section that deals with Ramsar issues within our division. There would be wetland projects that are actually supported through all sorts of other programs, including landcare, which Mr Taylor mentioned. But also the Northern Australia initiative is actually doing a lot of work on what environmental water requirements are of the northern rivers to try and make sure any development is sustainable up there. So there would be work that occurs across different portfolios and we do not try to aggregate a number together.

Senator URQUHART: Okay.

Mr Knudson : If I could just add quickly on landcare, we talked a bit about that yesterday. It is $450 million over five years, $91 million a year. Within that the priorities that we have identified absolutely do include Ramsar wetlands but they also include priority threatened species et cetera. I just wanted to put that in that context.

Senator URQUHART: That $450 million has a bucket of a whole range of different things?

Mr Knudson : Precisely. So a proportion of that will go towards wetlands specifically.

Senator URQUHART: What would be that proportion?

Mr Knudson : It will depend on the projects that we receive back from the various organisations that have gone through the tender process, as Mrs Jonasson talked about yesterday. That process is not complete yet; so we cannot give you an idea at this point about what the quantum or the number of projects will be. All I wanted to just emphasise was that we have put Ramsar wetlands as one of the key priorities for investment under the landcare program.

Senator URQUHART: And is funding for wetlands increasing or decreasing within that pool?

Mr Knudson : With that land care money I think it is pretty much unquestionable that the amount of money going towards wetlands will increase. But again, that will be borne out by how the tender process finalises.

Senator URQUHART: Ms Swirepik, how does the department or the Commonwealth Water Environmental Water Holder protect wetlands? Can you give us some examples of the sort of work that you do?

Ms Swirepik : The majority of our work is either in Ramsar wetlands or in the basin, the Murray-Darling Basin. Really the outcome of the whole Murray-Darling Basin reform is to secure water for the river systems and wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin. So our main day-to-day job is actually to figure out where we can apply that water or manage the water that we have in our portfolio to achieve the best environmental outcomes. The type of way that is usually done is to deliver peak flow events down a river or flows into a wetland to actually maintain its health and productivity.

Senator URQUHART: And part of your role is that you are responsible for Ramsar wetlands and wetlands of national significance? That is correct, is it not?

Ms Swirepik : We are the Australian administrative authority for that. But as Mr Taylor mentioned, the actual physical land management lies with the states, of course.

Senator URQUHART: If something damages a wetland, what is the action that can be taken?

Ms Swirepik : If it is a Ramsar wetland and there is a change in ecological character over time, then we would declare that to the Ramsar secretariat via an article 3.2 notification. We have done that for a few wetlands in Australia.

Senator URQUHART: Can you just give me an example of that?

Ms Swirepik : But really that is at the very top end of those wetlands of international significance. There are a lot of other things that might impact on wetlands and really it is about whether state frameworks capture that or whether there is some response either through the state or the federal level. So I might just ask Mark to talk about some of the ones that have had a declaration.

Mr M Taylor : The normal approach would be that before you even get to something like an article 3.2 listing, which is really a flag saying, 'There's trouble here,' there's an expectation that ordinary monitoring and management of the site would see a set of triggers or targets or issues we are concerned about. The way in which Ramsar sites are managed, there is a set of measurements called limits of acceptable change, which are meant to be linked towards the key components or the reasons that you have the site listed for in the first placevalues, for example. So you might have limits of acceptable change, which is tagged towards water birds, and you mightthe state or the management agencylook at that and say, 'Well, we're a bit concerned about what's happening here. We're a bit concerned about vegetation.' And that should trigger a set of management actions under a management plan. So you should see, like an ordinary park, if you like. Very often Ramsar sites are within national parks. So you get a set of management actions.

But what would happen then if it were something more serious, over a period of five years, and you saw a continuing pattern of decline in a wetland, then that might trigger an article 3.2 assessment. What we would do then is: the state would identify it to us. They are the site managers and they are responsible.

Senator URQUHART: So they are the ones that identify and that is what triggers it?

Mr M Taylor : Exactly right. They would come to us. We would be talking to them anyway, but they will come to us and say, 'We have an issue here.' And we would work with them then on the processes after that. What would normally happen under an article 3.2 assessment is there would be a preliminary assessment, there would be scientific and other work to look at whether there has been an actual change to the ecological character of the site. And that often takes some time. It can take years, depending on the complexity of it, the idea being that following that assessment there is then the development of a management response. And the management response ideally says, 'Right, these are the actions that we need to do to try and bring the site either back to the original condition it was when it was listed.' In some circumstances, however, that is not actually possible to do that and so a new baseline is developed. But in any event, it is a management response that says, 'From here on in, this is how we are going to do our best as agencies to try and restore and look after those key values that we originally set there when we wanted to list the site in the first place.'

Senator URQUHART: Is that the same for Ramsar and wetlands of national importance?

Mr M Taylor : No, it is not exactly the same because Ramsar sites sit underneath the convention, and the convention has its own processes; hence this sort of reference to an article 3.2 listing. And we would not be engaged in a normal wetland of, say, national significance. That is a matter for the states. We are only really engaged because is it a Ramsar site and because we have responsibilities at the national level.

Senator URQUHART: What about the areas where migratory birds nest or use? Are you responsible for those?

Mr M Taylor : Again, where they are Ramsar sites we have an overall national level of responsibility. But in many casesin most cases, in factthe state managing the area, which is the migratory birds site, would be responsible for the site itself.

Senator URQUHART: That goes back to the state?

Mr M Taylor : It is a little more complex in relation to migratory species because other parts of the department are also involved in the work that Australia does in relation to migratory species conventions and partnerships. So there is other work happening, and there is also work happening, as you would know, in relation to threatened species and migratory species directly for birds and eastern Australian flyways partnerships et cetera.

Senator URQUHART: What about if a wetland has threatened flora or fauna species? Is that the same process, like the states and you getting

Mr M Taylor : Exactly the same as I described beforehand for Ramsar. So if it is a particular vegetation species and it is part of the core values for which the site was listed, part of its ecological character, then yes, the same thing applies.

Senator URQUHART: Would it be safe to assume that you would take action if you heard a wetland with migratory birds and/or threatened species was impacted in a negative way? Would you then investigate and take action, or would that fall back to the states again?

Mr M Taylor : Really what we would do in the first instance, if someone was to write to us and say, 'We're concerned about this particular site,' is we would go to the state first of all and ask them what actions they were taking, what processes were going on. We then look to see whether they had engaged with people who were concerned at a stakeholder level. Really, we have limited opportunity ourselves to take action. We are a pretty small unit within our office; so we have not got a capacity to go in there and investigate. It is much more likely that the action we would do if it was a serious concern is we would work with the state around the development of an assessment process and there would be independent work funded to go and look at that and we would be involved with the steering committees, that sort of thing.

Ms Swirepik : You asked what that information that is being provided is. Normally, of course, you would work hand in glove with the state because they are the land manager. But really it depends on what was being brought to our attention. As Mark said, there are other areas of the department that deal with biodiversity and they would be triggered in EPBC assessments depending on if it was an action, a development action, that was actually the thing that was causing concern. So there are other avenues to follow this up. But I guess you would always be looking and asking the state what they are doing.

Senator URQUHART: Are you aware of the coal water spill into the Caley Valley wetlands?

Mr Knudson : I am.

Senator URQUHART: They have migratory birds and threatened species. I am wondering whether Commonwealth Environmental Water, if you heard about damage to those wetlands, would actually take action or would it be the same situation, back to the states.

Mr Knudson : It is not an internationally protected wetland, so this part of the department would have nothing to do with that wetland.

Senator URQUHART: Nothing to do with it at all?

Mr Knudson : Nothing to do with that. We have talked about this in previous estimates. It was the office of compliance that looked into this matter. We also looked at it from the point of view of the approval that existed for a stormwater dam. As I think we provided previously in estimates testimony, the water that was released into that wetland did not come from that stormwater dam because it was not operational at that time. It was strictly a state matter. That is why the state looked into that.

Senator URQUHART: I have heard that before. Obviously, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is not involved or you are not aware of that?

Mr Knudson : That is correct.

Senator URQUHART: Is the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder aware of the Victorian government's audit of Ramsar sites in 2016?

Mr M Taylor : Yes, we are.

Senator URQUHART: Does the Commonwealth do something similar?

Mr M Taylor : We do not do something like an audit, but once every three years we ask the states to provide us with the work that they have done in relation to the relative health of sites within their area of responsibility. It is part of a national reporting that we provide to the conference of parties for Ramsar. In fact we are in the business of doing that right now. We are gathering information from all the states. It is not a detailed audit and we rely on the states to provide us with information, but, yes, we do.

Senator URQUHART: How do we know just how healthy Australia's wetlands are? You do not do an audit, so you rely on the states to give that information to you; is that correct?

Mr M Taylor : Yes. We have no separate process that we manage ourselves. The department has a number of broader processes in relation to the state of the environment, and work is often done there which provides us with a general sense of broader health, including of wetlands. But we do not manage a specific process beyond the one I just described, or a detailed one.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you. That is all I have, Chair.

CHAIR: Thanks, Senator Urquhart. We have now concluded 1.3. Thank you very much for your time today.