Exclusive: State government backs away from water promise

EXCLUSIVE: The state government has backed away from an election promise to initiate the first independent review of the state’s 13,000 wetlands, estuaries, rivers and groundwater reserves in more than 20 years.

The government promised before the 2010 election to have the independent Victorian Environment Assessment Council (VEAC) asses the condition and management of the state’s freshwater-dependent ecosystems.

Instead, it has referred the inquiry to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), which has included the freshwater ecosystems as part of its Victorian Waterways Management Strategy (VWMS). 

A draft report released by DEPI, which details regional decision making, investment and management issues for the next eight years.

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Twenty of the state’s environment, LandCare and farming groups have banded together to denounce the decision, stating that improved policy was essential to improving the health of the waterways, which are also integral to the health of many threatened species.

Environment Victoria’s campaign director Mark Wakeham said DEPI did not have the “ability or independence” to advise the government or make recommendations on how to improve the health of the waterways.

“Its entire scope is limited by budgetary constraints, not ecological objectives,” he said. 

“We need new approaches and improved management to halt the decline the health of our rivers and wetlands, which not only affects the environment but also agriculture, tourism, and recreation.

“By breaking this key election promise, the Napthine government has turned its back on Victoria’s rivers, wetlands and estuaries.”

Minister for Environment and Climate Change Ryan Smith confirmed the broken election promise in a letter dated May 31, stating that the review would be included in the “scope” of the VWMS.

Mr Smith’s office referred a Melbourne Times request to comment to Minister for Water Peter Walsh.

A spokeswoman for Mr Walsh said the original plan would have duplicated work being undertaken by DEPI.

“It was agreed the strategy’s development was able to appropriately assess concerns, and that there was additional benefit in doing this as part of a holistic process which also includes setting strategic actions and establishing waterway management policy,” she said.

She said the strategy included community consultation to ensure “independent advice and local knowledge feature”.

The last independent assessment was performed by Land Conservation Council in 1991, which led to the declaration of heritage rivers and natural catchment areas, plus the recommendation of environmental flows.

Victorian National Parks Association executive director Matt Ruchel was “dismayed” by the decision, which he said shut down the opportunity for an independent assessment that would guide future policy.

“Despite the Coalition strongly committing to the VEAC investigation before the 2010 election, the council has been given some questionable investigations regarding expanding prospecting in national parks rather than commencing promised investigations, such as this one,” he said.

“This freshwater investigation was a clear election commitment, unlike opening our parks for development with 99 year leases which was not mentioned prior to the election.”

The government announced the policy on November 8, 2010, then-Shadow Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Mary Wooldridge said: “The Coalition will ensure that VEAC can continue its vital role in the protection of Victoria’s diverse habitats and the sustainable management of our land, parks and coastal and marine life.”

A stakeholder reference committee was established as part of the VWMS, which is chaired by Mick Murphy from Victorian Catchment Management Council.

VEAC was created in 2001 to replace the Environment Conservation Council. Its role is to undertake investigations requested by the government in the areas of protection and management of natural resources and environment on public land.

The Department of Environment and Sustainability last assessed the condition of 242 of the state’s wetlands in 2011; results have not yet been released. 

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