RECENT rains may have eased Gippslanders’ water worries in the short term, but it would be foolhardy not to look at a long-term sustainable water strategy. The grim rainfall statistics of the 13 years up to 2010 make this clear. Unprecedented dry conditions have resulted in urgent actions to maintain supplies to some towns and had a huge impact on farms, businesses and the environment.
To the background of the 13-year drought, the longest on record, the Department of Sustainability and Environment has been preparing the Gippsland Region Sustainable Water Strategy, looking at the challenges and opportunities for water management over the next 50 years. It has been guided by a consultative committee with representatives from local water corporations, catchment management authorities, coastal management, local government, industry, and environmental and farming representatives. A discussion paper came out in July 2009. This was followed by a public consultation period, in which submissions were invited. Now a Draft Strategy, incorporating the input from stakeholders, has been published, and again public input is sought.
A series of community forums to discuss the Draft Strategy are currently being held around Gippsland. At last Friday’s forum at Leongatha the executive director of water entitlements and strategies at DSE, Campbell Fitzpatrick, addressed an audience of twenty to thirty people, giving an outline of the Draft Strategy and urging stakeholder input.
WHY 50 YEAR STRATEGY?
The need for a 50 year water strategy is argued by the document’s key claims that:
Climate change or a continuation of recent dry conditions is the biggest threat to water availability in Gippsland over the next 50 years;
The low rainfall of the past 13 years has seen reductions in stream flows in the region by up to 54 per cent (41 per cent in South Gippsland);
The Gippsland Region provides water to support regional communities, a strong tourism and recreational industry, and provides water for the power industry that supplies 90 per cent of Victoria’s electricity;
If nothing is done, reduced water availability will result in less water security for individuals, the environment, industry and agriculture.
The strategy makes the point that it is unclear whether the conditions of the past 13 years mark a shift in Gippsland’s climate or not. Rainfall figures for the last half of 2009 and the first half of 2010 have been close to the long-term average for Gippsland. Only the coming years will reveal whether the drought years were an exception or a new paradigm.
PRESSURES AND PROPOSALS
Climate change is only one of the potential pressures affecting water availability considered by the Draft Strategy. It also looks at land use changes, bushfires, population growth, domestic and stock dams and groundwater.
It notes that there have been some significant changes in how land is used in Gippsland, with an increase of about 20 per cent in the total plantation area across Gippsland since 1994.
Bushfires have an impact on water resources in terms of water quality (the effects of ash) and, in the longer term (20 to 80 years) quantity – tree regrowth requires more water otherwise destined for rivers and aquifers. With climate change there is the potential for more bushfires with more days of higher temperatures and drier catchments.
Gippsland’s population of around 225,000 is expected to increase over the next 50 years, especially in west and south Gippsland, leading to increased water demands for homes and industry.
The strategy points out that building dams for domestic and stock water can impact on water resources and the environment, affecting runoff when there are large numbers of farm dams in small areas.
Because they do not provide new water, and they come at a great financial, environmental and social cost, the strategy does not support building dams on rivers and instead discusses other ways to invest in improving the reliability of water supplies.
Noting that groundwater is a finite resource and needs to be managed to accommodate changes in climate and drought, the strategy considers issues associated with the management of groundwater resources, including the impact of coal mining and oil and gas production.
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
Llew Vale, the chair of the Gippsland Region Sustainable Water Strategy Consultative Committee, comments in his foreword: “The Draft Strategy endeavours to strike the appropriate balance between the needs of our towns, our industry, our agriculture and our highly valued and diverse environment. To this end the Draft Strategy has sought to continue to provide for an efficient, flexible and sustainable framework for management into the future.
“The Final Strategy, when released, must also reflect and balance the views of the whole Gippsland community. To this end we again ask you to provide your response to our deliberations by making a submission to the Draft Strategy.”
The chair of the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) Water Council, Richard Anderson, is one who recognises the importance of the strategy. He is urging VFF members to comment.
“The outcomes of this strategy will be significant to the farm community and it is important that VFF members take every opportunity to have their say and provide direction on its development,” said Mr Anderson.
“This strategy will influence how farmers will operate their businesses into the future. It is critical that VFF members involve themselves in the consultation process.”
Copies of the Draft Strategy are available from local water corporations and catchment management authorities. The strategy is also available online from www.ourwater.vic.gov.au/programs/sws/gippsland or call 136 186 for a submission form. Submissions can be sent in to DSE until December 3. The final strategy is expected to be released in mid-2011.