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Environment Centre NT - protecting nature, living sustainably, creating climate for a change

Living Rivers

The Territory’s amazing free-flowing rivers are precious assets that should be legally protected from major land clearing and water extraction, dams, invasive species and mining.

The Environment Centre NT is seeking strong legal protection for rivers to ensure their ecological, cultural and recreational values are maintained.

Rivers are important to Aboriginal communities who live along them and rely on them for fishing, water, relaxation and ceremony. Indigenous Traditional Owners have important spiritual ties to rivers, and have binding responsibilities under Aboriginal law to maintain sacred sites and dreaming places.

Rivers and wetlands are the lifeblood of the Territory.

The Territory has 33 river catchments that wind through ancient mountain ranges and deserts in Central Australia to the tropical rivers of the Top End, where the annual wet season floods inundate vast floodplains and fill monsoonal wetlands with water cascading from the Arnhem Land Plateau.

An assessment of the heritage values of the Territory’s rivers by the Australian Government in the mid 1990s found that most of our rivers had very low or low levels of disturbance.

In contrast to the rivers of the Murray Darling Basin and many parts of southern and tropical Australia, our rivers are full of native fish, flow from their headwaters to the sea unfettered by dams and weirs, and are not swarming with feral fish.

But our rivers are under threat and need your support to keep them healthy, full of native fish and running with clean water.

The Environment  Centre NT and partner organisations gained an election commitment from Territory Labor in June 2005 to create an “innovative Living Rivers program”, with the Daly River the first river to be protected. Further, Labor committed that “new legislation will give special status to our icon rivers, for the benefit of all users”, and that “the community will continue to have input.”

We strongly support the Living Rivers commitment by Labor, and have worked to help develop the idea since then into a strong legislative program with on-ground management.

But the election commitment remains largely unfulfilled. A draft Living Rivers Strategy discussion paper released in April 2009 identified a range of options for implementing the election commitment, but has not been finalized.

Territory Labor has failed to pass new legislation to protect our icon rivers from these threats.

A strong Living Rivers program would fulfill the Territory Government’s obligations under the National Water Initiative to cap water extraction at sustainable levels and protect and enhance high conservation value aquatic ecosystems.

Together with partner environment organisations we call on the Territory Government to:

  • pass a new stand alone Living Rivers Act that enables the declaration of Living Rivers and sets clear objectives and thresholds for protection,
  • pass a strong new Native Vegetation Management Act that stops major land clearing and protects all riverside vegetation,
  • caps water use at very low levels and reviews the old Water Act,
  • bans dams on free-flowing rivers,
  • excludes mining from river beds and floodplains, and storing polluting tailings dams on floodplains,
  • increase support for effective on-ground land management, the creation of real Indigenous River Ranger jobs, and economic development strategies that build the conservation economy in rural and remote regions.

River communities should be allowed to nominate their river as a Living River, and be supported with information. Nomination should require the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Traditional Owners through culturally appropriate consultation.

The Territory Government has made good progress on capping water use from key rivers and aquifers, such as the Daly, but the default policy is to permit up to an arbitrary 20% of the instantaneous flow from a river or aquifer to be extracted. This policy has no scientific basis and must be replaced by a science-based Living Rivers policy that caps water use at much lower levels.

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