Groundwater is one of the most important sources of water for environmental, cultural and economic purposes in Australia. Globally, over-extraction of groundwater has caused a plethora of social and ecological problems, with attempts to reign in over-abstraction proving extremely difficult – if not impossible – in most jurisdictions. Against this backdrop, it is now widely accepted that water resource planning must adopt a risk-based approach and seek to prevent over-development and over-extraction with a view to preserving the integrity of our rivers, floodplains and aquifers for future generations. Hydrogeology can be complex, making changes to quantity and quality of groundwater resources difficult and expensive to monitor comprehensively. This is one of the reasons why hydrogeological processes are still poorly understood in many groundwater-dependent environments, including WA. This necessarily requires a commitment to filling knowledge gaps, implementing rigorous water laws and broader governance mechanisms and allocating water conservatively and sustainably. It also requires a commitment to respecting and acting on the basis of Indigenous knowledges about water resources and committing to providing Aboriginal water justice through legally enforceable Aboriginal water entitlements.
This submission focusses on five main areas and makes the following observations and recommendations.
First, the Derby Plan must be considered in conjunction with the Martuwarra-Fitzroy planning process. There is a lack of data as to how the aquifers in the Derby Plan connect to the Martuwarra-Fitzroy. Traditional Owners are therefore concerned about the impact if the Derby Plan aquifers and the river are connected in unexpected ways. Further, there are cultural relationships and policy issues (such as those relating to Aboriginal Water Reserves) that cross both planning process areas.
Second, the Derby Plan, alongside the Martuwarra-Fitzroy planning process, presents an opportunity to address Aboriginal water dispossession and achieve Aboriginal water justice. The first step to achieving this is to undertake a more detailed assessment of cultural values in collaboration with Traditional Owners. The allocation plan should also clearly account for native title rights and interests. Water licencing should consider impacts on these rights and interests more comprehensively and follow the principle of free, prior and informed consent. Finally, and importantly, in the context of Aboriginal economic uses, the WA Government must commit to further consultation (in line with the principle of free, prior and informed consent), in relation to the proposed Aboriginal Water Reserves model.
Third, we have identified hydro-geological deficiencies with the proposal. We note inadequacies and uncertainties in: (a) recharge rate calculations, (b) assessment of the impacts of increased extraction in the Greater Derby sub-area on the saltwater intrusion problem;and (c) consideration of climate change impacts on groundwater recharge rates. One of our overarching concerns, in relation to all of these issues, is poor baseline data and the risk that this poses over the longer term to the sustainable management of the resource. We make several recommendations about committing to further research on baseline data and increased monitoring to fill knowledge gaps. Further, the best available climate change information must be used to guide water planning.
Fourth, we raise particular concerns about a number of matters linked to water allocations for the water source as a whole, as well as access to water by individual licence holders. These include a lack of transparency regarding water allocations, water availability and water for environmental and cultural purposes and the corresponding need to improve access to information about the same. In addition, we raise concerns about the proposed duration of the Derby Plan, particularly given the dearth of baseline data and possible need to reduce allocations in response to improved knowledge about the resource. We further note that the rules for allocating water licences are not made clear in the specific context of the Derby Plan. Finally, it is widely accepted that the volume of water accessible under any individual water licence should vary on an annual basis depending on recharge, surface flows and other factors. Thus, water licences should be expressed in nominal volumes with the possibility that permitted annual extractions fall between 0 and 100% of that nominal volume depending on water availability (and other relevant factors). This sort of seasonal management is necessary to ensure extractions reflect climatic conditions and, in turn, that Aboriginal values and public good values are achieved first.
Fifth, we raise several issues relating to governance. We are particularly concerned that the Derby Plan is being superimposed over a broken legal and governance framework that is in urgent need of major reform. In particular, we raise concerns about the adaptive management approach. There is a lack of detail about how adaptive management principles will be monitored and how any data collected regarding the implementation of these principles will be used to inform possible changes to the Plan. We accordingly recommend that the Derby Plan contain more specific details about the time intervals between evaluations and also make information about evaluations available to the public. Further, there must be specific criteria for evaluating and monitoring objectives and Traditional Owners must be directly involved in evaluating and monitoring. To enable effective evaluation, the WA Government must commit to research to increase both the quantity and quality of baseline data, and improve systems of metering.
This submission has been co-authored by the Martuwarra Council, the Water Justice Hub and the Environmental Defenders Office through a collaborative process. The overarching theme we keep returning to in this submission is uncertainty and the need for more research. We are keen to work with the WA Government to further discuss the scope of this research and continuing involvement of the author organisations.