Murray-Darling endangered listing watered down

The federal government has struck out listings of significant stretches of the Murray-Darling as critically endangered, saying it is an unnecessary protection for the massive river system.

Parliamentary Secretary for Environment Simon Birmingham said there were already 500 individual wetlands, threatened species and migratory birds protected in the river basin under national and state environment law, and the ecological community listings for the river was unnecessary environmental red tape.

The disallowance motion for the critically endangered listings survived the House of Representatives on Wednesday morning and does not need to be considered by the Senate.

Two entire sections of the river basin had been listed – the lower stretches of the River Murray from the junction of the Darling River to the sea in Victoria and South Australia, and the wetlands and inner flood plains of the Macquarie Marshes in NSW.

The listings were made in the final weeks of the former Labor government after more than four years of research and assessment by a team of scientists known as the threatened species scientific committee.

The listings required the overall impact on the river's ecosystem be considered before a major project along the river could be approved.

In conservation advice attached to the listing of the River Murray, the federal Environment Department outlined a list of threats to the river justifying the listing of critically endangered – one step before extinct – for the river's environmental function.

Those threats include the clearing of native vegetation, changes to river flows, the presence of weirs and barrages, increased water extraction, extraction of water from underground aquifers, increasing salinity, acid sulfate soils, invasive species, fishing pressure and climate change.

Senator Birmingham said along with the individual protections of wetlands and species, the government was committed to delivering a $10 billion plan – started by the Howard government and fleshed out and passed by the Gillard government – to return 2750 billion litres of water to the river through buybacks and water efficiency projects.

"Importantly, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which the government is committed to implementing in full and on time, provides the primary basis for supporting recovery in the areas of these listings," Senator Birmingham said.

“Given the huge expanse of protection and action already in place to protect these areas of the Murray-Darling Basin, we are not convinced that these listings provide additional environmental protection that is sufficient to warrant the additional red tape they may impose on communities, businesses and landholders."

Conservationists lashed out at the decision, saying the government was ignoring the science underpinning the advice of the threatened species scientific committee to list the stretches of river in the first place.

Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Jonathan La Nauze said a few wet seasons had helped avert an ecological disaster in the Murray River, but it was far from healthy and needed legal protection.

“The critically endangered listing is like an insurance policy, safeguarding this vital piece of infrastructure – the river that supports several million Australians and hundreds of thousands of businesses," he said.

But the move was welcomed by irrigator groups who had campaigned for the listing to be dumped.

National Irrigators' Council chief executive Tom Chesson said the listing had caught farming communities by surprise and was layer of burden on communities that provided no additional environmental protection.

“We hope that today's disallowance sends a strong message that locals want to be in charge of our own destiny and our local communities should never be taken for granted," he said.

Former head of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee  Associate  Professor Bob Beeton, from the University of Queensland, said the individual listings of wetlands and threatened species could not replicate the ecological community listings.

Mr Beeton – who worked on the Murray-Darling ecological community listing for three years until 2011 – said the individual listing of wetlands and species created a difficult bureaucratic framework and was not having the desired conservation outcome.

‘‘This [listing] puts it together. It recognises it is an altered landscape, that people are earning a living in that landscape. And it recognises the whole thing is dependent of the interconnectivity of the hydrological and riverine systems,’’ he said.

‘‘If people think individual listing all over the place is working, I asked the question why is the evidence in the last decades it has been going backwards, not forwards.

‘‘I think it is an enormous pity. And without knowing the advice the government had, I don’t understand the logic of it.’’

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