Tasmania has a reputation for being clean and green, but experts are worried about its rivers

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Rick Lohrey has been fishing rivers in north-eastern Tasmania for more than 40 years.

Some of his favourite spots for angling used to be on Tasmania’s longest river, the South Esk.

a man smiling for the camera: Rick Lohrey rarely fishes the South Esk River in Tasmania these days. (ABC News: Owain Stia-James)© Provided by ABC NEWS Rick Lohrey rarely fishes the South Esk River in Tasmania these days. (ABC News: Owain Stia-James)”You could catch fish pretty much anytime, anywhere, [on] any stretch of the river,” Mr Lohrey said.

“It was just a magnificent river.”

But the South Esk River is not what it used to be.

“Long stretches of the stream just appear to be barren,” he told 7.30. 

Alongside the banks of the South Esk are forestry plantations, farms, fish hatcheries and mining operations.

Data from years of monitoring shows the river is significantly impaired, and in the dry summer of 2019-20 it temporarily stopped flowing.

Another of Mr Lohrey’s favourite rivers, the Break O’Day, used to draw fly fishermen from across the country. Now, he can barely catch a fish.

But anglers are not the only ones worried about Tasmania’s rivers.

Department ‘not fulfilling its duty of care’, former employee says

Chris Bobbi used to be a water ecologist with Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment (DPIPWE).

His job involved studying the health and management of Tasmania’s rivers.

“In the period of 25 years or so that I was working there, there was a noticeable decline in the condition of the rivers,” Mr Bobbi said.

He was seeing plant and animal life diminish, as well as erosion and loss of vegetation on river banks.

Mr Bobbi said he was disappointed with a lack of groundwater monitoring done by DPIPWE before the South Esk River stopped flowing, and the lack of an investigation afterwards.

The department said it implemented its South Esk Water Management Plan and followed up with water-use compliance monitoring.

But one of the last straws for Mr Bobbi was when the department did not publicly release a major report detailing declining river health across the state.

The report, titled Temporal and Spatial Patterns in River Health across Tasmania, and the Influence of Environmental Factors, drew on more than 20 years of monitoring data from 85 sites on Tasmanian rivers.

It showed 46 per cent of those sites had deteriorated in recent years, with many severely or significantly impaired.

Many of those sites – 77 per cent – had historically been in healthy condition.

The independently reviewed report linked agricultural land use (particularly stock grazing), salinity, and water use such as extraction with poor river condition.

“It wasn’t necessarily a good news story … and the department wasn’t prepared to release it to the stakeholders or the public,” Mr Bobbi said.

“We could have talked about it and looked at ways of mitigating what’s happening.

“But by not releasing a report like that, you can’t have that discussion.”

Mr Bobbi resigned out of frustration earlier this year.

“In a nutshell, I felt like the department was not fulfilling its duty of care to maintain river systems and the health of the river systems in the face of water developments,” Mr Bobbi said.

Mr Bobbi decided to speak out about his concerns after seeing what had happened in New Zealand.

That country’s rivers are now some of the most polluted in the developed world, with some scientists blaming a massive increase in large-scale irrigation and dairy farming.

Redacted report eventually released

The report on the health of Tasmania’s rivers was eventually released more than a year after it was completed, but only after the Tasmanian Greens lodged a Right to Information request.

All the recommendations were redacted.

The department said that was because they were “draft recommendations which were never actioned or approved”.

State Greens leader Cassy O’Connor said the health of Tasmania’s rivers was in the public interest and the report should have been released in full.

“When you look at it, you understand why, if you’re the minister for primary industries … you might not want it to be made public,” Ms O’Connor said.

Minister for Primary Industries, Resources and Water Guy Barnett has not read the report.

“I’m aware of parts of that report. And of course, there are parts of that report that are of concern,” Mr Barnett said.

He said it was up to the department whether to make the report public or not.

DPIPWE did not answer questions about why the report was not publicly released or if it had been given to the minister or department secretary.

‘No longer clean, green and abundant’

Legislation stipulates that a “state of the environment” report be produced every five years in Tasmania, but there has not been one since 2009.

The most recent modelling of predicted climate change impacts on Tasmania’s water resources is also more than a decade old.

This has led to concerns over gaps in information about the quality and quantity of fresh water in Tasmania.

A recent report from estuarine scientist Christine Coughanowr stated, “Tasmania’s freshwater resources can no longer be considered to be clean, green and abundant,” citing declines in river flows, evidence of pollution from agricultural run-off and contamination from historic mining activity.

Meanwhile, the Tasmanian government is pushing ahead with ambitious growth plans for industries heavily reliant on fresh water, including aquaculture and renewable energy.

The government plans to double the growth rate of the agriculture sector to make it a $10 billion industry by 2050, a plan that is supported by a new rural water use strategy.

The Greens are worried about the extra irrigation that will require.

“The only way that we can have agriculture increase in value tenfold by 2050 is to suck the rivers dry,” Ms O’Connor said.

“That’s what this rural water use strategy points towards. It’s basically been written in order to prop up a government policy which has no foundation in science.”

Climate change ‘part of the thinking’, minister says

The Water Minister, Guy Barnett, said the rural water strategy was supported by a roundtable group looking at Tasmania’s water challenges, as well as information from the Temporal and Spatial Patterns report.

“We want a balanced, wise use of water for the next 10 years and way beyond,” Mr Barnett said.

“We’re talking about the use of winter water, for example, and containing it and then using it during the summer time.”

Mr Barnett said climate change was “part of the thinking” of the rural water strategy, but he did not say what impact climate change was predicted to have on Tasmania’s freshwater resources.

“The department obviously gets a range of research and reports from time to time. I’m not aware of any recent reports with respect to climate change and its impact on water and access to water,” he told 7.30. 

The government said it would undertake a review of the current reporting requirements for the “state of the environment” report to make sure it was fit for purpose and delivered by the right agency.

Already the volume of water available for irrigation reported through the department has increased by more than 90,000 megalitres in two years.

Mr Barnett said the next stage of the state’s irrigation plan would include another 72,000 megalitres of water.

Non-urban water licence holders can choose how they monitor their water use in Tasmania, and water meters are only required in some catchments.

“So we don’t know how much water is being extracted and used,” Ms O’Connor said.

In a statement, a DPIPWE spokeswoman said as part of the rural water use strategy, “metering requirements will be reviewed to ensure optimal water management outcomes”.

‘Stretched to the bare minimum’

Mr Bobbi does not think it is too late for Tasmania’s rivers.

“Some of these rivers, with a bit of love and care and attention and some funding, can be remediated,” he said. 

“So there is hope, but we need we need to be doing that now, in the face of growing agriculture and coupled with climate change as well.”

He said he was frustrated by a lack of resources for water monitoring and management while he was working at the department.

“Things like the statewide water quality monitoring program were shut down and never reinitiated,” he said.

“And the staffing levels are now stretched to the bare minimum so there weren’t the resources to do our jobs properly.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman said DPIPWE was currently undertaking projects including a river health monitoring program, a surface water monitoring network, a groundwater monitoring network, a fish ladder installation investigation and groundwater risk framework development.

The DPIPWE did not respond to questions about how many staff it had working on water assessment and monitoring.

Mr Barnett said as part of $1.5 million budgeted for the implementation of the rural water use strategy, a new river health project would have two new project officers.

The Greens are pushing for an inquiry into Tasmania’s fresh water management, worried that a hot, dry summer could push some of Tasmania’s rivers to the brink.

Rick Lohrey believes there is still time to change course.

“We only have one environment. If we don’t protect it, if we don’t look after it, we don’t understand how to look after it, then what will they be for the future?”

Watch this story on 7.30 tonight on ABC TV and iview.
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