Yarra River Protection (Wilipgin Birrarung Murron) Bill 2017 | Samantha Dunn

Yarra River Protection (Wilipgin Birrarung Murron) Bill 2017

I rise to speak on the Yarra River Protection (Wilipgin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017.
Tuesday, October 3, 2017 - 12:45pm
Samantha Dunn

Ms DUNN (Eastern Metropolitan) — I rise to speak on the Yarra River Protection (Wilipgin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017. The bill does a range of things. It provides for a declaration of the Yarra River and certain land in its vicinity, protecting it as one living and integrated natural entity; it provides for the development and implementation of the Yarra strategic plan as an overarching policy and planning framework; it establishes the Birrarung Council to report on the development and implementation of the plan; and more significantly it acts as a voice for the Yarra River. The bill sets out some principles for public entities in terms of what they must regard when performing functions or duties in relation to the Yarra River and Yarra River land. Lastly, the bill provides for the declaration of the Greater Yarra Urban Parklands.

The Greens certainly welcome this bill. We see it as a positive step to working towards a holistic, sustainable management of the Yarra River and its environs. In particular the Greens are very supportive of the Indigenous governance arrangements provided in the bill. We welcome further formal and meaningful inclusion of Indigenous representatives in governance arrangements in Victoria. This will contribute to recognising the strength of the bonds between Indigenous people and country. It extends beyond a mere extractive process of consulting Indigenous groups for that knowledge and moves Indigenous stewardship and leadership front and centre.

The Greens note the extraordinary effort that has been expended over centuries by the Wurundjeri to have a formal and sanctioned role in the governance of the river. This has been an effort that commenced with the first contact. It is worth noting that the Wurundjeri people made two formal applications for land along the Yarra River, in 1840 and again in 1863. The latter resulted in the formation of the Coranderrk mission, which became very successful in terms of growing and selling wheat, hops and crafts. It is an extraordinary part of our landscape, and it is well worth going to visit. Of course now some of the Coranderrk mission is incorporated into the Healesville Sanctuary.

Significant in relation to Coranderrk is that it is the place where William Barak resided. Of course William Barak was a most notable Aboriginal activist who presented a petition in 1886 requesting freedom for the people who lived on the Coranderrk mission to come and go as they pleased. It was extraordinarily successful. There was a forced departure of the people of Coranderrk in the 1890s, and then we saw it closed eventually in 1924.

Considering the remarkable history of the Wurundjeri engagement with the British and Australian authorities and the management of the river it is only right to see extensive input and oversight by the Wurundjeri people enshrined through this bill. The planning protections it provides for the public spaces and environs of the Yarra River are appropriate. The bill cuts through existing complicated and ineffective planning processes to ensure that there is a unified planning and governance process for the Yarra River, both in its waters and in its land.
I just want to touch a little bit on a particular planning document that I hold very close to my heart — it really goes back to my history as a Yarra Ranges councillor — and that is the Upper Yarra and Dandenong Ranges Regional Strategy Plan. It is a very significant planning document. It is a document that was the result of the Hamer government recognising how significant and how important that land was in the Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges areas. Of course as part of the regional strategy plan it had a lot to say on the Yarra River. What is notable about the regional strategy plan is that in fact it can only be amended with the approval of both houses of Parliament. It stands as a planning instrument to this very day. It is very powerful, and in fact matters in relation to Yarra Ranges Shire Council cannot be inconsistent with the regional strategy plan.

The strategy plan came into being through the development of the Upper Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges Authority, which was established in 1977 through an act of 1976. It essentially covered what were the former shires of Healesville, Lilydale, Sherbrooke and Upper Yarra. The main feature of the Upper Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges Act was to enable increased protection for the special features and character of the region.

I want to turn now to the part of that particular strategy plan that relates to water resources. It is worth noting that for some time there has been recognition — particularly in the Yarra Ranges section of the river, which essentially is nearly to the headwaters, which I believe probably are in Baw Baw, but locked away in water catchment areas — that an enormous tract of the Yarra River goes through the Yarra Ranges Shire Council area.

In terms of the regional strategy plan, it talks about the maintenance of high water quality for domestic and other beneficial uses and the maintenance of environmental values, and primary objectives and policies have been developed specifically to achieve that objective. As most of the region is used as a catchment for Melbourne’s water supply, the policies reflect its importance. Of course we must thank those people who came before us, our forebears, who in fact closed our wet forests of Victoria and determined them to be water catchments, because the legacy of that is that Melbourne has a supply of some of the cleanest drinking water in the world.

The policies of the regional strategy plan were prepared on the basis of a total catchment approach to water resource conservation. They concentrate on the waterways and adjacent lands and on issues specifically related to water harvesting. River systems, including flood plains, are of particular significance because of their role in transferring water in times of flood, the habitat they provide for flora and fauna and the recreational opportunities they offer. The Yarra River and its tributaries, streams and creeks is widely recognised as a river system with special values, so it is certainly nothing new in terms of the regard in which the Yarra is held, particularly in relation to the regional strategy plan, which of course has guided development in what is now the Shire of Yarra Ranges.

It is worth noting, as part of this particular policy, land use management. That is quite significant in terms of providing decision guidelines around what is appropriate. The regional strategy plan particularly notes that government departments, public authorities, councils and planning authorities must ensure the maintenance of adequate streamflow to ensure protection of the biota and the aesthetic quality of the Yarra River and the stream system, the retention of riparian vegetation and the protection of the aquatic environment and appropriate revegetation of these areas and revegetation with appropriate native species of denuded and degraded stream banks and enhancement of the existing native vegetation along watercourses.
I want to turn now to the organisation Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), which has done a significant amount of work in relation to the protection of the Yarra River in association with the Yarra Riverkeeper Association. EJA talk about the fact that the bill itself:

… does not establish the river as a legal person …

which of course we have seen occur elsewhere in the world:

But the objects and purposes of the bill do affirm intrinsic and human values of the river. For example, the legislation aims to protect the river as ‘one living and integrated natural entity’. The objects of the law would recognise ‘ecological health’ and the ‘cultural, social, environmental and amenity values of the Yarra River and the landscape in which the Yarra River is situated’.

The act also establishes a type of institutional ‘guardianship’ arrangement in the advisory and advocacy functions of a new Birrarung Council and monitoring/auditing functions vested in the sustainability commissioner.

The EJA go on to say:

Alongside these objects, purposes and practices, conventional models of planning and water management are also employed, in order to make the proposed river governance arrangements work. In particular, a Yarra strategic plan will be prepared as a ‘land use framework plan’ and ‘healthy waterway strategies’ will have to be prepared consistently with that strategic land use plan.

I would certainly hope that there is also consistency with the regional strategy plan in place at the Shire of Yarra Ranges, which has held that municipality in good stead for decades. The EJA talk about the:

… innovative and conventional legal approaches … brought together by integrative management tools: a 50year ‘community vision’, the 10year Yarra strategic plan, and obligations for planners, water authorities and other decisionmakers to act consistently with them.

I certainly congratulate the EJA on their work in relation to being fierce advocates for the Yarra River.

With that, I certainly concur with Mr Davis’s comments in relation to the Yarra Riverkeeper Association and the important advocacy role they have played in terms of being a strong voice for the Yarra River. I certainly remember Ian Penrose coming to visit Yarra Ranges Council. At that stage Yarra Ranges Council did not actually contribute to the Yarra riverkeepers and Mr Penrose was, of course, making a pitch for us to do that. I am very pleased that the council did decide to contribute some funding towards the Yarra riverkeepers because of the essential role they play and because the Yarra Ranges actually has the largest stretch of the Yarra River in its municipality. I certainly congratulate the Yarra riverkeepers. They have worked enormously hard. They have been fierce advocates for the Yarra River over many years, and this bill is recognition of their hard work.

In terms of this bill I would like to explore one major threat to the Yarra, its tributaries and its watershed, on which this bill stays silent. It is worth understanding what the Yarra catchment comprises. As we probably know, the catchment lies north and east of Melbourne, it covers an area of just over 4000 square kilometres and it is home to more than onethird of Victoria’s population and native plant and animal species. It spans protected forests and rural areas to urban development and established industry. The Yarra River runs through the catchment into Port Phillip Bay. It is sourced from the forested Yarra Ranges National Park on the southern side of the Great Dividing Range. It is a Victorian heritage river between Warburton and Warrandyte, meaning it has significant recreation, nature conservation, scenic and cultural heritage attributes. Certainly the river is highly valued and attracts millions of visitors a year, whether that is to walk, ride, row, fish, picnic or camp alongside the river.

The catchment is divided up into three subcatchments. There is the Upper Yarra system, and in terms of the major waterways that are part of that system they include the Yarra River itself of course, Hoddles Creek, Graceburn Creek, New Chum Creek, Coranderrk Creek, Watts River, Little Yarra River and the O’Shannassy River. Those waterways are highly valued by locals and visitors alike, and I can certainly report to the house that they have enormous aesthetic value, let alone their environmental values.

Some of those rivers run through towns, particularly towns such as Healesville. Most of them, because they are part of the Upper Yarra system, are in the forested catchments, which have enormous intrinsic environment values, including significant animal species such as the powerful owl, the Leadbeater’s possum and the platypus. It is worth noting that the upper reaches of the Yarra catchment also provide around 70 per cent of Melbourne’s drinking water.

Moving to the Middle Yarra system, which comprises Arthurs Creek, Diamond Creek, Steels Creek, Pauls Creek, Olinda Creek, Woori Yallock Creek and Stringybark Creek, there are also significant lands, including Yering Backswamp and other flood plain wetlands around Yarra Glen, which of course are listed in the Directory of Important Wetlands of Australia. These waterways are highly valued, particularly the main Yarra stem and its tributaries, because of their natural beauty and their support of many recreational activities and important animal species, such as the platypus. They also have very significant Indigenous values as well as European heritage values. The challenges for the waterways in the Middle Yarra are around urbanisation and agriculture and balancing social, environmental and economic needs.

Moving along the river we end up at the Lower Yarra system, which comprises the Plenty River, Darebin Creek, Merri Creek, Moonee Ponds Creek and Gardiners Creek. It is far more in an urban setting because essentially it is downstream from Templestowe. Much of the area along the waterways is protected in public open spaces. Fortunately the system still retains many natural wetlands within it, such as the Glen Iris wetlands, the Banyule Swamp and the Huntingdale Wetlands. The biggest challenge for the waterways in this particular region is urbanisation. Most of those waterways have been significantly altered in form and have very significantly reduced water quality. Modifications, including straightening, channelling and concrete lining, of course have an impact on the quality of natural vegetation in relation to those waterways. Large amounts of stormwater enter these waterways, reducing water quality and changing water flow rates, and together with waterway diversions upstream cause low flows and low dissolved oxygen, which harms plants and animals in the waterway.
It is interesting to look at the health of the Yarra River and its tributaries. Sadly it is not a great picture that is painted. Very few parts of the river are in fact healthy. Most of them are of poor quality, and that is in relation to the significant urbanisation around that catchment.

Having gone the length and breadth of the Yarra and the catchments that make up that river system, I want to go back to the Upper Yarra, which is in an area forested by mountain ash. These forests provide the ecosystem service of infiltrating, which is retaining and filtering rainfall into groundwater that wells up in springs, and these are the source of the Yarra’s tributaries. As I have already mentioned in my contribution, this is the principal reason why Melbourne has the cleanest drinking water in the world.

However, there is something that threatens our water quality and in fact the quantity of water that we can capture from our water catchment areas. The staterun logging industry threatens these forests. It does this directly by logging hundreds of hectares of forest in watersheds each year. More worryingly, logging combined with more frequent bushfires is imperilling the very existence of the mountain ash ecosystem to the extent that it has been listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

It is worth understanding what happens in our water catchment areas. In my time as a Yarra Ranges councillor I had the privilege of going on a tour of the water catchments comprising the Yarra Ranges, and one of them was the Armstrong catchment. The Armstrong catchment is part of the Yarra system. It is very closely located to Cambarville. It is right in the heart of the montane forests of Victoria. It provides an enormous watershed for Victoria. It is an extraordinary forest — damp and dense, full of moss and lichens and with an understorey of ferns and wattles. It was absolutely pristine in that forest until we got to a section of the road and came across the devastation we saw within the Armstrong catchment.

This is a closed water catchment. Noone is allowed in this water catchment. It is closed to protect water; it is closed to create water security for Melburnians. However, in that closed water catchment there were many logging coupes. The forest was completely trashed — all trees were removed and all understorey was removed. It was absolutely razed to the ground — and mostly for woodchip. It is a heartbreaking sight to see at the best of times. It is verging on criminal when it is in a closed water catchment.

I have also toured Starvation Creek, below the Upper Yarra dam, also part of the Yarra catchment area. There is nothing more devastating than standing on the edge of a logging coupe, looking into the distance at intact forest but before your very eyes are the smoking remains of what was once a pristine forest. It is happening. It continues to happen. It puts at risk water quality. It puts at risk the quantity of water. Perhaps not surprisingly those areas of the Yarra catchment are not included in this bill. Once the Birrarung Council has been formed I would dearly love to have a conversation to seek their views in relation to the absolute devastation of our catchment areas and the mountain ash forests of Victoria.

Along with the damage to the integrity of our watersheds, logging leads to the destruction of carbon stores and the extinction of endangered species. The regeneration burns that are part of logging these areas create haze for months, particularly throughout the central highlands, the Yarra Valley and the Dandenong Ranges. This causes respiratory illness, taints wine grapes and holds back the horticultural industry of the region.

The preamble of the bill states:

The Yarra River is of great importance to Melbourne and Victoria. It is the intention of the Parliament that the Yarra River is kept alive and healthy for the benefit of future generations.
Native forest logging is incompatible with the ethic, spirit and objectives of this bill. The state government must stop logging native forests and must preserve the forests of the Central Highlands in a new great forest national park.

I think if we are truly going to protect what is a significantly important river to all Melburnians, we really need to broaden the scope to actually include the tributaries, because you cannot ignore them. The tributaries have an enormous impact on water quality health into the future, so in terms of a truly holistic approach you need to take a catchmentwide approach. We hope to see in terms of stewardship and custodianship that the river, as a living being, is extended to all parts of that living being.

I certainly commend the Wurundjeri people for their work on the bill. The Greens support it, and we hope for its speedy passage.