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Primary Industries and Water – River Health

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Tags: Water, State Budget

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you minister, we know from the excellent work of the scientists within your agency, some of whom have left since in dismay, that river health in Tasmania was in significant and accelerating decline up to at least 2018. We know that from the report that your colleagues in the previous government tried to conceal, the Temporal and Spatial Patterns in River Health across Tasmania report. Has any work been done in the five years since that report to track river health? And has there been any work to examine how the data you've got is tracking with the trend that was clearly and depressingly identified in the river health report?

Ms PALMER - Thank you for your question. The primary recommendation of the report you are referring to was to establish a multi-agency working group to facilitate collaboration between Tasmanian organisations to bring together their different perspectives, expertise, knowledge, data and resources. That recommendation has been achieved via the establishment of the Rural Water Roundtable, and the delivery of numerous collaborative projects under the Rural Water Use Strategy. The Rural Water Roundtable includes some significant heavy hitters in its membership, from the department, Hydro Tasmania, Tas Irrigation, TFGA, Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, TasWater, NRM North, which is representing the NRM regions, Tas Salmon Growers Association, Dairy Tasmania, Landcare Tasmania, Inland Fishery Services and the Environmental Protection Authority. The roundtable provides the Government with -

Ms O'CONNOR - Point of order, Chair. This bears no relationship to the question I asked the minister. She is talking about the Rural Water Use Strategy. I'm talking about the science behind the Temporal and Spatial Patterns report. Rather than interject, I'm asking for your guidance.

CHAIR - I will ask the minister to please make the answer relevant to the question that has been asked. I have to side with Ms O'Connor with what she's saying.

Ms PALMER - Thank you for that guidance, Chair, but what I'm talking about here are the recommendations of the temporal and spatial patterns in river health across Tasmania and the influence of the environmental factors which is the report that you are speaking about -

Ms O'CONNOR - That's right.

Ms PALMER - so, I'm looking at what are the primary recommendations from that report and -

Ms O'CONNOR - That wasn't my question.

Ms PALMER - I can continue with the information that I have with regard to your asking about that report and these are recommendations from that report that we have actioned through the Rural Water Use Strategy that are being implemented.

Ms O'CONNOR - With the greatest of respect - thank you, minister.

What we're trying to establish here is whether river health continues to be in decline given that there was a move away from the scientific foundation that underpinned the Temporal and Spatial Patterns Report that led, for example, to the resignation of outstanding water scientists like Chris Bobbi. We're trying to establish whether that report's just been ditched, you have your Rural Water Use Strategies so you've got this structure, but in terms of the health of the rivers, what do we know and has the decline been in any way arrested?

Ms PALMER - I am going to refer this to the Acting Secretary but I will just say that the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania (NRET) has collected statewide data from broadscale monitoring of river conditions under the River Health Monitoring Program and this is in addition to the continuous river level, river flow and water quality data that NRE Tasmania also collects. This data is complemented by the strength, flow and water quality monitoring also conducted on a regular basis across the state's catchments and that's conducted by Hydro Tasmania and also by Tasmanian Irrigation but for information I will pass to the Acting Secretary.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, minister. Perhaps the Acting Secretary, the Deputy Secretary, could address the substance of the question which is: have there been any tangible improvements in river health and how would you measure them, given that the work which underpinned the Temporal and Spatial Patterns Report and some of that expertise is gone.

Ms WILSON - I believe that our staff who are with us are expert scientists. They continue to work with our agency on these projects and under our Rural Water Use Strategy we have definite deliverables around improving the coordination of data around river health and undertaking case studies. Particularly, we're doing a Drivers of Change Project under our River Health Advisory Project which is looking at catchment scale case study work to enhance our understanding of drivers of change in river health in Tasmanian catchments. That was the prime and one of the most important recommendations from the report to which you refer. Assessment work has commenced to test the drivers of change methodologies in four pilot catchment areas in Mountain River, Pipers River, Upper Ringarooma River and the Leven River. These methodologies will be refined and developed into a statewide catchment framework to guide future work in understanding catchment-specific pressures and drivers of river health.

We've also through the Rural Water Use Strategy employed additional staff to undertake a range of projects. This Government, through its specific investments through the change in funding so we can retain further revenue retention, is enabling the department to do this important work, supported by the scientists who sit in our agency who do an excellent job so I'm confident that the work we're doing will help drive an understanding of impacts. In terms of your specific question about - do we understand at this stage or seeing improvements - what we're doing is monitoring but to get that sustained understanding of what you need to do in the catchment requires catchment understanding and then it requires a partnership approach with those people in catchments, and that's what we're looking to do.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Deputy Secretary. What I took from that answer is that there is more work looking at the drivers of change and we saw some of the drivers of change outlined in the Temporal and Spatial Patterns Report. This is a question which is of major public interest. We saw through that report that there had been continued decline in river health and water quality over five years and what we are trying to understand, or the Greens would like to know, is whether there has been any work that has improved river health?

Ms WILSON - Through the minister, there is a range of initiatives that the Government has invested in around natural resource management, catchments, Landcare, even weed management, including in the minister's electorate of the Tamar where there has been a lot of work in terms of understanding drivers and ensuring there is riverine protection. We are also looking at what was put forward in that report. The report says, 'investigate landscape mechanisms that are causing changes in river health'.

The scientists are telling us it is a landscape issue. We are looking at landscape issues. The other thing that is proposed is we value and establish novel strategies to mitigate landscape impacts. I believe with the work we are doing and the collaborative approach we are building through engagement for our Rural Water Use Roundtable, which I think we might have mentioned this to you in a TI, the major managers, that we are putting the right people together to have the right conversations but the first step is to do what that report recommended, which is understand those landscape drivers. Then we have to look at the levers that we can pull and that is the advice we will provide to government.

It is not something that you have simple answers in each catchment.

Ms O'CONNOR - I am not suggesting we do.

Ms WILSON - It is going to be catchments.


Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. That's good to hear. I'm going to ask you one more water question. Since 2014, the regular monitoring of phosphorus and nitrogen in Tasmania's rivers was defunded. We've had a briefing from your people, who have made it clear that the monitoring program will restart. Perhaps in answering this question, you can confirm that the monitoring program has restarted?

While scientists and other stakeholders have raised concerns with us that the use of nitrogen and phosphorus in Tasmania is very high compared to other jurisdictions - and, as I think you'd know, it is basically a foundational cause of the damage to New Zealand's waterways - are you open-minded to reform of the use of these substances, to move towards an agricultural system that relies far less heavily on phosphorus and nitrogen-based fertilisers?

Ms PALMER - To the first part of your question, I can tell you that the monitoring program has restarted. For the rest, I'll refer to the deputy secretary.

Ms WILSON - Thank you. Just as an example, Tas Irrigation undertakes quarterly monitoring for nutrients at 124 sites across their operational footprint, which demonstrates what you’re saying - that there's a view that we need to understand the impacts, particularly around those irrigation schemes, and there is that work that's undertaken.

In terms of your specific question about working with our farming community, I can assure you right now that with the cost of those fertilisers and phosphorus, people would be self-regulating. That's one of the reasons we're doing the Landscape Drivers of Change. In some catchments that could lead to a conversation around what do we need to do to maintain or improve the water quality in our catchment.

Ms PALMER - May I add, our TIA is also doing work around -

Ms O’CONNOR - I wanted to ask you about TIA’s program of works.

Ms PALMER - TIA is doing work around fertilisers and different options, which is really exciting. In this day and age, we should always be looking at ways to improve farming practices.

Ms O’CONNOR - That’s very good to hear. TIA was funded by the state Government to do some work, which I think they’d expressed an interest in, to look at alternatives to the use of these compounds, if that’s the right word for them. Nutrients, sorry. There is no fixed and rigid Government policy position against more nature-sensitive use of fertilisers. Does that make sense?

Ms PALMER - I’m trying to sort that out in my head. What I would say is that at every step of the way, we are really trying to encourage and indeed resource farm businesses to improve their farming practices, to ensure they are more resilient to the effects of climate change and that they continue to have social licence. I think sustainability is a real focus across this entire industry.