Forests and water

While the country faces an ever increasing water crisis, governments are realising that something must be done. Competing users include irrigators, plantations and regrowth areas, industries, domestic households and of course the environment. Until now, the environment has never been seriously considered as a legitimate user.

Even with major rivers such as the Murray Darling system and the famous Snowy River gasping for a drink and in a state of ecological collapse, the political compromises continue. It all comes down to the fact that rivers don’t vote but farmers do. Rivers might give life to the landscape, but they don’t give political donations.

Logging water catchments

Forests and water are very closely linked. The fast growing young trees that are encouraged after clearfelling large areas of native forest for logs and woodchips consume huge amounts of water. Studies have shown that regrowth can reduce water yields from forested catchments by 50% for well over one hundred years, until the trees reach maturity.

Stopping logging in forested catchments is a logical part of any solution to improve both water quantity as well as quality, but seems too difficult for governments to accept. As an example, the Victorian Government has earmarked $160 million to secure water supplies into the future. Their draft paper accepted every recommendation from their experts … except one; that logging be phased out of water catchments. This is despite clear evidence that the value of these forests as perpetual water collectors, storers and purifiers, is worth many times more than the logs pulled out.

The Snowy River, which has been allowed 1% of its natural volume of water from the Jindabyne dam for decades, has now been promised a return of 21% within 15 years. However, the government refuses to stop logging one of its most important tributaries and forested catchments, the Yalmy River.


As well as the logging industry, the farming lobby is a powerful player in this debate. The cost for water to an irrigator can be 20 times less than what a city user is charged. Hopefully this will soon change.

Most of Victoria’s water is controlled by water authorities that depend on selling water to recover their costs. The incentive is to sell as much as possible. These are also the authorities put in charge of determining environmental flows for our rivers. Sadly, seven out of ten rivers in the state are degraded and in poor condition.

There have been small increases in water use efficiency, but it has only seen an increase in the area being irrigated rather than the savings being left in the rivers for environmental repair.
Vast areas of the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee Rivers floodplain are being destroyed by salinity. Trees are dying along the lower 900km of the Murray River due to salinity, drought and altered flooding regimes. Before the demand for irrigation water began, floods occurred about every three years. They now occur about every 10.

Life in the water

Because fish are at the top of a river’s food chain they’re a good indicator of eco-system health. But most of our native fish species are threatened with extinction.

All of our stream life is losing its natural habitat. Streambeds are clogged with silt covering pebbly crevices. These are important as refuge for invertebrates, which are in turn food for others. Crevices also provide safe spaces for fish eggs. Phosphate levels in rivers from land disturbance, logging, roading and agricultural runoff, and sewage are causing blue-green algal blooms. The lack of oxygen kills thousands of fish at a time. But even simple things like bank vegetation, deep pools and fallen logs are all essential for the complex and healthy workings of our waterways.

Truly sustainable management of our environment must be serious about protecting and restoring all components of a healthy water catchment, from protecting woodlands and forests to retaining fertilisers and animal waste on farms. Although the word ‘sustainable is tacked on to every government report and media release, there is little evidence of it being any more than a feel-good phrase to placate the public. It’s not simply a river or stream’s bed and banks that need to be looked after, but the entire catchment from top to bottom, from ridge line coast line.

The waters are murky but the message is clear; this essential element of life must not be used as political tool.

Winter 2003