Water and Catchments Discussion Paper

Water and Catchments Discussion Paper

‘Ngootyoong Gunditj, Ngootyoong Mara’
South West Management Plan

Water and Catchments

(download  a PDF from the Resources page)



The planning area supports biodiversity and natural processes that purify water while cycling nutrients and sediments. The rivers, wetlands, estuaries, coasts and marine environments contained in the planning area also provide for recreation, tourism and cultural enrichment.

Water provides connection between Sea Country, Stone Country, Forest Country and River/Forest Country. Proper flows are essential in waterways to sustain the values of freshwater ecosystems, to support adjacent habitat and provide connections between catchments and marine environments. River/habitat corridors can help provide connectivity, resilient ecosystems across landscapes and enable transition or movement of species.

Hydrological flows between parts of the landscape, along the surface or through aquifers, are a critical component of the functioning of many terrestrial landscapes in Australia. Flow regimes are also critical in wetland and riverine systems. Alteration of habitat in one part of the landscape can critically affect ecological processes elsewhere (Dunlop & Brown 2008).

The Index of Stream Condition (ISC) measures the environmental condition of streams by assessing five components of river health – flows, water quality, streamside vegetation, physical form and aquatic life – and informs Regional River Health Strategies and Regional Sustainable Water Strategies. The last ISC applicable to the planning area was conducted in 2004 and is due for renewal, particularly considering ongoing drought conditions since the last ISC was conducted.

The planningarea falls within the boundaries of Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority (CMA) and is located within two of the region’s major river drainage basins: the Glenelg Basin and Portland Coastal Basin.

The Glenelg River south of Dartmoor is listed as a Heritage River. The Glenelg Estuary and Long Swamp in Discovery Bay Coastal Park are part of the Discovery Bay Shorebird Site, which in turn is part of the East Asian–Australasian Shorebird Site Network (DSE 2010).

The Federal Government has listed the Lower Glenelg River as a High Conservation Value Aquatic ecosystem.

This discussion paper looks at the important role the planning area plays in healthy catchments and water quality as well as the potential impacts of climate change with directions for future management.

The Gunditjmara Traditional Owners statement of past and present actions in management of water and catchments

Water holds a significant place in Aboriginal culture and is generally considered the source of cultural heritage. Water is intimately linked to the health of Country and life, and the Gunditjmara Traditional Owners want to be actively involved in water management. Many Gunditjmara Traditional Owners cultural sites are located on or near waterways and streams and waterbodies continue to be an important source of food and medicine. Water also holds a significant connection to Aboriginal women and a special meaning for women’s business. Women hold a sacred relationship to land and water, connected to healing, medicines and birthing practices. Aboriginal Communities also hold knowledge of the water resources in the region, and these parts of the landscape are important for many cultural practices and values (DSE 2010).

The Gunditjmara Traditional Owners of built a vast and complex network of channels and ponds to harvest eels at Lake Condah. This aquaculture system was maintained over thousands of years and enabled the Gunditjmara Traditional Owners to establish a permanent settlement that is believed to be one of the earliest of its kind in the world. In 2002 the Winda Mara Aboriginal Corporation launched the Lake Condah Sustainable Development Project aiming to restore the lake and surrounding heritage features. Restoration has revitalised the biodiversity and ecology of the area and enabled re-use of the traditional eel trapping and harvesting systems. The local community and economy will benefit from sustainable primary industries and cultural tourism (DSE 2010).


The Water Act 1989 provides Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) with regional waterway, floodplain and Environmental Water Reserve management powers. The Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) oversees the development and implementation of water policy across Victoria and supports the Minister for Environment and Climate Change and the Minister for Water in their statutory roles. The Coastal Management Act 1995 provides for Coastal Boards to provide strategic directions for coastal management including estuaries. The Western Coastal Board has this responsibility in the planning area.

The Heritage Rivers Act 1992 provides for protection of public land adjacent to declared heritage

rivers (or parts of rivers), such as the Glenelg River south of Dartmoor, which have significant nature conservation, recreation, scenic or cultural heritage attributes.

As managers of protected area with significant rivers, lakes, estuaries, wetlands, coasts and marine areas as well as interest in landscape scale biodiversity, Parks Victoria, DSE and the Gunditjmara Traditional Owners have an ongoing interest in the health of the waterways and waterbodies in the planning area. To protect and improve the condition of waterways staff work closely with federal and state agencies, regional CMAs as well as local communities to address water quality issues and help ensure the provision of appropriate water flows. On-ground works undertaken to enhance water delivery and biodiversity include reconnecting floodplain and river linkages, riparian restoration, fencing and water quality monitoring. In addition, programs such as pest plant and animal control are undertaken along rivers and in wetlands. Minimising the impact of management activities and visitor use on rivers is important, as are wildfire suppression and prevention measures, given fire can dramatically alter erosion and siltation rates.

Traditional Owners and Indigenous communities consistently say that they want to develop the capacity to contribute their expertise and knowledge to decision-making processes and water management rather than just being consulted. They seek to have a more active role in the management of land and water resources to protect cultural heritage and allow for Indigenous and community economic development and prosperity while protecting resources in a holistic way (DSE 2010).


Water quality is defined as a healthy water body with a near natural balance of fish, invertebrates, plants and algae and appropriate in-stream, riparian and floodplain habitats (CSIRO 2001). Water quality also impacts on the marine environment and is related to land use practices in the adjacent catchment. Reduced water quality has a negative impact on both human use of the marine environment, and marine biodiversity.

Water management and conservation issues were identified as key concerns by the community in the development of the 2003-2007 Glenelg Hopkins CMA Regional Catchment Strategy. Rivers, streams, estuaries, lakes and wetlands were considered by the majority of the community as the environmental assets they valued most. Major threats to water were perceived to be pollution from farming activities, salinity, erosion and over-use of resources (Glenelg Hopkins CMA 2003). The Strategy identified key regional challenges of:

  • regional sustainability
  • biodiversity
  • water health and water quality
  • soil decline and salinity
  • pest plants and animals
  • coastal areas.

The Strategy also identified key integration tools to achieve multiple benefit outcomes across these challenge areas. These tools are:

  • integrated strategic planning
  • regional partnerships
  • onground works
  • community engagement and capacity building.

Significant pressures have been placed on streams, wetlands, aquifers and estuaries in the planning area, largely as a result of water diversion and regulation. Drought has further reduced stream flows and climate change could in some cases push the situation across critical thresholds. While Australian river systems are capable of surviving droughts, often the landscape has been modified to such as degree that system recovery can no longer be assured. According to the Victorian 2008 State of Environment Report widespread changes to low flow events are causing numerous pressures, ranging from changed species breeding conditions to poor water quality. Furthermore Victoria has already experienced a decade of low stream flows. In many rivers, stream flow reduction has been greater than the CSIRO predicted ‘high’ climate change scenario for 2030 (VCES 2008).

The Western Region Sustainable Water Strategy identifies that excessive extraction of fresh groundwater from an aquifer can reduce the water pressure and draw saltwater into the aquifer. This risk is most prevalent in coastal areas, where fresh groundwater levels decline to a point where seawater is able to infiltrate freshwater aquifers, but it can also occur in inland areas where freshwater and saline groundwater bodies are near each other.

Saltwater intrusions can cause groundwater to become too salty for drinking, irrigation and other purposes, as well as degrading environmental values. It can also change the patterns of groundwater flow and discharge in coastal areas, altering the nutrient loads and salinity of coastal groundwater dependent ecosystems (DSE 2010).

Acid sulfate soils are soils that contain sulfuric acid or have the potential to form sulfuric acid when exposed to oxygen (for example, through drying or disturbance). Acid sulfate soils have been found in inland areas of south-eastern Australia as the exceptionally dry conditions over the past 13 years have exposed wetland sediments in some areas. However, little information exists about the extent of these soils in inland areas in the planning area. This is an emerging issue in the region and options for prevention and management are limited.

In response to this issue in coastal areas, DSE released the Victorian Coastal Acid Sulfate Soils Strategy in July 2009. The objective of this strategy is to protect people, the environment and infrastructure from the harmful effects of disturbing coastal acid sulfate soils (DSE 2010).

Stock grazing can also have an impact on waterways, water quality, streamsides and wetland vegetation.


Regional Catchment Strategies provide an integrated planning framework for land, water and biodiversity in a CMA region. The Glenelg Hopkins CMA Health of the Catchment Report identified that clearing of land through post European settlement and river regulation activities has caused erosion and sediment problems in the Glenelg River catchment particularly in the Glenelg Basin. The report also identified that 70% of the rivers in the Portland Coastal Basin had poor water quality and were also in poor environmental condition (Glenelg Hopkins CMA 2002).

There has been some concern expressed about the impact of pine and bluegum plantations in the planning area and their impact on catchments. The State of the Environment report identified that plantations are established for multiple reasons, including salinity mitigation and managed investment; however, the impacts of plantations on biodiversity, landscape function and catchment water yield vary substantially depending on the composition, age and management of the plantation and its size and location in the catchment (VCES 2008).

Major land use changes have created pressures on water availability in some areas of the planning area. In the last 15 years, this has mainly been due to the development of plantation forestry. In future, it is expected that more land will be covered by vegetation with higher water requirements, which will generally decrease water availability. Further expansion of plantations may be driven by the introduction of a carbon emissions trading scheme. Sub-catchments that are most at risk include Bryans Creek, the Stokes, Crawford and Lower Glenelg rivers, and the Glenelg Estuary sub-catchments in the Glenelg Basin (DSE 2010).


Estuaries are where saltwater from the open sea mixes with freshwater draining from rivers and aquifers, creating unique and important ecosystems. There is a community proposal to include the Glenelg River estuary as a RAMSAR wetland.

The estuaries and coastal wetlands within the planning area are highly diverse and productive ecosystems. They support abundant wildlife, such as resident and migrant shorebirds, waterbirds and fish, and unique wetland vegetation communities such as saltmarshes and reed beds (DSE 2010).

The Victorian Coastal Strategy 2008 includes directions for the review of Coastal Action Plans in the Western Coastal Board area.

The Western Coastal Board South West Estuaries Coastal Action Plan (Western Coastal Board 2002a) provides an overall strategic framework for the integrated planning, management and restoration of estuaries in the planning area. It also provides guidance for the development of individual estuary management plans. For the ‘Ngootyoong Gunditj, Ngootyoong Mara’ South West Management Plan the relevant estuaries are the Glenelg River, Surrey River and Fitzroy River. Threats to these estuaries identified included:

  • Continued erosion and pollution from urban and agricultural runoff may cause further deterioration in water quality.
  • Destruction of the seagrass beds.

The Western Coastal Board South West Victoria Coastal Action Plan (Western Coastal Board 2002b) (CAP) was prepared to coordinate and integrate relevant coastal and marine planning and management activities and the responsible organisations. The CAP identified the following coastal values and issues:

  • Environmental – flora, fauna, aquatic and marine habitat, landscape, geology, geomorphology and scenic quality. Improved protection of coastal and marine biodiversity is also considered important, particularly for intertidal habitats. Seagrass and saltmarsh communities within the study area require greater protection and coordinated management.
  • Social - recreation, culture, heritage, recreational and commercial fishing activity and feelings of well being.
  • Economic - festivals, tourism, commercial fishing and port activity, land use and development and employment.

The Western Coastal Board also prepared a Glenelg Shire Coastal Action Plan in 2004. The CAP provides strategic management direction for coastal areas within the Shire Council. Issues identified in the CAP preparation were agency management processes, coastal access, marine management, estuary management, foreshore infrastructure, landscape values, pest plants and animals, significant flora and fauna species, recreation and tourism, and Indigenous and Post Settlement cultural heritage.

Issues and threats to estuaries and coastal areas also include:

  • Storm surges
  • Breaks through primary dunes threatening inland wetlands
  • Erosion
  • Inadequate fresh and salt water flows
  • Pest plant and animals
  • Species management
  • Inappropriate recreation
  • Inappropriate development.


The CSIRO estimates of future changes in runoff in Victoria’s catchments indicate that by 2030, catchments located in the Portland Coast and Glenelg Hopkins Basins will experience up to 40% reductions in runoff and up to 50% by 2070 (State Government of Victoria, 2008a)[1]. Decreases in rainfall and higher evaporation rates will mean less soil moisture and less water for rivers. Demand for water may also increase as a result of warmer temperatures and as population grows. Lower flows and higher temperatures may also reduce water quality within the Glenelg Hopkins CMA and create a more favourable environment for potentially harmful algal blooms. Altered water flows in rivers and wetlands will impact on the composition of ecosystems and their distribution (State Government of Victoria 2008a)  

According to the draft Western Region Sustainable Water Strategy there is a risk that increased use of groundwater driven by increasing demand for water and lower surface water availability may reduce the water that flows to groundwater dependent ecosystems, including baseflows to streams, wetlands and in some instances terrestrial vegetation. Groundwater recharge rates can be impacted on by changing agricultural practices and timber plantations (DSE 2010).

The predicted increase in frequency of bushfires will impact on water quality immediately after a severe fire as rain washes ash, nutrients and other materials into rivers and wetlands, causing increased turbidity and changes to local stream ecology. Longer term impacts include reduced catchment yield due to the reduction in vegetation cover. Once regenerating vegetation enters a phase of rapid growth, surface and groundwater levels may be reduced in the longer term (20-80 years) (DSE 2010). Fires are also disturbance factors that create weed recruitment opportunities.

Areas of wetland inundation may change and seasonal wetlands could become more temporary, with evaporation effects greatest in shallow systems. Due to their limited capacity for adaptation, wetlands are considered to be among the ecosystems most vulnerable to climate change (Bates et al 2008).

Climate change may also bring rising sea levels which, combined with reduced base flows and higher temperatures in summer, may change patterns of salt water movement in estuaries. This may affect ecological values such as fish populations (DSE 2010).

Severe weather events, such as intense rainstorms, are likely to cause further disturbance in riparian areas and move weed species through the river corridor. When native species become stressed by changes in climate they are more vulnerable to attack or competition (Buckley 2007). Increased storm surges could threaten coastal dunes, estuaries and infrastructure.

The Climate Change Discussion Paper provides more information on the impacts on climate change in the planning area.

The knowledge and information on climate change is continually changing and increasing. This Discussion Paper has been prepared using information available to date.


River and wetland rehabilitation will be integral to increasing the resilience of freshwater systems to climate change. While such work already receives attention from various government agencies, climate change reinforces the need for a holistic view of river rehabilitation at a catchment wide scale.

Cottingham et al. identify that rehabilitation strategies must also include the identification of important refuge areas, with the aim of maintaining or improving ecosystem resilience to drought and climate change. While the most effective form of rehabilitation is to prevent degradation of river and wetland ecosystems in the first place, many systems are already experiencing decline due to on-going drought. Priority therefore should go to protecting the remaining high quality aquatic systems (or parts thereof), particularly those that serve as important refugia and are a potential source of colonising organisms (Cottingham et al. 2005).

Desirable ecological conditions to support recovery from dry sequences include:

  • reliable refuges that retain enough water throughout drought periods ;
  • no physical disturbance;
  • no barriers between refuges and nearby freshwater habitats so the refugees can recolonise the main habitats when the drought breaks (eWater CRC 2008).


  • Integrated water and catchment management at a landscape scale
  • The Gunditjmara Traditional Owners have an aspiration for a skills audit and capacity building/training in all aspects of protected area management.
  • Build on previous consultation on natural, social, cultural and economic values
  • Partnership projects across land tenure.


The major directions for catchment and water management are to better manage assets in partnership with the Gunditjmara Traditional Owners and other agencies in a landscape scale approach to ensure survival through dry years; enable recovery in wetter years; continue essential supply of high quality water; and conserve aquatic refugia. The Commonwealth government report on the implications of climate change on National Reserve System recommends investigating the role of hydrological connectivity in the landscape at multiple scales (Dunlop & Brown 2008).

In the Glenelg Hopkins CMA area, a review of the regional river health strategy including estuaries and wetlands is proposed to reflect the integrated nature of waterways and catchments.


  • How can resources be better integrated to manage catchment and water assets, within the planning area?
  • What critical water and catchment values are most at risk due to climate change?
  • What places in the planning are might offer higher levels of species persistence under climate change (whether species re-radiate from these or not)?
  • What areas may be the sources from which species radiate as a result of climate change?
  • How should refugia in the planning area be protected?


Bates, B.C., Z.W. Kundzewicz, S. Z.W., Wu, S. and & J.P. Palutikof, J.P. (eds) 2008, Climate Change and Water. Technical Paper of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC Secretariat, Geneva, 210 pp.

Buckley, R., (ed) 2007, Climate Response: issues, costs and liabilities in adapting to climate change in Australia. Griffith University, Gold Coast and Brisbane.

Cottingham, P., Bond, N., Lake, P.S., Arthington, A. and Outhet, D. 2005, Recent lessons on river rehabilitation in eastern Australia. Technical Report. CRC for Freshwater Ecology, Canberra, ACT.

CSIRO (2001) Natural Assets - An Inventory of Ecosystem Goods & Services in the Goulburn Broken Catchment, CSIRO, Canberra.

Department of Climate Change 2008, Adapting to Climate Change: Victoria - Summary of Projected Impacts, Department of Climate Change, Canberra, Australia, Victoria - Think Change

Department of Justice 2008, Report of the Steering Committee for the Development of a Victorian Native Title Settlement Framework, State Government of Victoria and Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group, Melbourne.

Department of Sustainability and Environment 2010, Draft West Region Sustainable Water Strategy, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Melbourne.

Dunlop, M., & Brown, P.R. 2008. Implications of climate change for Australia’s National Reserve System: A preliminary assessment. Report to the Department of Climate Change, February 2008.

eWater CRC 2008, Beating Drought: Resilience and Resistance, http://www.ewatercrc.com.au/drought/beating_drought.shtml

Folke, C., Carpenter, S., Walker, B.H., Scheffer, M., Elmqvist, T., Gunderson, L., Holling, C.S. 2004, Regime shifts, resilience, and biodiversity in ecosystem management. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 35: 557-581.

Glenelg Hopkins CMA 2002, Health of the Catchment Report, Glenelg Hopkins CMA, Hamilton.

Glenelg Hopkins CMA 2003, Regional Catchment Strategy 2003 – 2007, Glenelg Hopkins CMA, Hamilton.

Parks Victoria 2007, Victoria’s State of the Parks Report, Parks Victoria, Melbourne.

SKM 2005, State of the Parks 2005 – Run-off from Victorian Parks. Report prepared for Parks Victoria, July 2005.

State Government of Victoria 2008a, Climate Change in the Glenelg Hopkins Region, State Government of Victoria, Melbourne

State Government of Victoria 2008b, Climate Change in Victoria: 2008 Summary. State Government of Victoria, Melbourne.

Victorian Commissioner of Environmental Sustainability 2008, State of the Environment Victoria 2008, State Government of Victoria, Melbourne.

Western Coastal Board 2002a, South West Estuaries Coastal Action Plan, Western Coastal Board, Geelong.

Western Coastal Board 2002b, South West Victoria Regional Coastal Action Plan, Western Coastal Board, Geelong.

Western Coastal Board, 2004, Glenelg Shire Council Coastal Action Plan, Western Coastal Board, Geelong.

[1] It should be noted that it isn’t yet possible to separate natural variability, including droughts, from climate change. Therefore any changes due to natural variability will be additional to those modelled by CSIRO.

Contact: James Hackel

Phone: 0429950623