Gippsland Lakes is in dire straits

11 August 2022

The future health of Gippsland Lakes, an internationally recognised Ramsar wetland, lies firmly in the hands of the Victorian and Commonwealth governments, writes senior EJA lawyer Ellen Maybery.

As a Party to the Ramsar Convention, Australia has a responsibility to maintain the ecological character of the Gippsland Lakes Wetland site, to have procedures and monitoring in place to detect threats to the Lakes and to take action to protect its ecological character.

This responsibility is shared by the federal and Victorian state governments: the Commonwealth is bound under international law to meet this obligation and Victoria is responsible for practical implementation.

However a new CSIRO report, commissioned by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and released in recent weeks, provides some insight into the potential fate of the Gippsland Lakes Wetland site.

"If current management approaches are maintained – what might be described as sleep-walking into ecosystem collapse – the outcome will be a far more impoverished and far less biologically diverse place."

Ellen Maybery, Senior EJA lawyer

The report focuses on the vulnerability of the Gippsland Lakes Ramsar site to bushfire and other impacts of climate change. It confirms that Gippsland Lakes faces a broad range of threats, including pollution from activities like mining and agriculture, residential and commercial development, invasive species and bushfires.

In addition, the report finds it is abundantly clear that climate changes and sea-rise that could occur in coming decades could change the ecology of the system and challenge the site’s Ramsar listing. The report identifies a long list of knowledge gaps in relation to the Gippsland Lakes Ramsar site, including a gap in understanding of the dynamics of ecological change in the wetland system.

It also notes that its initial assessment lacked input from Traditional Owners about how ecological change would impact them.

The CSIRO report finds:

1. The 2019-20 bushfires polluted the Gippsland Lakes

Record-high sediment and pollutant loads were found due to runoff into rivers flowing into Gippsland Lakes. Pollutants from the fires included a contaminant plume that lasted months. Combined with high water temperatures, such impacts can lead to large-scale fish kills, loss of other aquatic species and toxic algal bloom.

2. Bushfire recovery activities are having little, if any direct impact for Gippsland Lakes

Most bushfire recovery activities in the region are for burned areas and are having little, if any, direct impact on the Gippsland Lakes Ramsar Site.

3. Climate has been changing and is expected to continue to change.

Average annual temperatures and number of hot days in the Gippsland Lakes region has increased significantly and climate projections show things will only get hotter and for longer. Rainfall is declining and drought is common. There will be more frequent extreme sea-level events. Forest fires have become larger and more frequent in the region and future fire seasons are expected to start earlier and last for longer, with less time for recovery. Evaporation rates are increasing.

4. The Gippsland Lakes system is vulnerable to climate change – is it at (another) tipping point?

The headline conclusion of this report is that the ecological character of Gippsland Lakes will likely change. Appropriate management, including research and monitoring, is required if the site is to continue to meet all of its current Ramsar wetland criteria. Climate change is producing an ‘emerging policy and technical challenge for the implementation of the Ramsar Convention’.

Key elements of that challenge include:

  • Securing and managing freshwater inflows to sustain wetlands and habitat
  • ‘Exporting’ and ‘mobilising’ salt, or in other words reducing salinity (especially in freshwater and brackish wetlands)
  • Assisting shoreline feeding and nesting habitats as sea levels rise
  • Reducing contamination of the system from bushfires and land-use, or in other words reducing contamination pressures in the catchment.

Environmental Justice Australia considers that there are localised human impacts, interventions and controls on the Gippsland Lakes ecosystem that are critical to meeting these ‘challenges’.

These include management of freshwater inflows into the Lakes through dams and diversions; control of salinity inputs through control of dredging and permanent connection with the ocean; and constraints on nutrient and chemical inputs from industries combined with a halt to land clearing (such as logging) in the catchment.

These responses and interventions are necessary because Australia has committed, internationally, to maintenance of the Gippsland Lakes ecosystem.

If current management approaches are maintained – what might be described as sleep-walking into ecosystem collapse – the outcome will be a far more impoverished and far less biologically diverse place.

We will see further degradation of the important buffer that large wetlands such as the Gippsland Lakes provides against the worst effects of the climate crisis. We will see species loss and algal bloom events continue.

In many ways, the CSIRO report reflects messages from a 2021 Environmental Justice Australia report which concluded that the Gippsland Lakes were not being managed in a manner conscious of handing them on to the next generation in a state better or no worse than they are presently in.

EJA continues to fight to protect and preserve the Gippsland Lakes by:

  • Our Living Wonders legal intervention, on behalf of our client the Environment Council of Central Queensland, which calls for the Minister for Environment and Water to reconsider 19 new coal and gas proposals to protect Australia’s living wonders from climate harm
  • Our work to ensure proper environmental assessment of ENGIE’s current plan for rehabilitation of their Hazelwood mine. Gippsland Lakes is an area that will be significantly impacted by the current proposal.
  • Challenging the current dredging of Lakes Entrance by Gippsland Ports, including by writing, on behalf of our client Gippsland Environment Group, to DELWP, the Premier and relevant Ministers raising concerns about the unlawfulness of the current dredging regime.
  • Our work in relation to the Central and Gippsland Region Sustainable Water Strategy, given the key importance of freshwater inflows to the health of the Gippsland Lakes.
  • Our work assessing the application of Ecologically Sustainable Development principles, in our 2021 report Unsustainable water management in the Gippsland Lakes: a legal analysis.

The CSIRO report is a helpful distillation of how human impacts on the environment mean that more responsibility rests with our governments to make conscious decisions about how to manage matters of national environmental significance.

For the Gippsland Lakes, the government must put sufficient time and resources into independent science and policy planning to address the current knowledge gaps.

It must then make an active decision about managing the wetland, and what this means for its future.

It is time to put all options on the table, such as contemplating an end to dredging at Lakes Entrance, for the sake of the system’s health.