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Balancing Social, Economic and Environmental Outcomes Through Estuary Management and Planning

Errol McLean - Department of Land and Water Conservation

The last talk covered some of the mechanisms for estuary management, I want to retreat back into a look at the framework; the frameworks of estuary management, especially as they relate to NSW and the Department that I am here representing: NSW Land and Water Conservation.

It's a very fancy title there: "Balancing outcomes through the Estuary Management Planning Process". I guess that was a title that we inherited or was suggested and really this discussion is a little more pragmatic in just outlining Land and Water Conservation's role in terms of Estuaries and why we're interested in them and then a little bit of a discussion about the estuary management planning process that currently exists in NSW. I'll then perhaps mention a little bit of an advertorial at the end then I'll retreat into discussing the Port Hacking situation and some of the suggestions and discussions we're having with Sutherland Council at the moment in terms of advancing the process.

I might say that some of this is probably familiar to many of you. It'd be nice to be able to actually talk about specific examples of estuary management programs and plans that we do have because some of those can get quite exciting in terms of the outcomes. It has been a reasonably successful exercise at least in our eyes and I'm very happy to hear that Lynne Turner gives us a bit of a pat-on-the-back in terms of our progress, but we are quite humble about that in the sense that there's always room for improvement and we are certainly interested in improving the process as it goes.

Our role in estuaries is quite a varied one. There are many State agencies in NSW that are concerned with estuaries but our role is fairly broad. Firstly, we are the agent for the owner of Crown Land. But that's not just little parcels of Crown Land alongside the estuaries, but we're also the agents for the owner of that area which is submerged below mean high water mark. Because of this, we have an approval and licencing role for foreshore structures. There's some discussion taking place with Sutherland Council at the moment in terms of commenting on the foreshore DCP that they revising. We administer various NSW local government programs. We also implement various natural resource management policies and, last of all, we're involved in maintenance dredging predominantly for commercial ports or small ports rather than for recreational uses. For very obscure and long existing reasons, we've been involved with maintenance dredging in Port Hacking for some time. The local government programs are important. They are 'local government' programs in that the local governments drive them, and they request our support, both financially and technically. We're also involved in estuary management, Ports and Waterways Programs, Coastal Management and Floodplain Management Programs, as well as small town water and sewerage. The local councils approach us (and we push them sometimes), but they approach us for contributory support and technical advice on these plans.

I think we're all well aware that the estuaries are under threat. We've got a very big concentration of the State's population living in the narrow coastal zone and many of us try to live near estuaries because they are such beautiful places and we love to love them to death. We like to use them, we like to fish in them, we like to boat on them we like to walk alongside them, we like to have access to them and so on, and that pressure is really quite strong along the NSW coast. Inappropriate development continues to result in increased pollutant loads to the lower parts of catchments and also into the estuaries and the coast so it's something that we're very conscience of and we are trying to implement a process whereby we can limit these effects. Estuaries are the report card of the catchment because they're the sink at the end of the catchment so whatever happens in a catchment has the potential to impact on the estuary. We can observe the wrongs of the catchment often happening within the estuary itself. The condition of the estuaries varies. The Land and Water Resources Audit that you heard of before gives an indication of the condition in NSW. Only 10% of our estuaries are 'near pristine', 38% are 'slightly modified' and the combination of 'modified' and 'severely modified' amounts to about 52%. In terms of 'near pristine' estuaries, Nadgee Lake is the classic example that's always used in NSW. Nadgee Lake is right down near the Victorian border, and is embedded in the National Park. There are very few impacts on it so we therefore can cheerfully classify it as 'near pristine'. In the 'modified' category, we had to put Port Hacking because it's a classic example of a modified estuary. It's not severely modified as most of you will know if you've been out boating, fishing or swimming in its waters. Parts of it you could classify as somewhat more modified than others. If you go to the top of the bays such as just outside here at Gunnamatta Bay, you'll find that's certainly much more modified than further down in the stronger tidal and better flushed areas. In terms of 'severely modified', Port Kembla Harbour is probably one of the classic ones here. Most of it has been dug out, reclaimed, dredged and has a major industry discharging variable quality water in, including some super-heated water which actually creates a rather unique environment. Some years ago Greenpeace described this harbour as "biologically dead". Those of us who were working on it at the time were chuckling about that because in fact, biologically, it's rather interesting. It has a tropical environment with tropical fish existing in the top couple of metres of heated water and below that you've got temperate fish in a cool water environment. So it may be severely modified, but it is certainly interesting as well. However it's not something that we should turn every estuary into and this is an obvious case of, a 'sacrificial estuary' that we are still interested in, but is certainly a long way from what we want Port Hacking to be.

As we see, most of the NSW estuaries are modified to some degree and in 1992 the NSW Estuary Management Program was introduced to help try and resolve some of the conflicts and to provide some technical and financial support to local government. The key thing here is that local government carries a major role in terms of estuary management: to prepare and implement sustainable estuary management plans for the estuaries in their area. The Estuary Management Manual, which was introduced in 1992 is now being revised and incorporated with the Coastal Management Manual into the new Coastal Zone Management Manual so it's the new improved version. However, the old one, the 1992 version is still in use and has been very helpful. You'll notice the bottom line on the slide says sound estuary management is developing. That was originally written by somebody else actually as " has developed as a result of these initiatives" and I did feel as if I should change that and say that it is developing . It's not to the state that we'd really like it; there's always room for improvement. We do think we are making ground but we would certainly like to improve the detail in the plans.

There are number of steps through the process. They are contained within the Estuary Management Manual and the new Coastal Zone Management Manual. The initial step is to form an estuary management committee. This is a committee of council which set up and controlled by Council and chaired by a Council nominee (often a councillor) and it includes a whole range of stakeholders. The committee (often via a consultancy) assembles the existing data, finds out where the data gaps are in terms of information and knowledge about the estuary, and carries out estuary process studies to fill in the information gaps to a point where we can feel reasonably comfortable about then developing some management objectives, strategies and actions. The latter happens through the development of the estuary management study and plan. Most of these stages are actually done by consultants, who are fairly well versed in the process. We write them a comprehensive brief and they undertake a study and produce a document. A critical component is that there are documents produced along the way. These are there for people to see and to evaluate. At the end of the estuary management plans, and these take a number of years, they are exhibited, they are reviewed, and then Council and agencies adopt them and the process of implementation begins. It is very important that the committee remains in position while that implementation occurs. Its also an adaptive process and one in which we like to monitor how we're going and to review how that plan has been implemented. The plans are only designed to exist for five-or-so years before review.

There are a couple of planning processes happening at the present time; in Gymea and Gunnamatta Bays. The working party, or estuary management group has been formed, the existing data has been assembled and estuary process study reports have been done. The management study has commenced and hopefully should be due fairly soon. The next step after that of course, is to adopt and implement the plan. But note, these are for two separate bays: Gymea and Gunnamatta. The process uses a staged approach, but the important thing is the linkage between the issues of concern that have been raised and the scientific investigations. Without that link, unfortunately it all becomes arm waving. It's very difficult then to get any agency or any other group to adopt any management strategy without that scientific link back to the problem and our understanding of it. There is a focus on the waterway itself, but we do consider catchment inputs insofar as they impact on the estuary itself or are likely to. So if someone wants a pigfarm at the back of the catchment and it's likely to discharge some pretty nasty water into the estuary, then we are certainly very interested in that process.

The third point there on the slide is very very important: the estuary management planning process facilitates community participation all the way through the process, via the committee. Now we can't cover everybody in the community but those stakeholders, the membership of the committee, should be actually nominated from representative groups who can then report back to those groups. So, if you've got an environment group, they can report back, and if you've got a fishing group or some other form of recreational group, then the members can report back in terms of process. This aids community education which is an increasingly important part of this process. The plan outlines preferred options and strategies and actions to undertake the future management of the estuary and these are put down in a form which can be easily reviewed and evaluated.

The plans themselves contain a range of these strategic actions, depending on the focus; be it planning conservation measures, or restoring degraded habitats. If you have a fairly urbanised estuary, then planning and conservation measures are fairly restricted and they tend to be retro-fitting some of the planning. This might be to control the way subdivision is done or foreshore development and so on. So, restoration of degraded habitats is often perhaps more important in a highly impacted estuary than the planning and conservation measures. These measures are still there but have more prominence in estuaries that haven't been overly developed. But where there is a threat of more urban development, then the planning and conservation measures become really important.

Community awareness and education, as I said, is an integral part. We never do this perfectly; we're always looking for better opportunities to convey the information back to the community and have the community be involved with the process. And sometimes these plans flag future investigations, monitoring and review. You can't do everything all at once and there are some strategies in those plans which say "Well you really should go and get more scientific information on some process or some problem" rather than attempt to construct the strategy to do it all at once.

The agencies and councils sign-off on the plans and that gives a commitment. The commitment is at varying levels. The plans are advisory documents at this stage and I know Bruce (Thom) is working very hard to try and get some of these put into a more formal form, so that they become in fact statutory plans or components of them at least. The successful plans though are supported by Council and by agencies and it allows for better application for funds. I think it's correct to say that if you've got a plan in place with a whole series of well-thought-out strategies and actions, it's much easier to get funding, either through government agencies or through any other funding sources, than if you just come up with one great idea in isolation. It's much more difficult to actually get that implemented.

The Estuary Management Planning process is a fairly well accepted process across NSW. There are about 30 estuary plans or so in place and about 76 local committees, with some new ones coming up this new financial year. Financial assistance is provided on a one-to-one basis; in other words there is definitely a cost-sharing exercise between local government, community and State Government.

This slide shows a list of some of the projects funded for Port Hacking, I'll skip through this because I want to get onto one point after this one. These projects are mostly to do with plan preparation but a couple of estuary works are listed as well.

We move on to the Port Hacking Management Plan. Here's the advertorial bit! It was originally an initiative idea, a very good idea to develop the plan. It's now over 10 years old. It's now getting a bit outdated, and there's new legislation and new policies in place for ESD, fish habitat protection, and threatened species amongst others, so we need to adjust to those. It also contained a fairly basic treatment of the ecological values and processes. There is a perception that the document does lack some scientific rigour and therefore it opens up more room for argument for, or against, management strategies to deal with issues. New issues and new data have come up in those last 10 years:
  • Caulerpa taxifolia being the most obvious one

  • Jetskis

  • Seagrass loss, and so on.

These new issues need to be dealt with in a systematic way which includes a good scientific assessment of the nature of the problem, the nature of the process and hopefully a predictive evaluation of the effectiveness of any strategy. The original plan had very few planning and development controls included in it, so what we're offering is the new improved and informed process. "Not another plan," you say, "We've already had one of those". What we'd like to do is actually take and build on the existing plan rather than dispense with it and have a new plan. Rather than say we have "a new plan", we should perhaps describe it as "an updated estuary management plan".

Why one large plan rather than continue on with the smaller ones in the various bays?
  • It is more economic.

  • It is less of a headache for Council. They'd rather deal with issues in a broader sense.

  • Some of the issues are similar from bay to bay to bay, and why deal with them each time as if you're starting from scratch?

  • Some of the issues require a more strategic view and approach.

  • It avoids the ad hoc decision making as well.

  • And it creates a single management framework.

The estuary management committees should normally include a whole range of stakeholders and the existing Port Hacking Management Panel members are very well placed to continue. They've got a lot of experience and ideas on the estuary. I guess what we would like to see is some additional members representing an even broader range of stakeholders so that the discussion can be wide-ranging and cover most of the major issues in the area. The committee would then oversee the implementation and review of the plan.

The existing estuary management plans are highly detailed and are in some cases location-specific. Some of the strategies that are location-specific deal with particular things for that particular environment. They could sit quite happily underneath the umbrella organisation and there would be a communication flow between them. So the Port Hacking Management Plan would be replaced by a new Estuary Management Plan, which, as I say, would be an adaption of the other one. We have been discussing this with Council in the recent past and I notice the Deputy Mayor seemed to indicate that these were quite positive discussions. We would be quite keen to do this and I think it's just taking the existing management process up another level and broadening it to make sure that we include most of the issues that obviously many of you people would be concerned with.
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