The Office of Water undertook a strategic compliance project in the Macquarie Marshes during 2008 and 2009. The project was funded under the former NSW Wetland Recovery Program, which was jointly funded by the NSW Government and the Australian Government's Water for the Future Plan. The NSW Government had previously conducted a targeted compliance operation into suspected illegal structures within the Marshes. That project had found that although the majority of structures were licensed and being operated legally, a number of structures appeared to be unlawful. The Office of Water investigated this situation.

Aim of the project

The principal aim of the project was to identify structures having an impact on the delivery and effectiveness of flows, including environmental flows and determine whether such structures were authorised and operating within conditions.

This important work gave us a better understanding of water movement within the Marshes, including the impacts of water diversions on downstream users and the environment.

Scope of the project

The project encompassed the area of the Macquarie Marshes, which commence in the south at Marebone Weir 50 kilometres north of Warren and extend north a further 100 kilometres until the many channels join into a single defined channel near Carinda. Major distributary channels include the Bulgeraga, Monkeygar, Buckiinguy and Terrigal Creeks and the Gum and Long Plain Cowals, Marebone and Oxley Breaks and the Bora Channel as well as the Macquarie River. The southern Marshes consist of a series of individual wetland systems, including Back, Buckiinguy, Monkey and Monkeygar Swamps and Mole Marsh.

Timeframe

The project ran from January 2008 through to mid 2009. It established a process for assessing and prioritising structures for compliance action, and compliance investigation is continuing beyond the life of the project. Experts including geomorphologists and wetland ecologists determined whether a particular structure was having an impact on flows.

Project participants

The project was delivered by the NSW Office of Water in partnership with:

Commonwealth Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

The role of the Australian Government Department of the Environment is to provide the Australian Government with policy advice and program management, which protects or promotes the protection of the environment and Australia's heritage.

The Department is committed to conserving, repairing and promoting the wise use of wetlands across Australia. The department does this with other governments, non-government organisations and the community by developing and implementing the best possible management of Australia's wetlands.

The Department also works with state and territory governments to implement Australia's obligations under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and promotes the principles of the Ramsar Convention within the Asia-Pacific and Oceania regions.

Office of Environment and Heritage

The Office of Environment and Heritage (formerly the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water) is responsible for protecting and conserving biodiversity, including threatened species, in NSW. Biodiversity is the variety of all life forms: different plants (from lichens and mosses to shrubs and trees), animals (invertebrates, frogs, reptiles, birds and mammals) and their environments in national parks and reserves, marine parks and aquatic reserves, as well as on private and other public land. The Office of Environment and Heritage is also responsible for purchasing water from willing sellers for the benefit of targeted wetlands and river systems.

NSW Department of Primary Industries

NSW Department of Primary Industries (formerly Industry and Investment NSW) is responsible for the protection and conservation of aquatic habitats by administering the Fisheries Management Act to control certain activities impacting on aquatic habitats. This includes reviewing development and works proposals that may impact on aquatic habitats to ensure they meet the requirements of the Act.

The Department is also responsible for ensuring aquatic habitat protection requirements are incorporated into other natural resource management planning processes, such as land use, water management and estuary and floodplain management planning.

Data collection processes

The project used available scientific and technical information and tools to inform compliance action within the project. This included the knowledge and experience of an expert panel including wetland ecologists and geomorphologists and involved the use of satellite imagery, aerial photography and direct observation.

Implementation phases

The project was implemented in three phases. After the data gathering component of each phase a joint agency operation was planned and run. During these operations compliance officers from the Office of Water and project partner agencies worked in teams with technical experts such as geomorphologists, fish experts and wetland ecologists. The compliance officers inspected the structures to check whether a licence or approval was required under the relevant legislation, and if one was, whether there was a valid licence in place and whether there was compliance with the conditions of consent. The technical experts assessed the possible impacts the structure was having including impacts on fish passage, erosion and wetland areas.

In phase 1 the project's technical committee collated a list of structures using information from within the project member agencies and information from the public including community groups. These structures were prioritised for investigation using criteria including the type of structure and the potential impact on an environmental asset, water delivery, fish passage and the geomorphology of the Marshes.

In Phase 2 a helicopter reconnaissance of the western and northern portion of the Marshes was conducted in October 2008. Two geomorphologists and the project officer flew over the Bulgeraga Creek and the Southern Ramsar site to identify structures and a preliminary assessment was made of the impacts of structures. These structures were then prioritised for investigation using the same criteria as for Phase 1.

In Phase 3 the helicopter reconnaissance followed the Gum Cowal, Marthaguy and Terrigal creeks and also looked for in-stream structures in the southern portion of the project area from Gin Gin weir to the Marebone choke. Again, two geomorphologists and the project officer flew over the areas, identified structures, made a preliminary assessment from the air and subsequently the structures were prioritised for investigation using the same criteria as for Phases 1 and 2.

In Phase 3 some floodplain structures were also identified for on-ground assessment. The floodways had previously been identified as critical areas for providing hydrological and environmental flows and because it was not possible to investigate all structures a decision was taken to focus on these areas and structures outside the floodway were not assessed by this project.

Project findings

During the project 102 structures were investigated. Including 17 structures investigated in July 2007 a total of 119 structures were investigated. Actions were taken on 28 structures. These actions included advisory and warning letters and letters advising landholders to apply for a licence. Three structures were removed using project funding, one structure was removed using funding from another source and the project paid for a rock ramp fishway concept design for one structure. The final project report (PDF 805 KB) contains more information about the project and the continuing work in the Marshes.

Additional information

What are the benefits of the Macquarie Marshes?

The Macquarie Marshes are one of the largest semi-permanent wetlands in south-eastern Australia, historically covering more than 150,000 hectares (ha) during large flooding events. Parts of the Marshes are listed on or under the:

  • International Ramsar Convention (18,143 ha),
  • National Trust as a Landscape Conservation Area (148,000 ha),
  • Australian Heritage Commission's register of the National Estate (148,000 ha), and
  • Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia.

The functions and services provided by the Macquarie Marshes wetlands are many and varied. The wetlands support high levels of biological diversity and are therefore important on local, regional, national and international scales. The values of the Marshes are numerous, including rich flora and fauna, prime cattle grazing lands, water bird breeding colonies, and natural filtering of nutrients.

What are the threats to the Macquarie Marshes?

The wetlands are subject to many pressures that result in their loss or degradation. These pressures may affect them directly or indirectly and it is therefore important to consider the threats to wetlands in the context of the entire catchment. With their location at the margins between land and water, wetlands are very sensitive to changes in both water and land management.

Over a number of decades, an unknown number of unlicensed structures have been built in the Macquarie Marshes. These structures may impact on the volume and or distribution of water flowing to and through the Marshes.

The environmental water allocation under the Water Sharing Plan for the Macquarie and Cudgegong Regulated River Water Source may be impeded by these structures and requires a comprehensive analysis of the positive and negative impacts of structures on water distribution.

What is the benefit of environmental water provisions for the Macquarie Marshes?

The environmental water provisions in the water sharing plan are designed to mimic natural flow patterns or events as much as possible so as to provide water when and where it will best meet environmental needs.

The Macquarie and Cudgegong Rivers form a complex system that delivers water for industry, agriculture, recreation and domestic use, while striving to support natural processes and significant wetland systems.

The river systems and their associated wetlands and floodplains have changed significantly from their natural state and there is evidence of increasing environmental stress within the system. For example, changes in flow volume and seasonality have led to a decline in floodplain vegetation communities and a reduction in breeding opportunities for wildlife populations, particularly waterbirds.

The NSW Government is committed to water resource conservation and the environment as seen in the Draft floodplain harvesting policy.