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Riparian land

Healthy wetland ecosystem. Illustration: Rhyll Plant & Jess McGeachin

Healthy wetland ecosystem. Illustration: Rhyll Plant and Jess McGeachin

 

The land abutting Victoria's streams, rivers and creeks is critical to the health not just of our waterways but also the frogs, fish, birds and other forms of life found there.

Remarkably, there is about 30,000km of publicly-owned riparian land (Crown land water frontage) along rivers in Victoria.

Riparian land is recognised as critical to biodiversity and river health by government policies, land managers and Catchment Management Authorities.

 

Protecting Special Places

>> Wombat State Forest
>> Great Forest National Park

Yet so far the conservation aims of policies governing the use of these river frontages have not translated into on-ground conservation outcomes, even though protection and restoration of riparian vegetation have been promoted in a number of ways.

In 2004, just 14 per cent of riverside land across Victoria was found to have riparian vegetation in good condition.

  • The 2004 Index of Stream Condition assessment reported that only 21% of major rivers and tributaries in Victoria were in good or excellent condition.
  • The same assessment also showed 14% of major rivers and tributaries had riparian vegetation in good condition.
  • Throughout much of regional Victoria, riparian land represents a substantial proportion of all remaining native vegetation.
  • Cattle effluent pollutes fresh water, destroys fishbreeding cycles, and encourages the proliferation of disease organisms and algae.
  • Cattle faeces contain pathogens (infectious agents or germs) that can be transmitted to humans.

 

Bank erosion at Bridles Bend on the Lower Genoa River, East Gippsland in 1989, and right, Bridles Bend after after stock removal and habitat restoration, 2009.

Bank erosion at Bridles Bend on the Lower Genoa River, East Gippsland in 1989, and right, Bridles Bend after after stock removal and habitat restoration, 2009.

 

Stock damage

Riparian land is valued for human uses such as agriculture and recreation, but as a result riparian vegetation has been degraded in many places.

Uncontrolled stock access to riparian zones continues to be the major impact on riparian vegetation across the state.

Investigations by catchment management authorities indicate that fenced stream frontages are in significantly better condition than those left unfenced, reflecting the impact of stock access.

In 1992 the Land Conservation Council recommended changes in how government agencies manage public land, in order to deliver environmental benefits.

But because of government failure to implement these recommendations, there has not been a shift from the "default" use (stock grazing) of Crown land water frontages abutting private property to a conservation focus.

In 2008 the LCC's successor, the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC), in its River Red Gum Forests Investigation, recommended stronger protection for Crown land water frontages in the study area by phasing out domestic stock grazing over a five-year period.

A key recommendation of the 2008 State of the Environment Report was that 'the Victorian Government should consider progressively extending VEAC recommendations on phasing out uncontrolled grazing of domestic stock on Crown land water frontages to the rest of Victoria, beginning with the 2009 licence renewal process.'

 

Riparian licences on Crown water frontages. Map courtesy Department of Environment and Primary Industries

Riparian licences on Crown water frontages. Map courtesy Department of Environment and Primary Industries

 

Values

Many people and communities are aware of the significance of healthy riparian areas for a range of environmental and recreational values, which include the following:

  • Healthy riparian zones are crucial for river health.
  • Riparian areas are species-rich systems, critical to maintaining in-stream biota and ecosystems. They also form bioregional and local habitat links. Loss of connectivity (fragmentation) reduces the capacity of species to disperse through the landscape.
  • Riparian zones harbour distinctive species. Protecting riparian vegetation in reserves increases the number of species protected on a regional basis.
  • Riparian vegetation in good condition supports the resilience of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, allowing recovery from disturbance and maintaining biodiversity. Removing riparian vegetation can result in severe erosion that changes the stream ecosystem and aids weed invasion.
  • In some landscapes, Crown frontages represent a significant proportion of all remaining remnant vegetation.
  • Intact riparian vegetation is a source of wood for in-stream habitat. Many fish and other species need fallen branches as habitat.
  • Riparian vegetation provides habitat for platypus, water rats, frogs and water birds, as well as the terrestrial adult stages of macro-invertebrates.
  • Well-managed riparian frontages can add significant market value to rural properties.

 

Threats

The threats to riparian health, particularly from cattle access to rivers, are immense:

  • Domestic stock, particularly cattle, favour riparian frontages, and if uncontrolled prefer to spend much of their time along stream banks and in the water.
  • Uncontrolled stock access results in erosion and loss of riparian vegetation.
  • Trampling and grazing of river and wetland banks destabilises the banks, as bare soil and compacted tracks make them prone to erosion.
  • Uncontrolled stock access to streams favours the introduction and spread of exotic plants, inhibition of native vegetation, lack of regeneration of native vegetation, loss of the buffering effect of riparian vegetation, and the unwanted addition of nutrients through dung and urine.
  • Degraded riparian vegetation reduces the amount of habitat available for insect-eating birds and insect parasites that protect agricultural land and crops from damage.
  • In-stream pressures on water quality include stock access, addition of sediments and release of nutrients, river regulation and extraction of water, and the impact of invasive species such as carp and willow.
  • Stock effluent pollutes fresh water, destroys fish-breeding cycles and encourages the proliferation of disease organisms and algae. Water quality is impaired for downstream users and stock. Salt loads in streams may be increased.

 

Solutions

The solutions to these threats are clear:

  • All existing grazing licences for publicly-owned river frontages should be changed to Riparian Management Licences to preserve and restore our waterways.
  • High conservation value riparian areas, especially those adjacent to existing parks, should be added to the park estate.
  • The government must provide financial support, such as fencing programs, to landholders who protect river frontages and adjacent private land.
  • The government should establish the Murray River Park.

 

Riverside Rescue report

Riverside RescueOur report Riverside Rescue outlines how the Victorian Government can repair rivers and improve water quality across the state.

Read more