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Traditional Owners welcome commitment to protect Martuwarra Fitzroy River from large-scale irrigation

Giovanni Torre -

The WA Government committed to protecting the Martuwarra Fitzroy River from large-scale irrigation, releasing a policy position paper this week announcing no surface water will be taken from the National Heritage-listed river.

The Water Allocation Planning in the Fitzroy – Policy Position paper outlines policy principles that will inform the upcoming draft Fitzroy River Water Allocation Plan, including no surface water from the Martuwarra Fitzroy River and protection of alluvial and Devonian reef aquifers.

The paper also foreshadows greater rights for Traditional Owners on water-related cultural heritage and yet to be defined limits for groundwater take.

The policy paper is a response to the government's Fitzroy River Water Discussion Paper released in 2020, which received 43,000 submissions from across Australia, objecting to plans to take 300 billion litres of water from the river each year for large-scale irrigation, and calling for government to protect the Martuwarra Fitzroy River.

Kimberley Land Council Chairperson Anthony Watson welcomed the commitment by the Cook Government that no additional surface water will be licensed in the Fitzroy River catchment and that there will be no damming of the river and its tributaries.

"Our old people were born on the banks of the river. It gives us life from the beginning and to our end when our spirit goes back to country," he said.

"We have fought for many years for rights to our land and as native title holders, and it is important that the Cook Government is now recognising Traditional Owners' vital role in managing the land and its waterways.

"The principles are a step in the right direction, but must be followed by real and genuine engagement with Traditional Owners. The WA Government must stand by these commitments."

Pew Charitable Trusts deputy director Tim Nicol also welcomed the milestone announcement in the campaign to protect the Martuwarra Fitzroy River.

"(The) commitment from the Cook Government shows they have listened to the community and is a crucial milestone for the Martuwarra Fitzroy River, which has been under threat from large-scalewater extraction and dams since the 1950s," he said.

"Ensuring no further surface water is taken will mean that the river can continue to flow freely and naturally as it has for thousands of years, and it can continue to support unique wildlife like the critically endangered freshwater sawfish."

Mr Nicol said more details were needed on how much ground water would be taken and what decision-making rights Traditional Owners will have.

"We want to ensure that any decisions around groundwater take is sustainable, and that Traditional Owners have rights to make decisions about development and the protection of cultural heritage," he said.

He noted the campaign to protect the Martuwarra Fitzroy River had gained widespread support from people across the Kimberley region, Western Australia, and the world.

"The Martuwarra Fitzroy River is one of the last healthy, free-flowing rivers left in Australia and is loved by people across Australia and the world. It is a sacred Aboriginal heritage site and a renowned tourism and barramundi fishing destination," he said.

"The unprecedented response of 43,000 submissions in 2021 including 1100 people in the Kimberley, and the continued widespread support for protecting the Martuwarra Fitzroy River from the public shows how important this river is to people across Australia, and the concern for the future of our rivers if we continue to develop them.

"We look forward to seeing the Martuwarra Fitzroy River protected and congratulate the WA Government for this milestone announcement."

Environs Kimberley Director of Strategy Martin Pritchard said the announcement by the Cook government "supports what the community has been calling for over several decades: protection of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River from massive water extraction, and dams for agribusiness to irrigate cotton and other broadacre crops".

"The Fitzroy River catchment has the most intact tropical savannah in the world and the Martuwarra Fitzroy River has been recognized as the last stronghold for the critically endangered Freshwater Sawfish. It also supports a major Barramundi population as well as Freshwater Prawns and other important fish species," he said.

"The cultural heritage values of the river have been recognized by the Commonwealth government, which put the river on the National Heritage list in 2011.

"Environs Kimberley was formed to protect the river and adjacent tropical savannah from large-scale cotton crops, and has worked in partnership with Aboriginal groups since 1996 to keep it running free.

"The health of the river system depends on uninterrupted flows. It's great to see that the Cook Government recognizes this. We know that any water pumped out reduces Barramundi and critically endangered sawfish populations.

"We are still concerned about groundwater extraction. 100 billion litres are mooted as being available, which would allow the irrigation of 10,000 hectares. That is an unacceptable scale of land-clearing in such an intact and biodiverse landscape. We are keen to see more detail on the policies, including those concerning heritage and cultural rights, and we'll support Aboriginal groups to ensure they obtain all the rights due to them as First Nations."

Mr Pritchard said that work already completed shows that other, more profitable and less damaging industries are possible in the Fitzroy Valley.

"Such industries should be encouraged and supported. We know that there are limited opportunities for jobs in large-scale irrigation, which causes massive damage, including complete destruction of tropical savannah by bulldozing and burning to grow cotton. The new economy provides the potential for sustainable jobs, including conservation of the world-class landscapes, which Aboriginal rangers are successfully working on. Carbon abatement, cultural tourism, bush foods and renewable energy are all industries that can work in the Fitzroy Valley, and there's a strong interest in developing them."

Image: Giovanni Torre

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