Concerned stakeholders will have more time to give feedback on the future of the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River catchment in the Kimberley, but advocates say what’s really needed is resources to support Traditional Owners in raising their voices.

The Managing the Fitzroy River Catchment discussion paper outlines possible approaches to the care of the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River system that are currently being considered by the Western Australian Government.

The deadline for submissions in response to the paper was initially scheduled to close on May 31, but the State Government has moved that date back to August 31.

Water Minister Dave Kelly said the period had been extended due to complications caused by COVID-19 and the northern WA wet season.

“Given the significance of the plan it is important to ensure people have time to consider and share their views on the matter of water allocation and use in the Fitzroy,” he said.

“Ensuring the sustainably managed and developed water resources of the Fitzroy River catchment, which involves government, Traditional Owners and other stakeholders, is a priority of the McGowan Government.”

Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the WA Government wants to both protect the river and provide economic development.

“The Fitzroy River has unique environmental and cultural values which are community assets that require us to plan carefully in developing and driving new and diversified economic opportunities for residents and communities,” she said.

“Extending consultation will ensure every community member and stakeholder can have their voice heard, and that the future of the Fitzroy will deliver benefits for the whole community.”

Although Nyikina Warrwa Traditional Owner and Chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council Dr Anne Poelina welcomes the deadline extension, she disagrees with the claim that COVID-19 has been the major blockage to submissions.

“There’s been no investment made for Aboriginal people to have proper dialogue.”

Dr Poelina said travel costs and a lack of resources to fund the scientific rigour to be able to respond appropriately to the discussion paper is a major problem.

“The feedback that is coming from the Prescribed Bodies Corporate and the Native Title groups is that they can respond to [the paper], but there’s been no investment to help them get the scientific rigour they need to be able to put a position to government,” she said.

“[The] Kimberley is a very big place and it costs money to get around and talk to people.

“We need actual resources to be directed through the Kimberley Land Council and the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council so that we can go out with the Native Title groups and hold these public meetings, so Aboriginal people — who are the majority of people living within the Fitzroy catchment — have an opportunity to really understand the intentions of the government in regards to water allocations.”

Dr Poelina said the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council’s biggest concern is that the mistakes of the Murray Darling Basin will be repeated in WA.

The Council is calling for a statutory body to oversee the administration of the river.

“Why can’t we have a statutory authority, so that everybody’s at the table, determining what is going to happen to our most precious resource, which is water?” she said.

Minister Kelly has been contacted for comment about the alleged lack of resources to support Traditional Owners to give comment on the discussion paper.

The Kimberley Land Council has been contacted for comment.

By Sarah Smit