Waterkeepers Australia is part of the international waterway protection community

Sharing Wisdom For Our Future: Environmental Education in Action. AAEE National Conference, 3 – 6 October, 2006, Bunbury, WA


Waterkeepers Australia – for formal and constructive fights

 Greg Hunt
National Manager
Waterkeepers Australia

Environmental activism requires us to take a stand, to get involved in alternative ways of living. This means that we will find ourselves in opposition – opposing vested interests, arguing for different ways of doing things and overcoming inertia and apathy. Nowhere is this currently of more importance than in the management of our water resources; our waterways, how we regard the water, that flows or not as the case may be, within them and the uses to which we put that water.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on the planet and access to quality water is a critical foundation of our society, environment and economy.

 Committee for the Economic Development of Australia Report – Water and the Australian Economy, March 2004

The health and future of Australia depends in very large part on the health of our waterways, and water is a precious and scarce resource in Australia. The availability of water and the quality of our waterways (rivers, bays, creeks and lakes) has a fundamental impact on the quality of life for Australian communities, now and in the future. The financial viability of our agriculture, fisheries and ecotourism industries, for example, depend upon water in sufficient quantity and quality.

We need people everywhere to protect our water and waterways and be involved in planning for future water use. Waterkeepers Australia came into being to help communities protect their waterways and to promote debate about future water use.

With the present great pressure on our country’s finite water resources, it seems to me to be evident that it is absolutely essential that the people of our local communities be actively and successfully involved in the safeguarding and restoration of Australia’s waterways. That requires knowledge and skill and a preparedness to engage in debate at personal, local or national levels. It also requires education, encouragement and support of the community members and groups who are prepared to take the lead and show the way by persuasion and example. It is Waterkeepers Australia’s objective to help provide that education, encouragement and support.    Sir William Deane, AC KBE, Honorary Patron

Waterkeepers Australia

Waterkeepers Australia is an independent not-for-profit national network of local community-based Waterkeepers. It grew out of a need for an authoritative community voice to speak on behalf of local water bodies – rivers, creeks, lakes and bays. Waterkeepers Australia was initiated by The Myer Foundation, Australian Conservation Foundation and Environment Victoria and is modelled on the Waterkeeper Alliance, a well-respected US organisation whose patron and senior attorney is Bobby Kennedy Jnr. The Waterkeeper Alliance comprises more than 165 Waterkeeper programs located throughout North America, in Latin America, Europe, India and now in Australia.  The Waterkeeper movement, which began in l983, is one of the fastest growing grass-roots environmental movements in the world.

Waterkeepers are the ‘front people’ for community groups across Australia who care for and protect their local waterways. What they do and how they work will reflect the needs of the waterway and the nature of the community group. The common thread is that, for our community-group members and the waterway on which they are active, there is a keeper, a person who serves as the public advocate for that body of water.

Our waterkeeper members are often at the pointy end of environmental fights, as management agencies and extractors and users carry out activities that communities don’t want. Who is on the side of the environment in water allocations? How can we take up the good fight in a way that gives us the best chance of success and that will allow us afterwards to work with those with whom we have been fighting? After all, we all want to live in a healthy environment with healthy waterways.

Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.     Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sagan

What does a Waterkeeper do?

Waterkeepers can be, at different times and to a greater or lesser extent, an investigator, a scientist, a mediator, a lobbyist and a public relations agent. Think of a Waterkeeper’s clients as all the users of the catchment for which the Waterkeeper advocates. A successful advocate has a diverse bag of tools, the knowledge and skills, that allows her or him as the Waterkeeper to get the job done. Waterkeepers are very active in their patch, running a community education program here, a revegetation activity there. They might advise on some recent research that they have seen, provide data to help resolve an argument, they might even call in support from the Environment Defender’s Office. Each waterway has its own unique set of challenges requiring its own unique strategy.

Waterkeepers need community clout!

A Waterkeeper must have an organisation behind him or her. Whether it is intended to structure a Waterkeeper program under the umbrella of an existing organisation or start a new organisation, there must be, behind the Waterkeeper, an incorporated not-for-profit non-government organisation.

They need to be incorporated for the structures and processes that come with incorporation; they work within a constitution with agreed aims and objectives, they keep minutes of meetings to which members have access, they provide annual financial returns, they can apply for funding in their own right, etc. If they are not-for-profit, members can be motivated by the public and environmental benefit rather than private benefit and if they are non-government, they can be free to argue for the best result for the environment rather than fall in behind a particular political decision or feel that they have to go along with a management agency.


Who can be a waterkeeper?

The Board of Directors of Waterkeepers Australia approves new Waterkeeper members. Community groups complete an Application for Membership which contains their responses to Waterkeepers Australia’s Quality Standards. This should show the compatibility with Waterkeeper purposes and goals, the likelihood of building a sustainable organisation and an overall evaluation that a program is beneficial for the place in which it is proposed. This is the first step of the risk assessment process whereby Waterkeepers Australia works with autonomous community groups on their own waterways on issues which they have determined important to them. When a group has applied to join, Waterkeepers Australia conducts its own due diligence – we work the networks, call on local knowledge, check the track-record with those who know.

All waterkeepers gather in a national training and development conference each year – to share strategies and successes, to update knowledge and skills and to build and maintain the strong and resilient peer-to-peer network that is so important to enduring environmental activism.

When a group join and becomes a waterkeeper, the benefits of being part of a serious, well-structured national network, that is itself part of a highly successful international network, can start to accrue.

The Waterkeeper Family of Names

The Waterkeeper program names, such as Riverkeeper, Lakekeeper, Baykeeper, Coastkeeper “Creekkeeper” and others, are synonymous with effective waterway care and protection. Waterkeepers Australia protects these names under trademark law. By protecting the names we can prevent their misuse so that anytime you see a Waterkeeper name, you will know that the user is part of Waterkeepers Australia, works within rigorous Quality Standards and has formal and constructive ways of working.

Active networks

Membership and active participation in Waterkeepers Australia are requirements of becoming, and remaining, a Waterkeeper. Waterkeepers Australia approves new Waterkeeper programs, licenses use of the Waterkeeper names, represents the individual Waterkeepers on issues of national interest, and serves as a meeting place for all the Waterkeepers to exchange information, strategy and know-how. When you take on one waterkeeper, you take on all waterkeepers.

Services for Waterkeepers

We need our member groups to be well-organised, so we help with:

  • Becoming incorporated
  • Applying for tax exemption
  • Arranging appropriate insurance
  • Conducting fund-raising, including submission-writing
  • Running successful meetings
  • Finding and managing volunteers
  • Recruiting the best committee members

We need our members to have the best available knowledge, so that their arguments can withstand the strongest scrutiny? Do they need assistance with:

  • Determining the health of a river, lake or bay?
  • Environmental audits
  • Finding scientific and economic information
  • Research from expert organisations
  • Defining the issues, threats and the strategies.
  • Understanding water planning and environmental processes and laws
  • Community legal advice

Our members will be most effective when they are highly-skilled in advocacy. Can we help with training and development for:

  • Analysing issues
  • Dealing with the media
  • Telling a story
  • Networking
  • Developing education programs
  • Resolving conflicts, negotiation and mediation

Member groups also receive their own URL to dedicated space on which they upload their own materials on the Waterkeepers Australia website (check www.waterkeepers.org.au/yarra or www.waterkeepers.org.au/snowy),

Some fights

 Snowy Estuarykeeper

The protection of the estuarine environment of the Snowy River is the focus of activities being conducted by Waterkeepers Australia member, the Snowy Estuarykeeper.

SANTOS Australia currently manages a gas processing plant on the environmentally sensitive floodplain of the Snowy Estuary. The plant processes relatively clean natural gas from a small Bass Strait gas field. They separate the gas from the water, add an odorant, increase the pressure, and feed it into the nearby Melbourne-Sydney gas distribution network.

The owners of the plant have a permit to double the size of the plant to process from a gas field that is contaminated with hydrogen sulphide. This must be removed before the gas enters the distribution network. This will necessitate a more complex treatment plant, with on-site storage of large amounts of sodium hydroxide. What was already an inappropriate site for a gas plant would become a totally unacceptable site under these circumstances. The consequences for the estuarine environment of plant failure are extremely concerning to the Snowy Estuarykeeper.

Snowy River Gas Plant, with the Snowy flood plains and the coastal village of Marlo in the background

Santos wished to allay community concerns with the development of a Flood Management Plan, to show that the estuarine environment would be protected even in 1:100 flood events. The Snowy Estuarykeeper sought expert advice on this – the health of the water-dependent ecosystem on which the village of Marlo and the tourism industry relies is not be trifled with. We found an academic with expertise in flood plain hydrology to prepared an expert analysis for the Snowy Estuarykeeper on issues of concern to raise with Santos. The local community wants Santos to expand their operations, but to do it away from the water, they need the jobs that come with the gas plant, but they also need the public benefit outcomes that result from the protection of their estuary. “ Further argument with Santos, bolstered by the best available knowledge of flood-plain hydrology, is vital “ according to Snowy Estuarykeeper, Rob Caune. “ Local communities need access to expert knowledge to participate in the decision making that affects their waterways”.

Chicken Broiler Sheds and the Lang Lang Riverkeeper

Dairy-farmers whose families had farmed the low-lying country around Westernport Bay for over 100 years were alarmed to hear of yet another group of chicken broiler sheds to be built just 60m from the Lang Lang River. The site was subject to a local government planning overlay as Land Subject to Inundation and locals had ample photographic evidence of the extent to which the site is flooded in times of high-rainfall in the catchments.

The farmers conducted dairy farming businesses and had also been working hard to ensure the health of their local environment, and the revegetation that was occurring along the river had helped bring waterbirds and even platypus back. The run-off from these sheds would risk all of this, and their farm produce could also suffer contamination. Further, this was all planned in a Ramsar protected site for migratory birds, and the area is a biosphere reserve within the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere program.

All of this notwithstanding, the developers went ahead with a proposal for six broiler sheds, each with 40,000 birds. Chicken broiler developments in Victoria are governed within the Victorian Code for Broiler Farms, September 2001. This contains the following advice:

Broiler sheds and associated earthworks must not be located in areas designated as subject to inundation under any planning (sic) scheme, and must not adversely affect flood plain capacity or natural drainage lines.

Best Practice Guidelines E1 G1, p 29

The local Council, which has planning responsibilities, simply refused, despite these guidelines, to make a decision on whether or not to grant a permit for the development to proceed. Consequently, the developer went to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal for a permit to proceed. The desk audit conducted by the relevant referral authority, Melbourne Water, was inadequate and neither would the EPA intervene. The farmer’s federation, which seemed to back the industrial food producers over their farmer members, were also unhelpful so the farmers formed the Gipps West Environ Landcare Inc., left the farmer’s federation and under the leadership of the Lang Lang Riverkeeper, joined Waterkeepers Australia.

Together we set about a crash-course in chicken broiler operations, inputs, outputs, economics, what nutrient run-off can do to sensitive species and getting up to speed quickly on planning law.  Lawyers from the Environment Defenders Office joined the fray with advice and representation before VCAT to fight the proposal. A veterinarian with many years of experience in the chicken broiler industry around Chesapeake Bay in the US was found who was prepared to give expert evidence  before VCAT.

The development was denied a permit to proceed.

Waterkeepers Australia is strongly involved in activities designed to improve the involvement of the community sector in the forthcoming revision of the Chicken Broiler Industry Code of Practice. A discussion paper, developed as a result of forum hosted by Waterkeepers Australia and attended by communities involved in opposition to inappropriately-sited broiler sheds and by lawyers from the Environment Defenders Office is now in circulation among interested parties. Some of our community members have been called in to attend a briefing regarding the scope for the review of the Code so that the inadequacies can be removed and we won’t have to have these fights again.

This is the strength of the waterkeeper model. To be well-structured and formally-organised, to be well-informed with the best available knowledge and research and to have all the skills of advocacy available is to have the best chance of winning the environmental fight. Of course we’d rather that we have the environment we want without a fight, and a fight is not an end in itself, but if we have to have a fight, let’s fight it properly and give ourselves the best chance of a clean green environment.