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Byron Shire
May 26, 2024

The Richmond River and its bad health

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It is no longer a secret; the Richmond River is in bad health.

2021 marked the establishment of a new project, the Coast Management Program (CMP), to improve the quality of the Richmond River and preserve its ecosystem.

It is not the first project implemented to save the river and its floodplains. But the introduction of this new CMP proves once again that the Richmond River is not out of the woods.

This new project is an extension of the last Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP), which lasted 10 years, explained MP Janelle Saffin.

How did we get there?

The degradation of the Richmond River dates back to European settlement in the region in the early 19th century.

With the arrival of the settlers, ‘the local population grew and thrived, increasing development and land-use changes’, impacting the river’s health, as the CZMP report explains.

The first Richmond’s European explorer, Henry Rous, began to clear the riverbanks around 1840 for timber production. The farmers subsequently claimed the cleared land for sugarcane, bananas, dairy products, corn, and beef cattle grazing.

The impact of the European settlement changed the landscape and impacted flood management.

Flooding is very common due to the heavy rains in the region, and the Richmond River is often subject to overflows. Techniques such as drainages or levees have been developed over the decades. But these strategies have dramatic consequences on the water quality and fish.

The use of techniques to control the flooding of the river allowed the water to stagnate. The stagnation of water can lead to the proliferation of blue-green algae, which is dangerous for humans and fish and vegetation in the river.

Red alert

In January 2020, a red alert was even issued for the river that banned the community from any activity related to the Richmond River as it was contaminated by blue-green algae.

Anti-flood techniques have also resulted in the creation of blackwater. Blackwater means that the water contains very little or no oxygen and the plants on the riverbank and the wildlife in the river are deprived of oxygen and thus die. An example of this is the 2001 and 2008, mass fish kills happened as a result of blackwater being generated.

The management plan is important as ‘we need more oxygen in the river’, declares MP Saffin.

The blackwater has local economic consequences for the region. In 2001, because of blackwater, the Richmond River had to close for more than six months, and no fishing was allowed. In 2008, fishing on the river was banned for a month.

Research undertaken on the Richmond River identified that reducing the intensity of drainage could minimise the formation of blackwater.

Other causes are also having observable impacts on the river including global warming, the rise of ocean levels and the increase in the population on the riverbank.

The water quality in the Richmond River is of poor quality, and the experts are coming to Ballina to explain why. (pic supplied)

New projects, new hope

Despite the new CMP, including 12 strategies, MP Saffin affirms that the Richmond River ‘needs its own stand-alone project now’.

She adds, ‘I talked about it at the Parliament, and it’s time to say we’re going to bring the river up to good health and focus on that’.

The first stage started in March this year and will end in February 2022. It is about studying the current state of the Richmond River and the various possible solutions that need to be addressed to improve its health.

This is all part of supervised research, but the community can also participate by reporting observed phenomena.

Two major concerns for the health of the river from the past CZMP project are already identified as high priority due to their destructive impact on the river and floodplains.

According to the CZMP report, ‘floodplain infrastructure including drains, levees and floodgates has greatly altered the Richmond River floodplain from its natural state and is recognised as a major contributor to estuary degradation’.

The second central axis, presented in the same report, is farm management, which has a ‘high degree of impact on the estuary’.

Through this project that will be renewed every 5–10 years according to MP Saffin, the Richmond Rivers need repair and restoration.

It is even more critical that a new debate was been launched on October 14 at the Legislative Assembly to discuss a moratorium against mines in the Northern Rivers.

Lismore’s Labor MP Janelle Saffin is entirely against mining explaining, ‘I want to protect our water catchments from the massive amounts of water that mining requires and to keep our rivers healthy’.

There is still a long way to go before the Richmond River, and by extension, the Northern region will regain its health.

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  1. Unbelievable! As The Echo reports today, we have one Government Department contemplating trucking tonnes of garbage 800km to a dodgy incinerator to create toxic gases and poisonous mountains of ash in the catchment area of a river on which another Government Department is about to spend buckets of money trying to rehabilitate. God help us all and this poor planet …..

  2. Great!another report being done on the Heath of the Richmond River and no money for remediation.Water volume interchange from tide action is what’s needed at the bottleneck that is now at the bar and lower reaches of the river.Why not dredge the estuary of all that white sand that has been shouling since the dredge was removed by Neville Wran.Pump it a kilometre out to sea and let the northerly drift current take it to Byron where it is needed.Repairing or removing the 150 or so broken floodgates along the river would help as well.To many saying you can’t mess with it,too late.Radical measures are needed to reverse the neglect of the past,but no money or desire to change things.

  3. Much of the Richmond’s poor water quality does come from outdated management practices of all agricultural drains and flood-gated creeks emptying into the river; the best option would be to open all of them up to daily tidal flow to prevent vast quantities of acidic black water build up being released into the river at one time, especially in a flood event. Most flood-plain farmers have objected to this in the past fearing salt inundation of their land, Rous County Council who is sort of responsible for flood-plain management and water quality has very limited power over flood-gates on private land unless the landholder is agreeable. The power to force change rests with the State Govt., in particular two National Party ministers, The Minister for Energy and Environment and the Minister for Agriculture and Western NSW. , both to date have refused to intervene. It would seem the only way to fix this intransigence would be to remove the National Party Ministers and preferably the entire Coalition Govt at the next election, and replace them with a Govt that takes the environment seriously.

  4. There is nothing new about the degradation of the Richmond River as it has been recognized in report after report for the past few decades. What is missing is any meaningful attempt to redress the problems. Most of the acidic runoff derives from the Acid Sulfate Soils underlying the cleared and drained coastal wetlands. The next biggest problem is the clearing and degradation of the riparian buffers necessary to strip sediments and pollutants from the water entering streams and help shade and cool the waters. Restoring the river’s wetlands and riparian buffers has to be the highest priority if we ever get serious about restoring river health.
    I was shocked in 2018 that the State Government was allowed to get away with reducing buffers on headwater streams from 10m down to 5m on State Forests, when the science is that a minimum of 30m is required. They are currently redoing the rules for private forestry and have no intent on improving them either – many headwater streams have no protection whatsoever. Until these problems begin to be addressed it is clear that people aren’t serious.


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