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Byron Shire
August 20, 2022

Hope for the Richmond?

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Richmond River from the air. Photo Dr Kristin den Exter.

The Richmond Riverkeeper Association is an emerging organisation dedicated to improving the health of the once-mighty Richmond River, by giving the waterways of the catchment a community voice.

Foundation members include academics from environmental science, earth law, and environmental history disciplines; community representatives, Landcarers with experience in riparian restoration, teachers and land stewards – all people with a deep connection to the rivers, streams and tributaries of the catchment.

Even before the floods of February and March 2022, the Richmond River catchment was known to be one of the most ecologically stressed catchments in NSW, with extremely poor ecosystem health.

Richmond Riverkeeper Association President Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett says the organisation respects and celebrates the unique relationship of Indigenous peoples to the land and waterways of the Richmond River catchment.

Professor Amanda Reichelt Brushett. SCU.

‘Joining with Riverkeepers across the globe, we have a vision for the rivers of the Richmond River catchment to be healthy once more.

‘This is a major restoration project and we are in this for the long term,’ she said.

‘Our mission is to fulfil community aspirations to improve the waters of the Richmond River catchment so they are drinkable, swimmable and fishable again. For us this means committed partnerships that focus on habitat restoration, enhance river bank stability, reduce the loss of our precious soils and reduce pollutant loads.

‘Improvements like these create the conditions to bring back species like the iconic Eastern Freshwater Cod,’ said Professor Reichelt-Brushett.

Flood inquiry

The Richmond Riverkeeper Association submission to the NSW Flood Inquiry made 20 recommendations calling for immediate action and investment for restoration of the catchment, citizen science programs, investigation into toxic pollution and inappropriate land use.

‘Perhaps most importantly right now we are asking that Indigenous knowledge and the Richmond River itself be given voices at the planning and decision-making tables, including the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation,’ said Professor Reichelt-Brushett.

Satellite image of the Richmond system during the 2022 floods.

Other recommendations from the Richmond Riverkeeper Association to the NSW Flood Inquiry include:

  • that future flood mitigation works are scrutinized and vetted, to ensure ecologically positive outcomes, considering the long-term, cumulative and downstream ecological impacts
  • recognising many existing works have led to unintended, deleterious outcomes for the river and for fish habitat. While there is an appetite for immediate action and commencement of ‘shovel-ready’ engineering solutions, the complexity of this issue means there are no simple solutions.
  • that large-scale projects to re-forest the Richmond River catchment be priority funded by all levels of government considering land tenure and suitable incentives to facilitate in achieving this goal. Apart from its numerous non flood benefits, native vegetation is well understood to assist storage and slow movement of water in the landscape, as well as bind soil.
  • that the restoration of floodplain wetland ecosystems with pre-European settlement drainage systems be prioritised.
  • that research be continued as a priority into nature-centred flood mitigation and ‘green’ infrastructure.
  • that all research, data, catchment models and water quality monitoring for the Richmond catchment be published open-source and a knowledge repository created.
  • that a Richmond Catchment Citizen Science program be co-designed with community, to build and share critical information across stakeholders, and between agencies.

The organisation says it is ‘beyond time that the priority actions outlined in the Coastal Zone Management Plan for the Richmond River Estuary (2011) and the Wilsons Catchment Action Plan (2008) were funded.’

Response

The Richmond Riverkeeper Association says new measures are needed to protect life, property and the environment, with the river itself suffering from ongoing pollution as a direct result of the flood.

The association strongly recommends that the repair of the stricken sewage treatment plant in Lismore be a top and urgent priority for funding and fast tracking, with some kind of river fund to be set up as a long-term compensation mechanism.

Bruised and battered Wilsons River on its way to the Richmond this week. Photo David Lowe.

Flood debris, toxic pollution, soil loss and increased turbidity throughout the catchment all need to be addressed, as is the need to ‘deincentivise’ the drivers of climate change, which is worsening the future flood risk.

The Riverkeeper Association says problems are worsened by poor understanding of the issues, poor policy delivery, lack of strategic spending, lack of will, and poor coordination.

For example, the ‘problem’ is often conceived as being able to be mitigated through large engineering drainage and walling approaches to force greater change on a natural system, rather than reinforcing that natural system and giving it room.

Existing policies are under-resources and vulnerable to short term political cycles, with fundinging tending to address temporary symptoms when disaster strikes, rather than strategic addressing root issues. They point out that there is a well known lack of coordination on catchment issues.

Recovery

According to the Productivity Commission (2014), 97 per cent of disaster funding is spent on recovery, and only three per cent goes into mitigating the impacts before they occur. The Richmond Riverkeeper Association says long term community and environmental mitigation measures are needed.

The Westpac Rescue Helicopter’s view of the floods. Photo supplied.

The Association is calling for catchment-wide riparian and landslip restoration to be prioritised and funded, along with soil assessments following the floods.

They have suggested that the feasibility of land swap (and relocation of existing industrial areas on the floodplain) should be assessed to reduce any future flood impacts on the river, with community-led recovery networks to be acknowledged and supported in the long term.

The Richmond Riverkeeper Association is currently seeking seed funding to continue its work and broaden its community engagement. The organisation is also in the process of being registered under the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission. Find out more on the Association’s Facebook page.


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