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Timeline of (in)action on the Richmond River

10 December 2018: In the past 30 years there have been at least 24 reports identifying the poor condition of the Richmond River and setting out plans to improve it.  There have also been 3 major fish kills and blackwater events since 2001, two of which have resulted in closure of the river to fishing. Fish kills of this scale had not been previously documented in Australia.

Clearly the issue is not a lack of knowledge or detailed action plans – the issue is a lack of funding and coordination for these plans.

June 1987: State Pollution Control Commission conducts extensive water quality surveys of all major rivers on the North Coast in response to increasing concern from the public and government organisations that pollution was having a detrimental impact on aquatic environments and fisheries resources.  When compared with other northern rivers studied, the water quality of the Richmond Valley was found to be poor.

1992: The NSW State Rivers and Estuaries Policy is adopted, committing the NSW Government to reporting on the condition of each of the State’s major river an estuary systems and the actions underway to halt degradation of these systems.  A Report on the North Coast (Clarence, Richmond, Tweed and Brunswick Rivers) was not even proposed until 1997/98.

1995: A report on the Local and Regional impacts of acid sulphate soil runoff in the lower Richmond River catchment is prepared for the Department of Land and Water Conservation by scientists at Southern Cross University.

1996: The Richmond Catchment Management Strategy is released.

1997: The NSW Government releases a discussion paper, A Stressed Rivers Approach to the Management of Water Use in Unregulated Streams, which put forward a proposal aimed at addressing the problem of stressed rivers.  The key outcome was to prioritise catchments for immediate action and to establish a consistent and transparent rationale for the future management of all rivers.

1999: NSW Government sets Water Quality Objectives (WQOs) and the River Flow Objectives (RFOs) for the Richmond River catchment. These are not regulatory or mandatory but “should be used to develop plans and actions affecting water quality and river health”.  The WQOs set clear targets and trigger values for 11 criteria including aquatic ecosystem health, visual amenity, recreation and domestic, livestock and irrigation water supply. The RFOs set 6 clear goals:

  • Protect pools in dry times
  • Protect natural low flows
  • Maintain wetland and floodplain inundation
  • Maintain natural flow variability
  • Manage groundwater for ecosystems
  • Minimise effects of weirs and other structures

August 1999: The Richmond Catchment Stressed Rivers Assessment Report presents data which indicates high levels of stress from vegetation clearing, sugar cane cultivation, cattle grazing, dairy, beef and timber industries and increasing tourism.

2000: NSW adopts the Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council (ANZECC) guidelines for fresh and marine water quality to “provide government and the community – especially regulators, industry, consultants, community groups and catchment and water managers – with a framework for conserving ambient water quality in our rivers, lakes, estuaries and marine waters.”  The guidelines set key water quality indicators and related numerical criteria (default trigger values) for pollutants which governments should be meeting.

February 2001: Following major flooding in the upper reaches of the Richmond catchment, a major fish kill occurs in the Richmond River due to extremely low dissolved oxygen levels in the rivers. As a response, NSW Fisheries closes the Richmond River and near shore areas to all forms of fishing for three weeks initially and then extends this closure for a further three months. Restricted fishing is permitted over subsequent months with closures finally lifted in September 2001.  Fish kills of this scale had not been previously documented in Australia, with the exception of massive pilchard kills which occurred in the southern oceans in 1995 and 1998 due to a virus.

March 2002: The Australian Catchment, River and Estuary Assessment 2002 finds the Richmond River is in “extensively modified condition” and sets out options for improvement.

2002: The Richmond Regional Vegetation Committee releases a Draft Richmond Regional Vegetation management plan for the Department of Land and Water Conservation.

February 2003: The Upper North Coast Catchment Management Board releases the Catchment blueprint : integrated catchment management plan for the Upper North Coast catchment 2002.  The blueprint is meant to be a ‘whole of government’ plan which has “been developed through a community/​government partnership” and will set “the direction for managing the native vegetation, biodiversity, water sources and soils in our catchments”.

March 2003: Final report of the independent inquiry into the North Coast rivers by the Healthy Rivers Commission is released and identifies that “a whole-of-government effort is fundamental to effective river management”. The report finds that although most of the North Coast rivers are in good condition the Richmond, Tweed and Brunswick rivers are in worse than average condition.

2004: Ballina Shire Council State of Environment Report identifies “pressures on the Richmond River Catchment from urbanisation, and economic and agricultural activities” which are anticipated to “escalate in future years”.

October 2005: NSW Government introduces Marine Water Quality Objectives (MWQOs) for NSW Ocean Waters which are similar to the 1999 WQOs and RFOs but directly relate to the coastal marine environment. The North Coast MWQOs recognise that the poor quality of the Richmond River catchment negatively affects marine water quality in the North Coast.

2006: WBM completes the Estuary Processes Study of the Richmond River estuary on behalf of the Richmond River County Council and the NSW Department of Natural Resources.  As part of this the water quality data for over one hundred locations within the Richmond River catchment were collected and entered into a Water Quality Data Base.  The study finds environmental and

human health values of the Richmond River estuary are currently being compromised”, the “loss of fisheries productivity in the estuary” and “poor water quality (particularly faecal coliform levels) in oyster harvest areas resulting in extended harvest closure periods.”

September 2006: The Northern Rivers Catchment Action Plan is launched by Northern Rivers CMA and sets a target to rehabilitate 60% of stream lengths by 2016.

January 2008: A second major fish kill occurs after prolonged rainfall and extensive flooding throughout the Richmond River catchment. The quality of the river water deteriorated due to an increased load of sediment, debris and nutrients. Black water (when oxygen is stripped from the water) soon developed. The result is the death of millions of aquatic animals in the lower Richmond, including at least 2 million fish. Over 30 tonnes of dead fish are removed and a ban on fishing is put in place until fish populations recover.

2008: The Wilsons River Catchment Management Plan is launched by Rous Water.

2010: The Northern Rivers Regional Biodiversity Management Plan is launched by the Federal Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water NSW. It identifies the poor condition of river biodiversity across the Northern Rivers and develops a river restoration priority map.

June 2011: The Wilsons River Reach Plan for Lismore is prepared by Dr Kristin den Exter from SCU for Lismore City Council, the Wilsons River Landcare and the Northern Rivers Catchment Authority. It identifies major pollution run off, erosion, weed and land clearing issues which have degraded the river system. The plan proposes a series of targets and key funding opportunities to improve river health.

February 2012: The Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP) for the Richmond River Estuary is released as a 10-year plan to address management issues affecting the estuary.  The estimated cost of implementing the Plan was around $16 million but implementation has been slow and the full funds have not been allocated.

November 2012: The North Rivers CMA’s Regional State of the Environment 2012 report finds fish condition and river health in parts of the Richmond catchment are poor.

April 2013: The Northern Rivers Catchment Action Plan 2013- 2023 is launched by the North Coast LLS.

November 2013: The Fisheries Research and Development Coporation uses the Richmond River estuary as a pilot case study for its Revitalising Australia’s Estuaries project.  The study finds that there is a need to “greatly repair and extend the available habitat and therefore improve overall fishery productivity” in the Richmond catchment where “there is a much‐reduced professional fishing effort due to decline in estuary productivity.”

2014: The Ecohealth Report for the Richmond River grades the waterway’s overall health at D-, or poor.  While the overall grade was D- for the catchment, grades ranged from an F in the Wilsons River (the lowest rating possible) and upper Richmond estuary to a C in the headwater streams of the catchment. Twelve of the 17 river systems recorded a score of D or less.

November 2016: The North Coast State of the Environment Report highlights the poor quality of the Richmond River’s health compared to other catchments on the North Coast

March 2017: Another major fish kill and black water event occurs following extensive flooding

August 2017: The New South Wales Marine Estate Threat and Risk Assessment Report finds that major impacts on the Richmond catchment are almost certain to occur from acid sulfate soils leaching and reducing pH and that agricultural runoff have the potential to have significant impacts on fishing in the Richmond catchment. The report identifies a range of risks to the Richmond River, one risk being the clearing riparian and adjacent habitat.

2018: The NSW Government’s Marine Estate Management Strategy includes a case study on restoring the Richmond River which finds the catchment is “in worse ecological health than most estuaries in NSW.” It proposes a range of initiatives which have hardly any funding associated with them.

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26 reports in 30 years: Greens call for action on the Richmond River

MEDIA RELEASE 10 December 2018: A review by the Greens of the number of reports identifying the poor condition of the Richmond River and setting out plans to improve it reveals there have been at 26 in the past 31 years. There have also been 3 major fish kills and blackwater events since 2001, two of which resulted in closure of the river to fishing. Fish kills of this scale had not been previously documented in Australia.

The Greens say this shows the issue is not a lack of knowledge or detailed action plans, but a lack of leadership, funding and coordination from successive NSW Governments.  

Greens candidate for Lismore Sue Higginson is calling on both Labor and the Nationals to back the Greens $200 million plan to revive the Richmond River.

Sue Higginson said, “The River is fundamental to our Region. It’s health has to be a priority for all of us. We have turned our backs on this vital natural asset for far too long. We are all missing out on all of the benefits a healthy River brings to a Region. We have an opportunity right now to draw a line in the sand and turn it’s dire health around. With my Greens Parliamentary colleagues and all of the wonderful members of our communities I  am determined to see this happen and we have the action plan to make it happen”.

Greens MP and Environment Spokesperson Cate Faehrmann said: “This timeline of inaction on the Richmond River speaks volumes about the lack of genuine commitment to fixing the river by successive governments.

“In the past 30 years the government has produced numerous glossy brochures and action plans and yet the degradation of the catchment has gotten worse, the fishing industry has almost disappeared and the Wilson’s River is unfit to swim in.

“The blame for this farce sits squarely with the National Party who have failed to secure the significant funding necessary to revive the river.

“We know the problem and we know the solutions; what we need now is money, coordination and on-ground action.

“That is why the Greens have committed to a $200 million investment in reviving the Richmond River over the next 10 years.”

Greens MPs Cate Faehrmann and member for Ballina Tamara Smith, along with Greens candidate for Lismore Sue Higginson, held a roundtable at SCU in Lismore on 23 November with about 30 key stakeholders including farmers, fishers, scientists and Landcarers to seek feedback on a draft Revive Richmond River plan. The final plan will be launch in early 2019. Elements of the the $200 million draft plan include:

  • Incentives to fence off river banks to stock and change to farming practices to reduce pollution and erosion
  • Planting millions of trees in strategic locations along the catchment
  • An independent Richmond River Commissioner to coordinate a whole-of-government and community response
  • A revolving fund to acquire, restore and on sell strategically important land
  • An end to native forest logging in the catchment
  • Funding for estuary, wetland and mangrove rehabilitation
  • Funding for Aboriginal Traditional Owners to revegetate and restore their Native Title Lands and identify and protect cultural sites
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Dryland Rice Farmer – Lawyer – Grandmother – Your next State MP?

MEDIA RELEASE 29 November 2018:  Sue Higginson the Greens Candidate for our State Seat of Lismore will be in Tenterfield this Saturday 1 December and would love to meet with people who want to talk about our beautiful region, our wonderful communities, politics and our future.

Sue will have a Street stall from 9am -12 in front of the Benevolent Society office at 262 Rouse St. Come along for a chat and let Sue know your concerns in the lead up to the state election in March 2019.

Then at 6.30pm there will be an “Evening with Sue Higginson” at the Commercial Boutique Curve Bar. Buy a wine/coffee/nibble, relax, enjoy and join a stimulating Q&A.

Sue farms dry land rice on the Richmond Floodplain. Sue says “I am passionate about agriculture. As farmers we have learnt that healthy landscapes are the key to productivity and building resilience in our sector. The Country needs farmers and we need support, incentives and investment if we are to have food security into the future”.

Sue is also an expert public interest environmental lawyer. Sue says “I have devoted much of my life to fighting for regional communities under threat. In court, I have taken on giants like Rio Tinto and Adani and won. I have seen firsthand how the system currently works to privilege big corporate interests that take unfair advantage of our communities and our environment. I am running for Parliament because I know I can make a difference for us here in the North.

Some will remember Sue was instrumental in helping the community to stop the building of the new powerline through the Dumaresq Valley earlier this decade.  

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I am Standing with our Brave Young Students – School Strike 4 Climate

MEDIA RELEASE 28 November 2018: It is important that our young people are empowered to participate in our democracy and speak out about the things that are important to them. Striking and protesting are very traditional and powerful ways to participate in a democracy and are usually engaged when governments are not listening, injustice is being felt and time is running out.

Climate change is real, it is here now, our young people here in our region know it and they are trying to tell us something. They are striking from school on Friday for Climate Action.

What should we do? We must support them and provide them with a safe public space to assemble, speak and express themselves together. Then we have the choice to listen to what they are saying and respond with messages of support and hope and address any failings they identify on merit. After all, that’s what we expect of them every day when we send them off to school.

Yesterday my fellow Greens member, WA Senator Jordon Steele-John, who is the youngest sitting member of the Australian Parliament, asked the Government why they think it’s okay for PM Morrison to bag out young people concerned about the impact of climate change on their futures. He then successfully moved that the Senate support the student strike after Prime Minister Morrison offensively condemned the action.

As an environmental lawyer I have fought for climate justice on behalf of communities in Courts around Australia and I have seen climate injustice taking place on the national and state stage. I challenged the approval for the Adani Coal Mine in the Federal Court of Australia and won. But this Federal Government just re-approved the mine again!

My children are now young adults, with my youngest having just finished year 12. I have watched over decades the increasing awareness and concern young people here in our region have about climate change as they contemplate their futures in a caring and responsible adult way. Now that I am a grandmother I too feel the sense of urgency our young people are clearly feeling.

I commend our young people across our region for organising to come together in a powerful way on a matter of such importance. If any of you can hear me, please know, I hear you and I will be standing with you on 30 November wherever you are. Don’t forget your permission note (if one is required).

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Reclaiming our Democracy

OPINION PIECE 3rd August 2018: Our right to assembly and protest is fundamental to the health of our community. Democracy and good governance rests upon a foundation of civil and political rights. Here in our own region our world heritage forests  have survived because of past protests actions. They now provide substantial value to the community, the economy and future generations. I am very proud to have been part of those forest protests. So much of what we take for granted today is the result of the work of past protest movements, the end of slavery, fair working conditions, even the right to vote itself.

Governments don’t always get it right. As a public interest lawyer, I have acted for community groups and farmers across NSW. I have taken on both governments and mining giants like Rio Tinto, and won. But there are times when the law doesn’t provide communities with an opportunity to challenge a government decision. This was the case when the Government approved coal seam gas development across our region…. and we all know what happened next.

The NSW Government is dismantling the community’s right to peaceful assembly. It started with the 2016 anti-protests laws that enacted excessive penalties for mining protests.  Recently, a regulation, was enacted to allow any police officer or other authorised official to disperse any assembly on public land anywhere in NSW including parks, beaches, forests or roadsides and people who disobey can be fined up to $1100.

I am a farmer, a mother and a grandmother, and i care deeply about this region, its communities and its natural environment. I have committed so much of my life working for these things and I am now running for parliament because I know i have my heart in the right place as well as the specialist knowledge to represent the region as a local member and as a legislator in parliament. I know the difference between good laws and bad laws, and we need to really improve the way government is run in this state, for the benefit of our region and for all future generations.