Tasmanian report showing deteriorating waterways kept secret, department did not want “bomb”, documents say


A major report showing deterioration of Tasmanian rivers was not made public after the ministry asked staff to make it an internal document, after acknowledging that some stakeholders might have found it “difficult to accept” and that the ministry did not want a “bomb”.

The report drew on more than 20 years of monitoring data from 85 sites on Tasmanian rivers and showed that 46% of those sites had declined in recent years, many of which were severely or significantly damaged.

The independently reviewed report made a connection between agricultural land use and water extraction and the poor condition of the river.

Entitled Temporal and spatial models in river health across Tasmania and the influence of environmental factors, the report was never made public. Instead, it was obtained by the Tasmanian Greens under Right to Information Laws (RTI), with all recommendations drafted.

Now, new RTI documents obtained by the Greens show that the Ministry of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) had planned to release the report, and staff have been working on a communications strategy. , until the ministry requests that it be marked with an internal document note.

‘Need a conversation, not a bomb’

The documents show that the report was discussed at a meeting of the water management steering committee in October 2018.

The draft minutes of the meeting show one official noting that “the assistant secretary and secretary are aware that results must be communicated with care… need a conversation, not a bomb”.

Due to the state government agrifood initiatives, some stakeholders may find the report results “difficult,” the ROI documents show.(ABC News: Ellen Coulter)

In June 2019, a communication strategy for internal and external stakeholders was drafted.

He notes that “given the links between river health and various business lines and state government initiatives (e.g. AgriVision 2050), the results will need to be communicated with sensitivity, as some stakeholders will find the results difficult to accept. and / or to apply “.

Agrivision 2050 is the government’s plan to double the growth rate of the agricultural sector by 2050.

The strategy also noted recent experiences with some stakeholders who have found it “difficult to accept that declines are (and are occurring) in Tasmanian rivers, and that land use and land use are occurring) water can contribute to changes in the health of rivers ”.

The author of the report inquires about the document, the manager marks it “internal”

The temporal and spatial models report was expected in mid-2019, and in July 2019 it was sent to the department’s director general of aquatic and marine resources for review.

A bald man in a government jacket and blue shirt stands in front of a yellow field.
The ROI document shows that the ministry decided not to prepare a briefing for Water Minister Guy Barnett.(Rural ABC)

Five months later, one of the report’s authors, a freshwater environmentalist, asked his manager “where [the general manager of water and marine resources] is on the statewide river health report “and offered to meet with her, but a meeting was not scheduled until early 2020.

The documents show that the outcome of this meeting was that staff were asked to mark the report as an “internal document”, not to prepare a briefing note for the minister, and not to finalize the drafted communication strategy.

Tasmanian Greens leader Cassy O’Connor said it was frustrating and wrong that the report had not been released.

“It is a science of public interest which is funded by DPIPWE,” she said.

“And instead, what happened was a decision was made in the department to prevent the report from being released.”

“Insult to the scientists who worked there”: the Greens

It is still unclear why the report was not released.

In September of this year, Water Minister Guy Barnett told the ABC it was up to the ministry to publish it or not.

In September, DPIPWE did not respond to questions from the ABC on why the report was not made public.

A further statement from a DPIPWE spokesperson said on Friday:

A close up of the Coal River.
Greens and water experts do not believe that a new rural water use strategy means the report cannot be released.(ABC News: Ellen Coulter)

In September, DPIPWE Secretary Tim Baker told a parliamentary estimates committee that the report had not been released due to a new government water strategy.

“I am informed that the reason the document has not been released is that it has been replaced by the Rural Water Use Strategy,” Baker told the committee.

However, the advice in RTI documents from the ministry’s water assessment director, who informed communications staff in April 2021, was that “this report has not been superseded.”

“These right to information documents clearly show that in many ways the temporal and spatial analysis report had very little connection with the rural water use strategy,” Ms. O’Connor.

“This temporal and spatial relationship is a fundamental science, an autonomous relationship.”

A spokesperson for DPIPWE said Mr Baker, who had served as secretary since mid-2020 but was due to step down shortly for unrelated reasons, answered the question honestly on the basis of information provided to him at the era.

She said that “the recommendations of the report have been replaced by the actions described in the more recent strategy for the use of water in rural areas”.

Leader of the Tasmanian Greens, Cassy O'Connor standing in a park in front of a tree.
Greens leader Cassy O’Connor said “it is totally counterproductive” not to publish the report and to have “honest and open conversations”.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Ms O’Connor said it made no sense that the report, which was completed in February 2020, was not released due to the Rural Water Use Strategy, which was released in June 2021.

She said the report called into question the government’s Agrivision 2050 plan and that she believed politics played a role in its non-publication.

“It is an insult to the scientists who worked on it, and worse than that, it is totally counterproductive for us as a state not to have honest and open conversations based on scientific evidence about the health of our rivers, and what that means for agricultural production, our economy, our ability to access drinking water, ”she said.

A spokesperson for Mr Barnett, who is both Minister for Water and Primary Industries, said he had categorically not asked anyone from DPIPWE not to release the internal report.

River alliance formed on freshwater issues

John Gooderham, a freshwater ecologist, heads a national science project called Waterbug Blitz that helps anglers and others identify water bugs, one of the best indicators of river health.

Mr Gooderham said it was disappointing that the report on temporal and spatial models had not been released.

A man talks to two hikers by the river.
Freshwater ecologist John Gooderham says Tasmania collects a lot of data about its waterway and shouldn’t be ‘pushed into a filing cabinet’.(ABC News: Ellen Coulter)

“It really is a revolutionary science and so it’s a little surprising that it doesn’t appear on the public forum,” he said.

In his opinion, it was not possible for the Rural Water Use Strategy to replace the report.

“These are very different documents,” he said.

Mr Gooderham said Tasmania was extremely lucky with the amount of information and scientific data available to inform river and watershed management.

“There should be pride and celebration that we have these huge datasets on the move, and instead they just got pushed into a filing cabinet,” he said.

Mr. Gooderham has now formed the Tasmanian Rivers Alliance, a group for people who want to see and promote better river management in the state.

“It’s good to get a sense of what the landscape looks like in terms of attempts to improve this stuff.”


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