UNSUSTAINABLE management of water resources in the internationally-protected Gippsland Lakes could put the state government at risk of legal challenges, according to a new report.
The report, written by Environmental Justice Australia legal experts, offers detailed analysis of scientific analysis and legal principles, and finds current management of the Gippsland Lakes system has put it on a "trajectory of decline".
It says current management also threatens a failure to abide by basic legal obligations concerning sustainable management of water resources.
The report details ways in which poor management of the Gippsland Lakes ecology has generated "threats of serious or irreversible damage" to wetlands, vegetation, fish species and shoreline stability.
It asserts poor regulation has led to salinity from reduced freshwater inflows and the dredging of a permanent entrance to the lakes.
The impacts of logging, burning, mining and climate change are additional pressures.
The report reviews extensive and long-term scientific investigations into the Gippsland Lakes, drawing together findings on multiple sources of ecological stress and crises.
Against the findings, Environmental Justice Australia analysis and scrutinises whether current management of these dynamic coastal wetlands is prudent, equitable and preserves their ecological integrity. The report found that it did not.
The state government has made some attempts over the years to improve the health of the Gippsland Lakes, launching the 'Water for Victoria' program in 2016 to set a new long-term direction for managing Victoria's water resources.
In 2019 it passed legislation to buy out commercial net fishing licences in the lakes in a bid to replenish fish stocks and restore the health of the waterways, and it announced it would hold a public inquiry to investigate the management of Victoria's Ramsar wetlands, which includes the Gippsland Lakes.
The 16 recommendations from the committee included that the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning improve engagement with Ramsar site coordinators and managers, and improve community engagement.
The inquiry also recommended a comprehensive audit be done on Ramsar sites to identify data "gaps".
However, while the 2020 Water for Victoria status report outlines better monitoring of waterways through the Wetland Intervention Monitoring Program, there has been little real improvement in the health of the lakes, and Environmental Justice Australia warns that if not remedied through "concerted policy and planning action", including returning freshwater inflows, the government exposes itself to the prospect of legal action.
Senior lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia, Bruce Lindsay, said the legal analysis showed how urgently the state government needed to overhaul policy and set rigorous legal standards for management of the internationally protected and vitally important Gippsland Lakes.
"Poor regulatory management of the lakes and lack of adherence to legal principles is causing serious and irreversible damage, making the government vulnerable to legal challenges," he said.
"There is overwhelming scientific evidence of a crisis generated by poor management.
"The Victorian government needs to act urgently to restore the health of the lakes system with holistic and unified policies and programs.
"The current crisis is a result of colonisation, industry and pollution, and poor government management policy.
"This is an opportunity for the Victorian government to step up to the plate and invest in long term solutions for the critically important and internationally significant ecosystem."
The Gippsland Lakes and its network of coastal lagoons and marsh environments are the largest estuarine lagoon system in Australia.
They consist of three large coastal lagoons (Lake Wellington, Lake Victoria and Lake King) and fringing wetlands, which are home to unique wildlife.
The lakes are internationally protected under the Ramsar Convention because of their importance to global biodiversity.
The Gunaikurnai people (the Brataualung, Brayakaulung, Brabralung, Krauatungalung and Tatungalung) are the First People of this area, and have cared for the land and waters around the Gippsland Lakes area for tens of thousands of years.
Environmental Justice Australia is currently working with community groups on a unique model of participatory design for improved protection and restoration of the Gippsland Lakes.
The model successfully led to Victoria's landmark?Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act, and proposals currently being considered by the state government for new forms of governance for waterways in Melbourne's west and on the Barwon River.
The proposed Gippsland Lakes and Catchment Act would establish a long-term framework for restoration of the Gippsland Lakes through an integrated and holistic management of the lakes, catchment and tributary rivers.