Lake Illawarra – NSW South Coast

I had reason this week to look once again at Schedule 1 of the NSW State Environmental Planning Policy 71 (SEPP 71). This Schedule lists a number of coastal lakes that are deemed to be ”sensitive coastal locations” under this policy. It reminded me of the important work undertaken in 2001 by the then Healthy Rivers Commission (HRC) entitled Independent Inquiry into Coastal Lakes.

Dr Peter Crawford was the Commissioner of the HRC. It was a great privilege for me to spend time with Peter during this period when I was serving as Chair of the NSW Coastal Council. Coincidently both the HRC and the Council were disbanded at the same time towards the end of 2003 as the Government sought to rationalise its advisory bodies in natural resource management into a single  Natural Resources Commission (NRC).  Unfortunately the NRC did not inherit the specific roles of either the HRC and the Coastal Council, but that is another story.

Peter was a very experienced public servant with experience internationally, in the federal bureaucracy and in state governments. I learnt quite a lot from him and owe him a great deal. He had a clear understanding in what the Commission could do with its inquiries and employed very competent staff. For the Coastal Lakes Inquiry he recognised not just the biophysical diversity of lakes in NSW, but that communities were placing demands on them threatening environmental values and also placing at risk human activities, such as tourism, fishing and oyster growing, that depend on ‘’healthy lakes’’. He commented ‘’it could be said that they are under the management of almost everyone, but under the effective guardianship of no one’’. In particular, he noted there has been  no agreed process for determining the desired outcomes for individual lakes or for resolving conflicts among competing interests. The approach taken by the Commission related to all of the coastal lakes (a total of 90 are listed in the Schedule). I was struck at the time with the critical comments that the Commission received on their proposed management framework from some local councils who felt that their development ambitions were being thwarted.

Let us go back one step and ask the question what is so important about coastal lakes. Peter Roy had developed a classification of lake types in the early 1980s following his estuary studies. They can also be found in Victoria, southern Western Australia and Tasmania along embayed coastlines, usually with a micro-tidal range and sandy beaches and dunes on the ocean side. Some are permanently open to the sea, others are only intermittently open or very rarely open. We termed the intermittent ones ICOLLs, an acronym for ‘’Intermittently Closed or Open Lakes and Lagoons’’. Phil Haines studied a set of these for his PhD ten years ago and looked at the hydrologic regimes. Others have looked at changes in water chemistry and biology. There even was a famous court case in the 1920s that dealt with the legal standing of shorelines in an ICOLL. What appears likely is that many of the coastal lakes including ICOLLS are at environmental risk with artificial changes in entrance conditions or to nutrient runoff from catchments.

The HRC explored a range of questions with the objective of providing NSW Government with advice that could better reflect the way coastal lakes should be managed. Part of their work involved developing a classification of coastal lakes for what was termed “management orientation’’. Four categories were recognised: (1) comprehensive protection; (2) significant protection; (3) secure healthy modified conditions; and (4) targeted repair. A table  was prepared in which for each lake it was shown the degree of natural sensitivity, existing condition of lake and its catchment, recognised conservation value, potential to improve condition and its classification category. This is an extremely useful table. To my knowledge subsequent surveys by OEH or its past equivalent have not shown any reason to query the details of the table. What it did was to serve notice to decision makers and communities that in their backyard so to speak they had a valuable but sensitive natural feature that deserved detailed consideration if new developments were to proceed, and for some lakes there is need to invest in repair work.

Unfortunately, there is no longer a HRC to monitor actions required to protect and improve lake conditions in NSW. Debates still erupt from time to time. This applies to pressures on ICOLLs in particular. For instance, the saga of Lake Wollumboola on the NSW South Coast continues to rage on and on. It is just one example where a lake identified as requiring comprehensive protection is still at risk. Of course, under SEPP 71 it is a sensitive coastal location like other lakes listed in Schedule 1,  and planners, land owners and communities must be aware of what that means. Is it enough? We await the outcome of coastal reform deliberations for further resolution; in the meantime we must thank the HRC for its comprehensive and diligent analysis of coastal lakes and recommend that similar work be undertaken in other states. Their report is a template for investigations into coastal management of specific features.

– words by Prof Bruce Thom