Australia's wild rivers
Aerial view of the mouth of the Mulgrave River, Queensland. Image courtesy of the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Accession number: P38.
Australia's wild rivers are seen as relatively unaltered by modern human development, and exist in their natural condition – to flow freely without dams or other barriers. However, free flowing rivers have never been void of human activity. Indigenous and other peoples have long engaged in productive activities in and around wild rivers, with a deep knowledge base, awareness and attachment to the life of the river.
This heritage tradition and contemporary engagement of Indigenous people has been recognised in heritage protection legislation in Australia. Indigenous people have a significant role to play in the ongoing management, use and conservation of wild rivers.
The national importance of wild rivers across Australia was first recognised by the Australian Government in 1992. The Wild Rivers project set out to identify rivers, encourage protection, engage in voluntary management of the whole catchment, and promote the values of wild rivers. The project was guided by water resource management and nature conservation agencies, local government, farmers, conservation groups, Indigenous people and the scientific community.
Franklin River, Tasmania, 2013, courtesy of Selmes Films
Like other rivers in Australia, wild rivers are highly varied in their makeup. Wild rivers may exist as a single channel, a channel network, or a network of waterholes and billabongs, as well as having some overland flow. They can exist as perennial (permanently flowing) or non-perennial (seasonally flowing) rivers. Wild rivers can also be characterised by spectacular gorges, waterfalls, deep water holes, and fast and slow flowing channels of water.
Aurukun residents fish on the banks of the Archer River, Queensland, 2009 by Tim O' Reilly, courtesy of ABC
At the same time, all the biological processes associated with the river and the land surrounding the river, extending to its intimate catchment, must not have been significantly altered by modern or colonial society. The catchment area for a river is the entire river system from its source, all the tributaries and down to its mouth. Australia has 12 catchment divisions.
There are 208 major waterways in Western Australian and 48 have been identified as wild rivers. Many of the wild rivers (37) are found in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of northern Australia. Some of the large rivers in north western Australia – the Daly, the Victoria, the Fitzroy and the Gascoyne – form catchments which are heritage listed and their mouths contain sites of international significance. Australia's dry inland rivers, such as the Diamantina, which on occasion flows into Lake Eyre in northern South Australia, are some of the last of the world's unregulated dry river systems.
Gascoyne River, Western Australia, 2009 by RhysThomas
There are also highly valued and protected wild rivers in southern Australia, especially in Tasmania with the Franklin–Lower Gordon Wild Rivers, and in places such as the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park in New South Wales.
Northern Australian and Tasmanian inland water environments are generally in good condition. [In comparison,]… many of Australia's inland water environments in southern Australia, and particularly the Murray–Darling Basin are in a degraded condition...[due to] high levels of water resource development
State of the Environment 2011, Inland water, Current state and trends of the land environment
Like some of the controversial campaigns in the 1980s for the Franklin–Lower Gordon Wild Rivers, since 2009 there has been much debate about the appropriate resource development and management for Queensland's ten wild river areas, mainly on Cape York.
Lake Eyre Basin – part of a unique dry land river system
Cooper Creek, a river in the Lake Eyre Basin, 20 October 2010, courtesy of ABC
The Lake Eyre Basin is one of the last unregulated or free flowing dry land river systems in the world. When major rains fall and the dry land rivers flood, the rivers can completely transform Australia's desert country into a temporary lush green wetland, bursting with birdlife and brimming with breeding fish. It is one of the most spectacular natural events on the planet.
None of the rivers and creeks of the Lake Eyre basin is permanent but in flood years they spill widely to spark a period of rapid growth and fertility. Long-dormant crustaceans multiply and flocks of waterbirds arrive in huge numbers to feed and raise their young before the waters evaporate.
Dan Gaffney, ‘Floods bring mass bird breeding frenzy', 19 May, 2009, UNSW Science
About 60 species of birds respond to its call – and six to eight million water birds make the pilgrimage from the Murray and other rivers in South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. Some travel a thousand kilometers or more. The fresh water and food sources, as fish and crustaceans emerge on a fast-breeding cycle, encourages nest building and egg laying.
Pelicans on Lake Eyre by Wayne Lawlor.
Cooper Creek, one of the major rivers in the Lake Eyre Basin, is one of the most unpredictable and variable of all the major rivers in the world:
After soaking the soils and replenishing the waterholes, [water] will flow all the way down into Lake Eyre, turning the salt flats once again into a huge inland lake… Pelicans and Yellow-Billed Spoonbills and Black Swans fly over your head. It's a stark contrast to the normally bone-dry, sandy plain.
Boom time for the Channel Country rivers of Lake Eyre Basin, 25 March, 2010, The Wilderness Society
Cooper Creek, the Diamantina and Georgina rivers were protected by Queensland State Government Wild River legislation in 2010 although this was reviewed in 2012. The sustainable management of the Lake Eyre Basin is assisted by a panel providing world class scientific and technical advice. The panel is part of an Intergovernmental Agreement, the Lake Eyre Basin Ministerial Forum – a joint undertaking of the Australian, Queensland, South Australian and Northern Territory governments that works closely with the Basin community.
The Diamantina River – part of the Channel country
One of the main rivers which flows directly into Lake Eyre is the Diamantina River which is 900 kilometres long, about the same length as the Murray River. The Diamantina is a river with its headwaters in Central West Queensland, south-east of Mount Isa and Cloncurry, and west of Winton in the Selwyn Range. The Diamantina River has no main channel but is a series of wide relatively shallow channels. This area is known as the Channel country that forms part of the Diamantina National Park .
Floodplain north of Birdsville, courtesy of UNSW Science
The Diamantina flows sluggishly in a southwesterly direction through central Queensland to form the Warburton River just past Birdsville. In extremely wet years, the Warburton River flows to Lake Eyre. The Diamantina River basin is approximately 157,000 km² of which most (140,000 km²) is used for agriculture, mostly grazing cattle and sheep.
The variable nature of Australia's wild rivers is not seen in isolation from seasonal changes, natural disasters and weather patterns. Drought, cyclones and flooding rains are intimately associated with Australia's rivers.
Since its discovery by Europeans in 1840 until its first recorded filling in 1949, Lake Eyre filling was considered as an isolated, unique and independent event. Only recently have they been looked at as a predictable manifestation of the world-wide atmospheric and oceanic circulation, of which the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is one of the most significant phenomena which affects Australian weather and seasons.
Dr Vincent Kotwicki, Lake Eyre Basics, Floods of Lake Eyre
Northern Australia and the Timor Sea Basin
The northern catchments: the Gulf of Carpentaria, Timor Sea and North Western Plateau divisions, and the northern third of the North East Coast division have many wild rivers.
The first permanent water as you travel north from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory is the Katherine River. Its headwaters are in Nitmiluk National Park, it flows through the town of Katherine, and is a major tributary of the Daly River, which flows into the Timor Sea.
Flooding in the streets of Katherine, Northern Territory, 28 January, 1998 by the NT News, courtesy of Bureau of Meteorology.
The rivers of the top end, like the Katherine, the Daly and the Victoria River, are prone to seasonal flooding and this has had a significant impact on the communities. Some of the heaviest rainfall and worst flooding over northern Australia occurs when a tropical cyclone crosses the coast and moves inland.
On 25–26 January 1998, Tropical Cyclone Les, which had developed over the Gulf of Carpentaria, moved west towards Katherine. Rain fell and continued virtually without a break. By the 28 January, about 400–500mm of rain drenched significant areas of the Katherine, Roper and Daly River catchments.
The flooding of the Katherine River was the worst in Katherine's history, eclipsing the previous record (set in 1957) by 0.7 metres. Two metres of water filled the main street, and the whole central business district was inundated. Some 2000 people had to abandon their homes.
Daly River Barra Resort
At Daly River town, on 28 January 1998, the river inundated the town and the entire population had to be airlifted in an emergency evacuation to Batchelor, south of Darwin. The floodwaters, fed by heavy rainfall in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Les, continued to rise until 3 February, reaching a peak of 16.8 m, which was the highest level recorded to date for the Daly River.
The Katherine, the Daly and the Victoria Rivers like other Top End Rivers attract people fishing for barramundi and other recreational activities. The rivers are also home to saltwater crocodiles, reptiles, cockatoos, feral water buffalo, mangroves, giant bamboos on the Daly, pandanus, and kapok trees.
The Victoria River, Northern Territory - part of the Timor Sea Drainage Division
The Victoria River, at 560 kilometres in length, is the longest singularly named permanent river in the Northern Territory. The Victoria River enters the Timor Sea at the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf. Part of the area adjoining the river mouth has been identified as the Legune (Joseph Bonaparte Bay) Important Bird Area. The IBA lies between the estuaries of the Keep and Victoria Rivers and is recognised as a site of international importance for bird conservation. It is possible to fly over the wetlands and see this extraordinary diverse floodplain teeming with birdlife.
The Legune coastal floodplain, part of the Legune pastoral lease, extends across extensive tidal flats with large areas of mangroves which are not inundated by a flooding river mouth.
The Legune wetlands comprise extensive areas of diverse freshwater and saline wetland habitat and are known to support more than 40,000 mixed waterbirds, mostly Wandering Whistling-Ducks and various egrets and herons. At least four waterbird breeding colonies have also been recorded on the floodplain, including the second largest waterbird colony in the Territory. Turtle Point supports high density nesting of the Flatback Turtles and significant aggregations of migratory shorebirds.
Northern Territory Government, Sites of Conservation Significance, Legune coastal floodplain
Fitzroy River, Western Australia – Mardoowarra, the river of life
Just south of the Timor Sea, the Fitzroy River in northwest Western Australia flows into the Indian Ocean. The Fitzroy River flows for 733 kilometres from the King Leopold and Mueller Ranges into King Sound south of Derby, in a catchment area of nearly 100,000 square kilometres. Its mouth features king tides, some of the most extensive in the world, where there is investment in tidal energy.
Traditional owners at Gambanan on the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley, Western Australia, courtesy of Mardoowarra - ‘River of life'.
The first European to visit the Fitzroy River was George Grey in 1837 aboard Charles Darwin's vessel, the H.M.S. Beagle. After the establishment of Yeeda station in 1880, other pastoral stations were established during the 1880s, along the Fitzroy river, further upstream including: Noonkanbah, Gogo and Fossil Downs Stations. The traditional owners know the river as Mardoowarra - ‘River of life'.
In 2010, the Fitzroy River Catchment Management Plan identified the relatively unregulated water flow of the Fitzroy River as an asset. The river's flow helps to maintain a healthy river system by ‘annual cleansing during floods'. The management plan recognises that the catchment contains unique ecosystems that are important to protect because of their high levels of biodiversity with rare plants and animals.
The river and its vast floodplains are of great spiritual, cultural, medicinal and ecological significance to the Nyikina peoples to the west, and the Walmadjari and Konejandi peoples to the east, who have lived in the area for at least 40,000 years.
The Horizontal Falls Kimberley Region
In 2011, the Australian Government Environment Minister announced the heritage listing of most of the Fitzroy River catchment: the West Kimberley coast from Cape Leveque to Cambridge Gulf, the Kimberley plateau, the Fitzroy River itself, and land south of the Oscar and Napier ranges. The heritage listing means the protection of wildlife, coastline and Indigenous heritage, and that activities that might impact on those values must first be approved by the Federal Government. It was listed because of ‘Its unique wildlife, stunning coastlines, spectacular gorges and waterfalls, ancient Aboriginal cultural traditions as well as its pastoral and pearling history'.
The Gascoyne River and the Indian Ocean basin
The Bibbawarra Crossing Gascoyne River near Carnarvon, 2011 by Alex Hyman, courtesy of ABC
Further south and part of the Indian Ocean basin is the Gascoyne River. At 865 kilometres it is the longest river in Western Australia. Its unique features are its huge underground water system. The Gascoyne flows for about 120 days of the year and for the rest of the year, the river flows below the dry riverbed. It is in effect a huge water storage system with the river's aquifers lying below the desert sands. It still has the capacity to flood and residents then have to evacuate.
The Gascoyne River rises on Three Rivers Station near the Great Northern Highway, 100 kilometres northeast of Peak Hill, and flows into Shark Bay and the Indian Ocean at Carnarvon. The river is made up of three branches and has 36 tributaries including the Landor and Thomas rivers. Its catchment is sparsely vegetated countryside used mainly for gold mining and sheep grazing.
The river flows through many permanent pools that are valuable to both stock and native species. Some of the main pools located along the river include Tibbingoona Pool, Mutherbokin Pool, and Mibbley Pool.
The Franklin–Lower Gordon Wild Rivers, Tasmania
Rock Island Bend, Franklin River by Peter Dombrovskis, a Tasmanian Wilderness Society advertisement, 2 March 1983
When the Franklin–Lower Gordon Wild Rivers National Park was accepted for World Heritage listing by UNESCO in 1982, the Western Tasmanian Wilderness National Parks World Heritage Area had satisfied more criteria than any other World Heritage Area.
Yet, the Franklin River blockade campaign in Tasmania was one of the most controversial conflicts over the management of a southern river's water resources ever seen in Australian history. In the late 1970s, a campaign aimed at preventing the damming of the river was ignited when the Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC) released a proposal to construct a 180 megawatt power scheme in 1979. The scheme would result in the inundation of 37 kilometres of the middle reaches of the Gordon River and 33 kilometres of the Franklin River valley.
Not long after, in 1982, the Australian Government nominated the Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park, Franklin–Lower Gordon Wild Rivers National Park and the Southwest National Park for World Heritage listing. The listing was accepted at the December UNESCO meeting on World Heritage.
Blockade campaign, Franklin River, 1982 by unknown blog supplied to The Age
The World Heritage listing was in conflict with aims of the newly elected Liberal Premier, Robin Gray, who staunchly supported the building of the hydroelectric dam. Gray considered the Franklin River, ‘nothing but a brown ditch, leech-ridden and unattractive to the majority of people'. In June 1982 the newly elected Gray Government revoked parts of the Wild Rivers National Park to commence construction of the dam. In the summer of 1982–83, the nearby village of Strahan became the focus of the largest conservation battle ever fought in Australia: the battle to save the Franklin River.
Goanna, a rock band from western Victoria, wrote a song called ‘Let the Franklin Flow' which became an anthem for the conservation battle.
The issue dominated Tasmanian politics throughout the late 1970s and early 80s and caused great rifts between those who supported the construction of the dam and those who sought the preservation of the wilderness values of the region.
In 1983, the Hawke Government, which had recently been elected into office on an anti-dam platform, passed regulations forbidding HEC works within the World Heritage Area. Despite this, the HEC continued with the construction of works while the Tasmanian Government's challenge to the validity of the legislation was heard in the High Court. It was the decision of the High Court on the 1 July 1983 which, after a four to three majority ruling, prevented the damming of the Franklin River.
Parks Tasmania, Franklin–Lower Gordon Wild Rivers National Park
The Tasmanian Government accepted $276 million in compensation from the Australian Government to subsidise the cost of the King and Anthony HEC power schemes. Grants were also provided to assist with the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Management Plan with coexisting environmental, Aboriginal, convict and settler heritage values.
River crew Franklin by Matthew Newton, courtesy of Tourism Australia
Since that time the park has been recognised for its rich and remarkable heritage as it contains many Aboriginal sites extending back over 36,000 years, as well as for its remote and rugged beauty. The vegetation varies within local vicinities. For example, to the west of the King William Saddle area is high rainfall area, averaging 2500 mm per annum, which supports luxuriant cool temperate rainforest. To the drier east, eucalypt forests and button grass grassland communities are the dominant vegetation types.
Visitors to the Franklin–Lower Gordon Wild Rivers National Park can drive through the park, bushwalk on a variety of walking tracks and nature trails, and travel on boats to see the beauty of the wild rivers region.
Rafting enthusiasts are warned that the journey is not for amateurs as it can be extremely hazardous, and is only for those who are experienced and sure of their abilities. Rafting the Franklin is done with experienced guides, life jackets and helmets – all necessary ‘if you take on the Franklin, one of the savage rivers that riddle south-west Tasmania like a nest of snakes'.
Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, New South Wales
Budd's mare lookout, Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, courtesy of NSW OEH
Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area, features rare dry rainforest, dramatic gorges and waterfalls, extensive wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and an amazing array of wildlife. First inscribed as a World Heritage area in 1986 and extended in 1994, the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia has:
The most extensive area of subtropical rainforest in the world, large areas of warm temperate rainforest and nearly all of the Antarctic beech cool temperate rainforest. Few places on earth contain so many plants and animals which remain relatively unchanged from their ancestors in the fossil record. The outstanding geological features displayed around shield volcanic craters and the high number of rare and threatened species are of international significance for science and conservation.
Environment NSW, Gondwana World Heritage Area
Visitors to the area can explore the region by driving along the Waterfall Way as well as bush walking to explore the Apsley Macleay Gorges, one of Australia's largest gorge systems. Wollomombi, the highest waterfall in New South Wales is part of the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. Bushwalkers have access to overnight accommodation in heritage listed stockman's huts, as well as the East Kunderang Homestead.
Review of wild rivers legislation for Cape York, Queensland
Archer River rapids, Cape York, Queensland, 2009 by Glenn Walker, Wilderness Society, courtesy of ABC.
Since 2005, 10 regions in Queensland have been declared wild river areas under the Wild Rivers Act . These include Settlement Creek, Gregory River, Morning Inlet, and Staaten River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the Wenlock, Archer, Lockhart, and Stewart river basins on the Cape York Peninsula, as well as Hinchinbrook Island and Fraser Island.
In a wild river area, new large-scale development projects such as in-stream dams and weirs, surface mining, and intensive agriculture, are subject to certain restrictions. However, other low impact activities such as small-scale commercial fishing, ecotourism, and sustainable industries, are permitted with Government approval.
Queensland, Department of Environment and Resource Management, Wild Rivers
Some opponents of the Wild Rivers Act are concerned about how the legislation will affect Aboriginal Traditional Owners who are seeking to develop their land. Lockhart River Aboriginal Shire Council has noted that Aboriginal people have successfully looked after these ‘wild rivers' for thousands of years, and that the river systems continue to be an important part of their culture and everyday lives today.'
Aurukun Wetland Charters fishing
Indigenous people carry on with activities like camping, fishing, hunting, conducting ceremonies, and traditional fire management as well as small-scale development projects, such as eco-tourism industries, and other developments with water reserves set aside for this purpose. An example is the Wik Projects Ltd enterprise, Aurukun Wetland Charters - using catch and release fishing and eco-tourism.
Aurukun is located on the western coast of Cape York at the junction of three pristine rivers - the Archer, the Watson and the Ward. Together with other river systems lying further south (the Kirk and the Love Rivers), this massive network of rivers forms the Aurukun Wetlands, one of Australia's largest wetland areas covering 1.1 million hectares, and containing some of the best quality coastal wetland habitats in Northern Australia.
Aurukun Wetland Charters
Murrandoo Yanner of the Carpentaria Land Council believes that: ‘The majority of the people ... would rather have the sustainable rivers so we can continue as we have for thousands of years to draw our food and nourishment from those rivers'.
Aurukun Wetland Charters
Wild rivers and Indigenous economic development In Queensland is now seen as part of a wider discussion about development options and Indigenous people managing their land within a wild river area.
In 2011 a House of Representatives Standing Committee examined Indigenous Economic Development in Queensland as part of its Review of the Wild Rivers legislation, including examples of Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) in the Cape York region providing economic opportunities.
In discussing the details of wild rivers management, Reconciliation Australia suggests that most people agree that genuine and respectful partnership with Aboriginal communities is vital in managing wild rivers.
Teacher guide and lesson plans – Lower secondary
- Northern Australia and the Wet Tropics: Water extremes and sustainability
- The Great Artesian Basin: Water in the dry interior
- The Murray-Darling Basin: Balancing the priorities of agriculture and the environment
- ABC, Vast tracts of West Kimberley heritage listed, 31Aug , 2011
- Wilderness Society, Boom time for the Channel Country rivers of Lake Eyre Basin, 25 March, 2010
- Cooper Creek, the Diamantina and Georgina rivers were protected – Herald Sun
- Dan Gaffney, ‘Floods bring mass bird breeding frenzy', 19 May, 2009, UNSW Science
- Franklin–Lower Gordon Wild Rivers National Park
- Fitzroy River Catchment Management Plan
- Lake Eyre Basin Ministerial Forum
- J. L. Stein, J. A. Stein and H. A. Nix, The Identification Of Wild Rivers, a report for the Australian Heritage Commission by the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University, Department of Environment, 1992
- Water birds make the pilgrimage to Lake Eyre
- Australian Bureau of Statistics, Special report - Australia's rivers
- CSIRO Land and Water
- CSIRO Land and Water, Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review full report, October 2009
- Geoscience Australia, Longest rivers in Australia
- Macquarie Library with the Division of National Mapping, Department of Resources and Energy, Macquarie World Atlas , 1984
- Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, Rivers, estuaries and wetlands
Rivers as habitats
- Australian Heritage Commission , Conservation guidelines for the management of wild river values
- Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area
- Legune (Joseph Bonaparte Bay) Important Bird Area
- Northern Territory Government, Sites of Conservation Significance, Legune coastal floodplain
- Murray–Darling Basin
Environment issues and assessments – ebbs and flows
- ABC, Debate Queensland's ten wild river areas
- Australian Conservation Foundation , River flows fact sheet
- Parks Tasmania, Conservation battle to save the Franklin River
- Queensland Conservation Council , The Rivers Project
- State of the Environment 2011, Inland water, Current state and trends of the inland water environment
- Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Management Plan
- World Wildlife Fund Australia , Water footprint: How people use fresh water
Use, recreation and access
- Aboriginal people looking after ‘wild rivers'
- Rafting in Tasmania
- Visitors to the Franklin–Lower Gordon Wild Rivers National Park
- Oxley Wild Rivers National Park access
- Aurukun Wetland Charters
- Carpentaria Land Council statement on wild rivers
- Review of the Wild Rivers legislation
Last updated: 15 December 2015
Creators: Kathryn Wells