Key Findings

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2000-03 was marked by extremes

Unlike previous State of the Environment reports, this 2000–03 report had the opportunity to illustrate the short-term responses of the ACT to extreme events such as drought, heavy rains, dust storms, and bushfires. The long-term responses will give a clearer indication of the resilience of the ACT to such extreme events.

Drought and bushfires combined to place the greatest threat ever to the domestic water supply of Canberra and Queanbeyan. The fires almost completely burnt out the vegetation of the main water supply catchment for the ACT. For the first time in decades, Canberrans had to curb their water use to comply with water restrictions.

Although the January 2003 bushfires were not the first, they left the largest recorded fire scar on the ACT. Combined with the Christmas 2001 fire, they also destroyed three quarters of the ACT's pine plantations. The 2003 bushfires also caused the greatest damage to property and infrastructure, most of which was developed since the last major ACT bushfires in 1951–52.

The response of the ACT community to the 2003 bushfires—to the loss of houses and of life—demonstrated a huge level of compassion and generosity. This was another extreme in this reporting period. Equally impressive was the immediate response of many other Australian communities.

Despite the drought of 2002–03 being considered to be one of the worst on record Australia-wide, February 2002 was one of the wettest on record for the ACT. Then in February 2003, one rain-storm washed the equivalent of 17 years of soil and 27 years of ash and charcoal 1 from the fire-damaged catchment into Canberra’s water supply dams, making them unusable for drinking water.

These examples are indicative of some of the extremes experienced in the reporting period. They are reported in the issues and also point to the next Key Finding about climate.

Climate change

Evidence for climate change is starting to accumulate

Indications became stronger in this reporting period that the ACT's climate appears to be changing slightly.

Already a climate of extremes and variability, there is now evidence for a possible shift towards warmer, and perhaps towards more windy, conditions as well as increasing variability.

The implications for future water supply management and energy consumption (notably for cooling and heating for human comfort) need to be taken into account in planning. The ACT community must plan for both average and extreme events.

There is also a need for long-term weather data for the water-supply catchment in addition to information obtained from the Bureau of Meteorology stations at Hall and the Canberra Airport.


The fires have presented opportunities for planning and catchment management

Nature conservation, pine plantation forestry, and water supply are three major uses that co-exist in the fire-ravaged Cotter catchment. Each use is managed by a different ACT Government agency.

Apart from the impact on stream water quality, aquatic habitat and the water supply dams, the fires have revealed a need for concerted whole-of-catchment planning and management. All relevant values should be addressed, including nature conservation values, aquatic habitat values and water catchment values, as well as extreme event scenarios—particularly in the water supply catchment. Revenue raised from higher water charges would ideally be applied to integrated management of the water supply catchments.

Indeed, different catchments have to be managed for their different functions, but always with the objective of minimising any adverse effects of landuse activities on the water quality of streams, rivers and lakes.

Regeneration of native vegetation has already commenced and much of the affected area is expected to recover in time. There is now a significant opportunity to learn about the processes of regeneration in natural systems, particularly over the long term. Programs that run for at least 30 years are recommended. They should use regional vegetation classifications so the changing condition of ecological communities in the ACT can be reported in the context of the communities in the relevant biogeographic regions of the Australian Capital Region.

Not all the pine forests are to be replanted. Some of the land may be used for housing, but the extent of the ACT pine plantation estate to remain has not been determined. Elsewhere in the fire-affected areas, grazing and other rural landuses were affected. The fires prompted the landuse study Shaping our Territory to address a range of possibilities for restoration and rehabilitation of non-urban lands.

Reducing the bushfire risk to urban settlements is a key consideration. Yet the 'Bush Capital' heritage dictates that biodiversity conservation remains integral to all proposed landuse changes, post-fire recovery programs and fire prevention programs.


Weed control could benefit from innovation

Weeds remain a pressure on both biodiversity and agriculture in the ACT. This is despite cooperative Government, landholder and community group efforts, the Weed Management Strategy, annual implementation plans, target weed management plans, and some significant control activities. They are identified as threats in action plans for threatened species and ecological communities.

That threat was increased by the drought and fires of this reporting period. The effectiveness of post-fire management of weeds will be discussed in the next State of the Environment Report. In the meantime, an opportunity has emerged for exploration of pest plant control programs that focus on outcomes for both biodiversity conservation and land management objectives. That opportunity must be taken.


Lowland woodland conservation is a high priority

The creation of the 'Bush Capital' has come at a significant price to native grasslands and lowland woodland communities. Yet what remains of these in the ACT is typically of better quality and in larger stands than that in nearby New South Wales where the loss has been much greater as a result of clearing for European settlement.

Successive State of the Environment reports have expressed concern about the threat from urban development to lowland woodland communities and species. As long as the ACT maintains a strong economic dependence on the sale and development of land, that concern continues.

One of the good moves by the ACT Government in this reporting period was to develop a more strategic and integrated approach towards the woodland management through the Draft Lowland Woodland Conservation Strategy. Along with other woodlands, the endangered Yellow Box–Red Gum Grassy Woodland is habitat for eight threatened species and other woodland species that are described as 'declining'.

The ACT Government has stated its aim to protect the endangered community and threatened species in perpetuity but will not prohibit clearing or modification of all remaining woodlands, or even all remaining endangered woodlands. We still believe more should be done but, as a minimum, the strategic actions identified in the draft Strategy to maximise their protection and the protection of their species must be implemented, and ongoing management appropriately resourced.


The ACT remains a great place to live

In many respects the ACT remained a great place to live during the 2000–03 reporting period, despite some of the negatives. Canberra residents enjoy being able to move around Canberra easily; they like the green and open spaces of Canberra. It's a bush capital, a 'city in the country'. It has fresh unpolluted air; it's quiet and peaceful (though some thought it too quiet!). It's neat and tidy; has better schools, less traffic congestion, is well planned and well laid out and is safe for children. People like Canberra's four distinct seasons 2 .

The large areas of national park and recreation areas in and around Canberra that give the Territory a unique bush setting are appreciated now more than ever, since so much of it has changed with the fires. It will be important to protect those values even though there is also a need to protect urban areas from such severe bushfires.

The presence of many national institutions—Parliament House, the War Memorial, the National Museum, the National Gallery, the National Botanic Gardens, National Archives, the National Library—creates a sense of place not found anywhere else in Australia. These institutions give the locals and visitors access to a diverse range of events and things to do.

Efficient and effective infrastructure contributes significantly, albeit inconspicuously, to the living conditions of the ACT. It was once the envy of the rest of Australia.

Energy, water supply and sewerage infrastructure in the ACT were still generally in good condition and well-managed during the reporting period. However, higher maintenance costs associated with ageing assets are anticipated. New and improved asset management systems are in place for transport and stormwater infrastructure, but maintenance of these assets continues to be under-funded.


The ACT's relative wealth masks the plight of the disadvantaged

Many Canberrans are better off than an 'average' Australian, with higher standards of income, health, and education. There are, however, inequities and challenges that were exposed in a number of reports in this reporting period.

Children, young adults, the aged and the homeless, and people living with disabilities, mental illness or drug addiction are among vulnerable groups struggling to have needs met by the health and social support services.

Major concerns also included the marked decline in home loan affordability and in the availability of affordable rental housing. Aboriginal people continued to experience poorer health and shorter life expectancy compared with the rest of the population.

In general, availability of health services continued to decline in this period, with fewer general practitioners and, more particularly, fewer general practitioners who continue to bulk-bill. Public hospital beds for acute care were also less available.

If these concerns are not effectively addressed, there is a danger that they will exacerbate the prevalence and extent of disadvantage within the ACT.

A good investment in the future will also be to provide appropriate employment opportunities such as knowledge-based industries, particularly to keep young people in the ACT.


A greater commitment to obtaining and maintaining relevant datasets is needed

The lack or, in some cases, inadequacy of basic environmental datasets is an ongoing challenge for State of the Environment reporting, and it must be adversely affecting the functioning of Government.

After ten years, it is still not possible to report fully on the State of the Environment in the ACT with confidence, though some improvements have been made during that time. The ACT now shares with New South Wales a regional classification of ecological communities. Data on the extent and density of pest plants and animals are still not able to be provided in a way that allows assessment of their impacts—ecologically, economically and socially.

Land quality data—particularly relating to erosion and riparian condition—have become available, partly as a result of the dramatic impacts of the bushfires. The reports and analyses must be converted into spatial datasets that are available as benchmarks for future comparison.

Other data on soil condition, such as the potential for, or extent of, dryland salinity, sodicity and acidity are still not available, but they are the subject of a proposed study using Natural Heritage Trust funding. These data should be available during the next reporting period; however, the supporting research must continue beyond the Commonwealth funding.

Comprehensive and coordinated spatial data on actual landuse do not exist in ACT agencies. Progressively, State of the Environment reports have attempted to establish this information because of its importance in assessing what changes are taking place on the ground, and what their impacts might be.

Through liaison with this Office, better methods for assessing community participation—a key measure of community wellbeing—are needed. Also needed is an improved method for assessing the condition of heritage and the pressures on it.

A number of other key datasets are also missing or incomplete:

  • the sources of electricity that is consumed and who consumed it, as well as transport-related energy consumption (petrol, diesel); such information was available when State of the Environment reporting commenced in 1994
  • the total water resource and water demand management are more indicative than certain; the available information on groundwater quality is not available in accessible datasets
  • more definitive, catchment-based data on groundwater resources are also required
  • monitoring of air quality is limited to two locations in Canberra—in Tuggeranong (Monash) and Civic.

It is expected that air quality monitoring will improve with the introduction of mobile monitoring units, pledged for purchase in 2004–05. These units can also be used for internal air quality monitoring—another key aspect of the environment for which no data exist.

For both the 1997 and 2000 State of the Environment Reports electricity consumption was not revealed for ‘commercial-in-confidence’ reasons. That has now changed (which is good), and annual consumption of both electricity and gas are available through the Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission.

Resource use

The community's use of essential natural resources is increasing

Some of the great things about living in the ACT are a direct result of increasing use of natural resources. This is true, for example, of the ease of moving around. Canberrans remain attached to using private motor vehicles.

While the amount of fossil fuel used is unknown, estimates based on total distances travelled (as vehicle kilometres) suggest that fuel use continues to increase. As a result, emissions of Greenhouse gases continue to increase.

Also of concern is the continued increase in residential energy consumption, even though design standards have improved and energy-rating requirements have been introduced for new structures and some household equipment. Lifestyle choices are seen as major contributing factors, such as an increasing use of household appliances like air conditioners, central heating and dishwashers.

This is by no means restricted to the ACT, nor is the trend for bigger houses and fewer occupants per household. Planning controls and the cost of land and construction continued to restrict house blocks to smaller sizes than those developed before the 1990s, but overall, the push continues for more 'new' land to be developed for housing, and consequently, more native vegetation—typically woodlands and grasslands—to be modified or cleared.

The ACT Government must lead by example in all areas of responsibility, such as in its choice and use of fleet vehicles. Also, recommendations in the ACT Greenhouse Strategy: 2002 Review of performance and options for the futureand recommendations in the Sustainable Transport Plan must be implemented.

However, the bottom line is that unless all the population is influenced, and not just Government, there is little chance of achieving environmental and sustainability targets such as reduced per capita energy and water use, reduced waste, and so on. It becomes more obvious with time, but the necessary advances are just not happening.

Waste generation is a good example. Canberrans must accept responsibility as a community to reduce the amount of waste generated.

The news is good in terms of recycling—more material is now recycled than goes to landfill. That deserves a pat on the back for the community, and for Government for pursuing the No Waste by 2010 Strategy (to landfill). Nevertheless, the commercial sector has not responded to the call to reduce waste, and sadly the amount of domestic waste generated dropped only slightly in this reporting period.

In one respect, however, the community has responded to the call for help in reducing resource use. The drought and subsequently the impacts of the fires created a water crisis from late 2002. The result was reduction in water use (both total and per person) as the ACT population responded firstly to voluntary, then to mandatory, restrictions.

Not all the population shared the same enthusiasm, and some resorted to tapping (legally) into the groundwater resource for domestic purposes, rather than change their water use. Despite limited data, there is evidence that four water management units (Fyshwick, Jerrabomberra, Woden and Woolshed) exceeded the acceptable limit of 70% of sustainable groundwater yield in the reporting period.

Innovative actions from both Government and the private sector are needed in relation to the use of many resources. A number of Government policy documents include resource use minimisation objectives against which the effectiveness of innovations could be monitored.


Sustainability is some way off

Despite all the positives, the ACT community can’t claim it is, or is becoming, sustainable. The main problem is that it is currently not possible to quantitatively assess the sustainability of the ACT. Some essential datasets are not available for existing indicators of sustainability, and other indicators do not even exist.

A good example of the latter is the failure of any set of indicators in the world to account for the positive contribution of cities like Canberra to research and policy development on behalf of the nation. Canberra is like no other city in Australia. It was established as the national seat of Government. Its role and economy are, of necessity, different.

As a major employer of Canberrans, the Commonwealth Government continues to make a significant contribution to the ACT's economy, but its contribution to the nation has no reliable and reproducible measure. The universities and national research institutions that have been attracted to Canberra as the national capital also have far-reaching beneficial impacts.

While these positives go some way towards balancing resource flow, the ACT is (by design) dependent on others for most of its resources. Food and fibre are sourced from outside the ACT.

The National Headline Sustainability Indicators need to be supplemented if account is to be taken of the environmental impacts of the production and transport of these goods.

There is an urgent need to address these assessment deficiencies.


Commissioner's recommendations
Recommendation Relevant issue
2003.1 use mobile air quality monitoring to measure and record air quality at busy intersections, near known point sources, and in other parts of Canberra that may be susceptible to high levels of airborne particles and other pollutants Air Quality
2003.2 examine how indoor air quality may be monitored in the ACT Air Quality
2003.3 promote and provide incentives for the use of low-emission vehicles by Government agencies Air Quality
2003.4 immediately develop and resource long-term research and monitoring programs of at least 30 years duration into post-fire recovery of terrestrial and aquatic components of natural and modified Conserving Biodiversity ecosystems as part of a joint program with other research providers in States affected by fire Catchment Quality
2003.5 seek funding for the long-term research in recommendation 2003.4 from the Commonwealth Government on the basis of the National Research Priority 'an environmentally sustainable Australia', announced in December 2002 Catchment Quality , Conserving Biodiversity
2003.6 implement an appropriate post-fire works and management program to protect water supply catchment, aquatic habitat and nature conservation values of the upper Cotter River, Murrumbidgee and Molonglo River valleys, and their tributaries Catchment Quality , Conserving Biodiversity
2003.7 assess the contributions of existing ACT Government pest plant control programs to achieving pest plant control, biodiversity conservation, and catchment management objectives and, if appropriate, trial alternative programs Catchment Quality , Conserving Biodiversity
2003.8 undertake a catchment-by-catchment hydrological study of groundwater systems to assess water quality and quantity and its connectivity, spatial distribution and temporal variability Catchment Quality , Resource Use
2003.9 extend existing policy and management plans to include extreme event scenarios Catchment Quality
2003.10 adopt the six recommendations in the ACT Greenhouse Strategy: 2002 Review of performance and options for the future , released in March 2003 Climate and Greenhouse
2003.11 put in place a reliable system for long-term uninterrupted weather monitoring in the ACT’s water supply catchments Climate and Greenhouse
2003.12 ensure lower income groups have access to appropriate affordable housing Community Wellbeing
2003.13 implement programs aimed at reducing gaps in health outcomes for Aboriginal people Community Wellbeing
2003.14 assist support services and facilities to keep pace with the increasing demands of an ageing population Community Wellbeing
2003.15 increase professional development and employment opportunities for the young and disadvantaged Community Wellbeing
2003.16 improve access to support services and provide dedicated acute care, day and long-stay accommodation for children and adolescents with a mental illness Community Wellbeing
2003.17 implement the Sustainable Transport Plan ‘principles for managing change’ in the Draft Canberra Spatial Plan and manage parking to assist in achieving sustainable transport outcomes Community Wellbeing
2003.18 develop data records for Community Participation and Heritage that meet needs for reporting purposes, including State of the Environment and State of Heritage reports Community Wellbeing
2003.19 ensure that biodiversity conservation is always integral to ACT Government planning and management of landuse changes, post-fire recovery programs, and fire prevention programs such as fuel hazard reduction programs, expansion and management of the fire-trail network, creation of fire protection zones Conserving Biodiversity
2003.20 provide appropriate resources and support for improving the comprehensive, adequate and representative system of protected lowland woodland and grasslands in the ACT as outlined in the Draft Lowland Woodland Conservation Strategy (as detailed in the priority tasks of Table 6.2 of the Strategy), and for ongoing management of these ecosystems Conserving Biodiversity
2003.21 stimulate and reward innovations to minimise resource use identified in outcomes in The Draft Canberra Spatial Plan , The Economic White Paper , the ACT Greenhouse Strategy: 2002 Review of performance and options for the future , the No Waste by 2010 Strategy and Think water, act water Resource Use
2003.22 under section 158A of the Environment Protection Act 1997 , report on the effectiveness of innovations implemented as a result of recommendation 2003.21 Resource Use
2003.23 identify and implement those water use and efficiency initiatives which will yield the greatest environmental, social and economic benefits Resource Use
2003.24 apply the revenue raised through the water abstraction charge directly to catchment management and water efficiency programs Resource Use
2003.25 provide sufficient funding to achieve asset management standards for existing infrastructure; and ensure new infrastructure supports sustainable resource use Resource Use

End Notes
Estimated from average annual input data
Your Canberra Your Say , ACT Planning and Land Authority, 2002

living sustainably

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