Background to 1998 Fitzroy River Expedition

On 14 February, 1998 at the height of the Wet Season, a group of twelve (15) Aboriginal and other Australians set off in a groups of canoes to travel almost 300 kilometres down Western Australia's largest stream, the Fitzroy River, to highlight the outstanding natural and cultural significance of one of Australia's greatest wild rivers. It repeated an epic journey first undertaken from Mt Barnett Station to Fitzroy Crossing by Expedition Leader, Joe Ross, (Willigan) in 1988. Joe Ross is also Chairman of the Kimberley Aboriginal Tourist Association.

The mighty Fitzroy River, known to Aborigines as Bandrarl Ngadu, drains most of the Kimberley region and annually delivers more than 5,000 million cubic metres of water to the Indian Ocean . This river is an artery carrying the lifeblood of the Kimberley and is close to the heart of many Aborigines of this region, playing a most important role in their cultural life.

The Fitzroy River basin is a vast normally semi-arid country but during the summer monsoon from February to April the river can rise to dramatic heights as the large catchment with a very high run-off is deluged by more than 80% of its annual quota of rain (680 mm mean average rainfall). A plethora of tributaries rise in the Kimberley Plateau in the north west and the Durack Range in the east rushing with great velocity for over 300 kilometres until it passes through Fitzroy Crossing. The river squeezes through two large and spectacular gorges. It cuts through the rugged 1830 million year old sandstone of the King Leopold Range to form the Dimond Gorge, (Jidjid ghia) now being proposed as the site of the major dam on this wild and so-far untamed river. About another 100 kilometres downstream it passes through the 500 million old Devonian limestone reef of the Oscar Range at Giekie Gorge (Danggu). Both gorges are very important cultural sites for Bunuba people.

From Gieke Gorge the Fitzroy River slowly meanders south to the edge of the Great Sandy Desert before turning west to empty itself into a vast muddy delta in King Sound near Derby. Most of the country drained by the Fitzroy River was part of an old sub-continent which collided with the Australian continent about 1830 million years ago. The landscape has been barely modified by modern civilization. There are few roads in its catchment and apart from Fitzroy Crossing the only bridge across the river occurs over 200 kilometres downstream at Willare.

The other great river of the Kimberley, the Ord, is much smaller than the Fitzroy. The Ord River though has already been vastly modified with Lake Argyle to feed the Ord Irrigation scheme which has been operational for more than 30 years. However, even now water use in the Ord which is much closer to a seaport is well below the supply capacity. Yet even now plans are afoot to "open up" the Kimberley by drowning its heart. It is estimated that it would take five years (based on average flow data) to fill the dam proposed for Jidjid ghia (Dimond Gorge) alone.

The Proposals

The Western Australian Government has invited Western Agricultural Industries Pty Ltd (WAI) its preferred proponent to carry out feasibility studies for an irrigation scheme which will dam the Fitzroy as well as two major tributaries,the Durack and Margaret Rivers . The plan envisages diverting the impounded water into the desert area to the south where it would be principally used to grow irrigated cotton. Such a scheme will change forever the fabric of life as it now exists within the Fitzroy River Basin.

WAI is a joint venture between Kimberley Agricultural Industries Pty Ltd (KAI) and Queensland Cotton Holdings. Spokesman for the joint venture is Mr John Logan, Managing Director of KAI, who has indicated that the final area of Kimberley land under cotton could be 175,000 hectares about a quarter of the size of Australia's existing cotton industry.

The feasibility scheme will ascertain the amount of sustainable ground water as well as crop trials using the latest technologies and "a long term environmental management strategy."

The Social Impacts

The whole of the Kimberley region with an area of 421,451 square kilometres had a population in 1995 of less than 25,000. The projected population in 2010 is estimated at 38,000. More than 40% of the Aboriginal population live outside the towns in communities of 80 or more persons. The Kimberley Land Council and the Bunuba Association have already publicly indicated their strongest opposition to the proposal.

The fabric of Aboriginal society has been severely dislocated since the first non-Aboriginal contacts a little more than a century ago. Although the impact of early white settlers were violently resisted by Jandamarra and other Bunuba people they were overwhelmed. The impact of the pastoralists occupying land, the miners rushing to Halls Creek gold and more recently the forced relocation of thousands of Aborigines who had previously resided on pastoral leases are only some of the major social impacts on Aboriginal life and culture. The Fitzroy Crossing community is just now recovering from the impact of the post 1968 influx of dispossessed residents of outlying pastoral properties.

Most Aborigines of the region do not welcome the further social impact which would inevitably follow if the proposed irrigation scheme using water from the Fitzroy River occurred.

Residents of Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia would have to bear the impacts of the enormous social disruption while itinerant construction workers invade their community. The community would also suffer the impact of seeing the dramatic changes to many of the icons of their life. All are sites of special cultural significance especially to the Bunuba people to whom these are traditional lands. They are one of the seven Aboriginal language groups affected by the proposal, most of whom use Fitzroy Crossing as their main centre.

* Dams would drown important sacred sites of great cultural significance to the Bunuba;

* The character of the Fitzroy River would change from that known and familiar for countless generations;

* The influx of migrant workers during the construction phase would be quite disrupting to community life;

* The changing economic character of the community resulting from the new agricultural industries although the cotton field are remote (250 km) from Fitzroy Crossing;

* The landscape would be irrevocably altered by a new and different land-uses;

* New and alien practices such as the intensive use of dangerous agricultural chemicals will increase the health risk to the community;

* The infrastructure including canals and cut across the countryside through much Aboriginal land with Aborigines powerless to prevent such unwanted intrusions;

* The culture which is now being consolidated again after so many upheavals, particularly the eviction of so many Aborigines from pastoral properties, would be again severely disturbed by this intense combination of new factors.

The feasibility study is supposed to ensure that environmental, native title and local heritage considerations are adequately addressed. However, Aboriginal bodies see this as addressing possible legal means of overcoming the deep felt Aboriginal opposition to the scheme which will both affect the 2,000 strong Aboriginal population of the Fitzroy River area as well as a number of Aboriginal owned grazing properties.

Summary of Environmental Impacts

So far, the Fitzroy River has remained wild and untamed. There are no bridges across it for its first 300 kilometres above Fitzroy Crossing and few roads even approach it. There is a little more modification downstream except for a bridge and a small weir at Willare. The environmental impacts are additional to the social impacts described above. In addition to the proposal for the dam on the Fitzroy River and a weir in the town, there are two supplementary dams proposed on two tributaries, the Margaret and the Leopold Rivers. This only addresses the main dam proposal.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has indicated strong environmental opposition to the scheme in an area which includes a significant area which should be inscribed on the World Heritage List.

Impacts upstream of Fitzroy Crossing:

* The wilderness values of much of the Fitzroy River would be irreversibly lost. Since ideentifying the loss of wilderness values as the major environmental impact of any dam, the Fitzroy River has been identified as Australia's greatest wild river.

* Land use above the dam may have to be modified as in the upper catchment of the Ord River to prevent the rapid siltation of the impoundments.

* The most precious landmark in the region, Geike Gorge, will be irreversibly changed in character and appearance as a result of not having annual floods flush it out and maintain the flood level scouring of the dramatic walls.

Direct dam site impacts:

* The areas subject to flooding by the dam contain riparian communities which are amongst the richest communities in the Kimberley biologically.

* There will be a great loss of landscape values including some of the Kimberley's most stunning gorge scenery and Aboriginal art.

Downstream impacts:

* King Sound and the marine life there including the aquaculture industry based there.

* The affects on the native flora and fauna dependent on the natural flows of the river below the dams including the Gieke Gorge National Park will be catastrophic. There may be an increased probability of algal blooms in the river.

* The impact of the infrastructure including a weir at Fitzroy Crossing, a 250 kilometres irrigation channel and other works needs to be fully evaluated.

* The impact of agriculture on the poor sandy soils will affect salinity and acidity as well as the hydrology.

* The inevitable increased use of agricultural chemicals is going to have further impacts.