21 Water governance in Queensland 221 Queensland Government to restart the designation process, Cubbie Station sought a declaration from the Supreme Court that its unlicensed works were ‘authorised’ by the Water Resources Act 1989 (Re Stevenson Finance Corporation (1994)). The Department resisted the declaration because it was concerned that if the works were declared ‘authorised’, then they would remain lawful, even if the area was successfully designated. Both parties agreed that the works in question were not then licensed, and did not require a licence under the 1989 Act. The Supreme Court refused Cubbie’s application, but granted a narrower order that the unlicensed works did not contravene the law. While litigation was proceeding for the first and second matters, Cubbie applied for and was granted a licence to build a large dam between 4.6 and 8 m high to hold ~100 000 ML of water (Fig. 21.2). At that time, a moratorium existed for licences on taking water from the Balonne river system, but it did not apply to such dams, away from the watercourse. Nearby graziers appealed the grant of a licence to the Land Court, and this was granted on the basis that the Chief Executive under the Water Resources Act 1989 was required to hold an inquiry into environmental issues and floodplain flows before granting the licence, and this had not occurred. Stevenson, the applicant for the dam licence, filed an application under the Judicial Review Act 1991 to quash the decision of Judge Wenck of the Land Court. Stevenson’s argument followed the Department’s own argument in the Land Court: that the Chief Executive had wide powers to look into matters as he or she thought fit, and there was no express duty to consider environmental issues nor was a public enquiry needed. Decisions at both the Supreme Court, and later the Court of Appeal, did not accept this: Stevenson v Wenck (1995). Essentially, the courts ruled that the Department had not carried out its duty to hold an inquiry into the availability and sufficiency of water, before issuing Cubbie a licence for a referable dam. This was a pyrrhic victory for objectors. Cubbie went on to build a 4.5 m dam, so that it would not fall within the height restriction for a referable dam (Tan 2000). These landmark cases show a chequered departmental record on environmental protection. Several other factors escalated water use, including property sales, subsequent activation of ‘sleeper’ licences, subdivision of land resulting in splitting of licences and an increase in use, and inadequate pricing of water. The growth in consumptive use of water in the Lower Balonne area had significant adverse environmental impacts. It was estimated that the average period between floods and volume, reaching the nationally important Narran Lakes, an internationally listed wetland under the Ramsar Convention, had respectively increased and decreased by 24%, significantly reducing optimal waterbird breeding and feeding habitat by more than 50% (CSIRO 2008). Significant ecological damage to floodplains, downstream natural assets and landholders dependent on flooding are increasingly occurring (Brandis et al. 2011). With hindsight, the administration of water by the Department was not transparent. It had difficulty regulating and protecting floodplain ecosystems and services because the legislation did not support relevant regulations. Powerful commercial interests (i.e. the irrigation industry) resorted to litigation to delay or overturn reforms that were against their interests. The present Queensland water planning framework was designed to redress many of these matters (see Table 21.1). Control of water use in the Lower Balonne was effectively introduced in the 2000–04 period, through the finalisation of the Water Resource (Condamine
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