Legal Mechanisms to Protect Great Artesian Basin Springs: Successes and Shortfalls

Pointon, R. K., and Rossini, R. A. (2020)


The community of native species dependent on natural discharge of groundwater from the Great Artesian Basin (GAB) has been listed as a threatened ecological community under Australia’s main environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act) since 2001. This paper introduces the ecological, cultural and legal context of spring management in Australia under the EPBC Act, and presents three ways that the community listing has advanced the conservation of GAB springs. First, listing provides heightened recognition and protection of the values of GAB spring communities. Second, it enables the protection of many species (the entire community) quickly. Third, it offers protection to a large, fragmented ecological community that would be difficult to protect solely by elements of the Australian protected area network, such as national parks and other types of national estate. The paper then highlights four complexities associated with the application of the EPBC Act to the management and conservation of GAB springs: the high level of discretion in decision making; data deficiencies that make it difficult to determine whether impacts are sufficiently “significant” to trigger assessment via an environmental impact statement (EIS); the flaws in offset management and mitigation measures; and the fact that community listings may not adequately protect individual species. A recent case study of the Doongmabulla Springs (central Queensland) illustrates how these legislative complexities were addressed under the requirements of the EPBC Act in relation to development of a major coal mine in their vicinity. The paper concludes with recommendations to enhance the capacity of the regulatory framework to conserve GAB spring species, communities and ecosystems.