Richmond catchment health grade map from the 2014 Ecohealth report.
Richmond catchment health grade map from the 2014 Ecohealth report. Jasmine Burke

The dramatic demise of the Richmond River: A timeline

IN THE past 30 years there have been at least 26 reports identifying the poor condition of the Richmond River and setting out plans to improve it - but the river system still has a D-grade rating and sits as one of the unhealthiest rivers in NSW.

June 1987: State Pollution Control Commission conducts extensive water quality surveys of all major rivers on the North Coast in response to increasing concern from the public and government organisations that pollution was having a detrimental impact on aquatic environments and fisheries resources. When compared with other northern rivers studied, the water quality of the Richmond Valley was found to be poor.

1992: The NSW State Rivers and Estuaries Policy is adopted, committing the NSW Government to reporting on the condition of each of the State's major river and estuary systems and the actions underway to halt degradation of these systems. A Report on the North Coast (Clarence, Richmond, Tweed and Brunswick Rivers) was not even proposed until 1997/98.

1995: A report on the Local and Regional impacts of acid sulphate soil runoff in the lower Richmond River catchment is prepared for the Department of Land and Water Conservation by scientists at Southern Cross University.

1996: The Richmond Catchment Management Strategy is released.

1997: The NSW Government releases a discussion paper, A Stressed Rivers Approach to the Management of Water Use in Unregulated Streams, which put forward a proposal aimed at addressing the problem of stressed rivers. The key outcome was to prioritise catchments for immediate action and to establish a consistent and transparent rationale for the future management of all rivers.

1999: NSW Government sets Water Quality Objectives (WQOs) and the River Flow Objectives (RFOs) for the Richmond River catchment. These are not regulatory or mandatory but "should be used to develop plans and actions affecting water quality and river health”. The WQOs set clear targets and trigger values for 11 criteria including aquatic ecosystem health, visual amenity, recreation and domestic, livestock and irrigation water supply. The RFOs set 6 clear goals:

  • Protect pools in dry times
  • Protect natural low flows
  • Maintain wetland and floodplain inundation
  • Maintain natural flow variability
  • Manage groundwater for ecosystems
  • Minimise effects of weirs and other structures

August 1999: The Richmond Catchment Stressed Rivers Assessment Report presents data which indicates high levels of stress from vegetation clearing, sugar cane cultivation, cattle grazing, dairy, beef and timber industries and increasing tourism.

2000: NSW adopts the Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council (ANZECC) guidelines for fresh and marine water quality to "provide government and the community - especially regulators, industry, consultants, community groups and catchment and water managers - with a framework for conserving ambient water quality in our rivers, lakes, estuaries and marine waters”. The guidelines set key water quality indicators and related numerical criteria (default trigger values) for pollutants which governments should be meeting.

February 2001: Following major flooding in the upper reaches of the Richmond catchment, a major fish kill occurs in the Richmond River due to extremely low dissolved oxygen levels in the rivers. As a response, NSW Fisheries closes the Richmond River and near shore areas to all forms of fishing for three weeks initially and then extends this closure for a further three months. Restricted fishing is permitted over subsequent months with closures finally lifted in September 2001. Fish kills of this scale had not been previously documented in Australia, with the exception of massive pilchard kills which occurred in the southern oceans in 1995 and 1998 due to a virus.

March 2002: The Australian Catchment, River and Estuary Assessment 2002 finds the Richmond River is in "extensively modified condition” and sets out options for improvement.

2002: The Richmond Regional Vegetation Committee releases a Draft Richmond Regional Vegetation management plan for the Department of Land and Water Conservation.

February 2003: The Upper North Coast Catchment Management Board releases the Catchment blueprint : integrated catchment management plan for the Upper North Coast catchment 2002. The blueprint is meant to be a 'whole of government' plan which has "been developed through a community/​government partnership” and will set "the direction for managing the native vegetation, biodiversity, water sources and soils in our catchments”.

March 2003: Final report of the independent inquiry into the North Coast rivers by the Healthy Rivers Commission is released and identifies that "a whole-of-government effort is fundamental to effective river management”. The report finds that although most of the North Coast rivers are in good condition the Richmond, Tweed and Brunswick rivers are in worse than average condition.

2004: Ballina Shire Council State of Environment Report identifies "pressures on the Richmond River Catchment from urbanisation, and economic and agricultural activities” which are anticipated to "escalate in future years”.

October 2005: NSW Government introduces Marine Water Quality Objectives (MWQOs) for NSW Ocean Waters which are similar to the 1999 WQOs and RFOs but directly relate to the coastal marine environment. The North Coast MWQOs recognise that the poor quality of the Richmond River catchment negatively affects marine water quality in the North Coast.

2006: WBM completes the Estuary Processes Study of the Richmond River estuary on behalf of the Richmond River County Council and the NSW Department of Natural Resources. As part of this the water quality data for over one hundred locations within the Richmond River catchment were collected and entered into a Water Quality Data Base. The study finds "environmental and human health values of the Richmond River estuary are currently being compromised”, the "loss of fisheries productivity in the estuary” and "poor water quality (particularly faecal coliform levels) in oyster harvest areas resulting in extended harvest closure periods”.

September 2006: The Northern Rivers Catchment Action Plan is launched by Northern Rivers CMA and sets a target to rehabilitate 60 per cent of stream lengths by 2016.

January 2008: A second major fish kill occurs after prolonged rainfall and extensive flooding throughout the Richmond River catchment. The quality of the river water deteriorated due to an increased load of sediment, debris and nutrients. Black water (when oxygen is stripped from the water) soon developed. The result is the death of millions of aquatic animals in the lower Richmond, including at least 2 million fish. Over 30 tonnes of dead fish are removed and a ban on fishing is put in place until fish populations recover.

2008: The Wilsons River Catchment Management Plan is launched by Rous Water.

2010: The Northern Rivers Regional Biodiversity Management Plan is launched by the Federal Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water NSW. It identifies the poor condition of river biodiversity across the Northern Rivers and develops a river restoration priority map.

June 2011: The Wilsons River Reach Plan for Lismore is prepared by Dr Kristin den Exter from SCU for Lismore City Council, the Wilsons River Landcare and the Northern Rivers Catchment Authority. It identifies major pollution run off, erosion, weed and land clearing issues which have degraded the river system. The plan proposes a series of targets and key funding opportunities to improve river health.

February 2012: The Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP) for the Richmond River Estuary is released as a 10-year plan to address management issues affecting the estuary. The estimated cost of implementing the Plan was around $16 million but implementation has been slow and the full funds have not been allocated.

November 2012: The North Rivers CMA's Regional State of the Environment 2012 report finds fish condition and river health in parts of the Richmond catchment are poor.

April 2013: The Northern Rivers Catchment Action Plan 2013- 2023 is launched by the North Coast LLS.

November 2013: The Fisheries Research and Development Coporation uses the Richmond River estuary as a pilot case study for its Revitalising Australia's Estuaries project. The study finds that there is a need to "greatly repair and extend the available habitat and therefore improve overall fishery productivity” in the Richmond catchment where "there is a much‐reduced professional fishing effort due to decline in estuary productivity.”

2014: The Ecohealth Report for the Richmond River grades the waterway's overall health at D-, or poor. While the overall grade was D- for the catchment, grades ranged from an F in the Wilsons River (the lowest rating possible) and upper Richmond estuary to a C in the headwater streams of the catchment. Twelve of the 17 river systems recorded a score of D or less.

November 2016: The North Coast State of the Environment Report highlights the poor quality of the Richmond River's health compared to other catchments on the North Coast.

March 2017: Another major fish kill and black water event occurs following extensive flooding.

August 2017: The New South Wales Marine Estate Threat and Risk Assessment Report finds that major impacts on the Richmond catchment are almost certain to occur from acid sulfate soils leaching and reducing pH and that agricultural runoff have the potential to have significant impacts on fishing in the Richmond catchment. The report identifies a range of risks to the Richmond River, one risk being the clearing riparian and adjacent habitat.

2018: The NSW Government's Marine Estate Management Strategy includes a case study on restoring the Richmond River which finds the catchment is "in worse ecological health than most estuaries in NSW.” It proposes a range of initiatives which have hardly any funding associated with them.



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