NSW State of the Environment 2012


New South Wales State of the Environment 2012 covers 22 different environmental issues across five chapters with data and information that addresses 86 indicators. In SoE 2012, 20 indicators are rated as good, 49 are rated as fair, 14 are rated as poor and the condition of three indicators is classed as unknown due to a lack of available information to inform an assessment.

The summaries for each chapter below outline key issues and trends over the last three years.

1. People and the Environment

This first SoE chapter provides the broad context for environmental issues in NSW and discusses some of the key drivers that can affect the state of the environment.

The NSW population was estimated to be 7.21 million in June 2011 and is projected to grow to 9.1 million people by 2031. On current trends, 40% of this growth is expected to come from migration. Natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) has been steadily increasing its contribution to population growth since 2003–04, reaching 46,311 in 2009–10, the highest level in two decades. Most growth will be centred in Sydney, with other coastal urban areas experiencing modest growth and some parts of the far west a small population decline.

Increasing population density can create environmental challenges. Noise in particular is a persistent problem with a 39% increase in noise complaints to Environment Line in 2010–11 compared with 2007–08. A number of large-scale studies have linked the community's exposure to environmental noise with adverse health effects.

Overall household spending in NSW increased by more than 82% over the last 20 years. Environmental impacts associated with a growth in consumption are being offset in part by greater energy efficiency and waste recycling initiatives and NSW should continue to ensure that its environment and natural resources are not negatively affected. Approximately 59% of all waste produced in NSW was recycled in 2008–09 and the use of renewable sources of energy doubled in the two years to 2009–10. Overall electricity demand per household has declined to 2000–01 levels, demonstrating the effect of both cost increases and environmental concerns on the community at large.

More than any other factor, the production of energy has been identified as the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases in NSW: over 40% of NSW emissions were the result of electricity production in 2009–10. While per capita emissions in NSW are decreasing and were below the Australian average in 2009–10, the country's emissions are still increasing overall and are now higher than many other developed economies. Transport is the third-largest producer of greenhouse emissions in NSW – just behind the industrial sector, but growing.

Private vehicle ownership now exceeds 1.5 vehicles per household even though the total number of kilometres travelled by car has declined in recent years. Some changes in transport choice were evident in the decade to 2009–10. During this time, the proportion of public transport use increased for commuting to work and work-related trips, but fell for all other purposes: commuting by public transport was up 3.4% while that by car fell 4.4% over the same period. Freight transport in NSW remains overwhelmingly road-based and is expected to continue to increase by over 16% in the 10 years to 2018–19.

One of the greatest challenges facing NSW is continued reliable access to water. Ensuring a secure, sustainable and equitable water supply for people, agriculture, industries and the environment is important. Urban water for NSW cities and regional centres meets the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines nearly 100% of the time. With ongoing schemes to reduce its use, such as NABERS, water recycling and Water Wise Rules, water consumption has decreased throughout the state. In Sydney, it stood at 303 litres per person per day in 2010–11, down from 343 litres in 2004–05.

Responding to the new and increasing environmental challenges presented by a growing NSW economy will require improved understanding of how the economy and the environment interact. This will be supported by the use of appropriate evaluation methods to assess environmental policies and investment decisions, as well as innovative market-based instruments to manage pollution. It is important that new technologies and land-management practices are developed and refined so that the increasing consumption of energy, water and land does not have a negative impact on the state's environment and natural resources. This is a clear imperative in current patterns of energy use, which rely largely on high greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.

It is now clear that community opinions are essential in achieving positive environmental outcomes. Public concern around environmental issues has translated into both direct and indirect actions by individuals and local groups to achieve real reductions in waste and energy use. Social research has underpinned a range of practical government-funded education and engagement programs to help communities adopt sustainable behaviours and learn about local environment protection. These programs support business, government and non-government agencies to use innovative strategies that save costs in energy, water and waste management and engage their staff to use resources more efficiently.

Aboriginal culture and heritage are linked closely with the natural environment and the traditions and assets it contains, both tangible and intangible. The strong relationship between Aboriginal people and their lands makes culturally appropriate management of Country and its resources a critical part of protecting Aboriginal cultural values. Joint management of NSW public land with Aboriginal groups has proved effective with over 1.6 million hectares now managed this way. The NSW Government is currently reviewing Aboriginal heritage legislation to improve the protection and management it affords and is consulting widely with Aboriginal communities, government agencies and key stakeholders.

2. Atmosphere

Air quality in NSW has improved since the 1980s with full compliance with national air quality standards for four of the six major 'criteria' air pollutants: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and lead. However the national standards continue to be exceeded in some regions for the two other pollutants: ground-level ozone and particle pollution.

Ground-level ozone (a key component of photochemical smog which appears as white haze in summer) remains an issue for Sydney, with concentrations generally continuing to exceed national air quality standards on up to 16 days a year between 2009 and 2011. Particle pollution (appearing as brown haze) has recently exceeded the standards on up to 18 days a year across Sydney and up to 21 days a year in some regional areas. Bushfires and dust storms are major causes of these exceedences, along with stubble burning, coal mine dust, and woodheaters in regional areas.

Controlling pollution has improved, with low concentrations of a number of the most common dangerous air pollutants (such as ammonia, carbon monoxide, lead and sulfur dioxide): since the early 1990s emissions of these and other pollutants (such as oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds) have fallen by 20–40% across the Sydney region.

Levels of air toxics are generally low and stable, with periodic assessment required to verify that all remain at acceptable levels.

Air quality indoors can be worse than it is outside and may pose health risks in many enclosed environments. Investigations into the impacts of indoor air quality on health are continuing.

3. Land

Healthy soils are necessary for both landscape health and to provide the basis for the productive capacity of the land. While soil resources across NSW are in fair condition overall, significant specific issues of land degradation remain: 74% of 124 priority soil monitoring units examined were rated as poor or very poor for at least one degradation hazard.

Across NSW, gully and sheet erosion have been found to be the least problematic of the soil health indicators, while decreasing organic carbon and soil structure decline present the greatest challenges. Potential acid sulfate soils are also a long-term management issue in some coastal areas.

Mapping of land and soil capability across NSW has been combined with land-use maps for the first time to show the capability of the state's soil resources and the land-use pressures on those soils. Current land management practices are broadly sustainable and the greater use of conservation farming is helping to counteract the pressures on soil resources from an intensification of agriculture to meet the needs of growing populations. These land management practices generally lead to only a moderate risk of degradation but this varies across soil health indicators and catchment management areas.

Contamination of land, food and produce can occur through the use of chemicals either directly or as a by-product of manufacture. Contamination rates in food and produce is low and stable, while the pace of remediation of industrially contaminated land has increased. In contrast, the presence of hazardous chemicals in consumer products has been identified as an emerging issue.

4. Water

With the breaking of the drought in 2010–11, substantial rains across NSW brought widespread flooding in many river valleys and the filling and spilling of most major storages for the first time in a decade. Water sharing plans are now balancing access to the water available for water users while maintaining the health of river systems. Sixty-three water sharing plans have been introduced progressively since 2004, covering 95% of water use in NSW. Significantly increased amounts of environmental water have been delivered to priority aquatic ecosystems to improve the health of rivers and wetlands: an annual average of about 1 million megalitres over the past two years.

Since 2009, improved flows in most inland and coastal rivers have eased some of the stresses experienced by the systems during the prolonged drought and enhanced the productivity of aquatic ecosystems. While the condition of macroinvertebrate communities has shown some improvement, fish communities have been slower to respond. The majority of inland rivers are still affected by the ongoing pressures of water extraction and altered flow regimes and the overall river health ratings have largely remained poor, although the algal blooms of previous years have dissipated with increased flows. Coastal rivers are less affected by these pressures and, while they have not been fully assessed, are likely to be in better health overall.

The condition of wetlands has improved markedly since 2009 also due to increased rainfall and water availability and higher river flows. The area of inundated wetlands has expanded dramatically with most inland floodplain wetlands currently undergoing a cycle of enhanced productivity in wetland vegetation and waterbird breeding not experienced for over 10 years. This recent boom contrasts with the more general pattern found in long-term surveys of a decline in the extent and productivity of inland wetlands due to the effects of water extraction and altered flow regimes. Habitat degradation as the result of changes in catchment land use, clearing and modified drainage patterns are other significant pressures on wetland health. Since 2009, the area of inland wetlands protected within the terrestrial reserve system has more than doubled to 7%, while 19% of coastal wetlands are also protected.

Demand for assigned groundwater resources in NSW has eased significantly over the past three years as more surface water has become available following the widespread rains. Groundwater levels have risen in most areas in response to the higher rainfall, enabling aquifers to recharge and usage levels to drop. While extraction from some groundwater sources has been above the long-term sustainable yield in the recent past, use is now being managed to align with the sustainable yield through the implementation of 34 groundwater sharing plans. These plans will be extended to cover all groundwater sources in the Murray–Darling Basin by the end of 2012.

The overall health of the NSW marine environment and ecosystems is generally considered to be good. Recreational water quality at NSW beaches is also good and has improved over the past 10 years, though quality is lower in enclosed waters and estuaries where localised contamination from stormwater runoff still occurs after heavy rains. The survival of some species in coastal water is also under threat, particularly seabirds and some larger aquatic mammals and fish. The main pressures on marine species include destruction of vital habitats, overfishing, entanglement in disused fishing gear, chemical contamination and refuse, such as plastic bags and ring pulls.

The condition of estuaries and coastal lakes in NSW varies greatly, from near-pristine to highly disturbed. Condition generally reflects the level of disturbance in the catchment and the degree of flushing of the water body. Disturbance of estuary catchments and waterways results in habitat modification and changes in stormwater flows and runoff characteristics, increasing the loads of sediments and nutrients which can affect estuarine water quality and ecosystem health. Population growth and coastal development continue to put pressure on estuaries and coastal lakes and it is anticipated that these pressures will intensify along the NSW coast in the future.

5. Biodiversity

Native species remain under threat due to the clearing of vegetation, habitat degradation and invasive species. Over longer time frames, birds have been more resilient than other vertebrate groups, having experienced the lowest proportion of declines in distribution, while mammals have experienced the highest as well as the greatest number of extinctions.

Since 2009, 35 additional species have been listed as threatened under NSW legislation and the number of listed populations and ecological communities has also increased. While a general pattern of decline is evident, many species have maintained their levels of distribution. Sixty-six per cent of terrestrial vertebrate species are not considered to be threatened.

The current condition and extent of native vegetation is considered to be fair. Land clearing is recognised as the greatest threat to native vegetation but clearing levels have stabilised over the past six years and the total extent of woody vegetation appears to have remained stable since 2003. Changes in the condition of vegetation are much harder to monitor than the effects of clearing. While 61% of NSW is still covered by naturally occurring vegetation, only 9% of this is in relatively natural condition and condition has deteriorated significantly in the remainder. Many revegetation and restoration activities are occurring regionally and the condition of vegetation is expected to improve as the results of these activities take effect.

The area of terrestrial reserves has increased by 5.7% since 2009, with significant additions to previously under-represented terrestrial areas. An increased focus on conservation on private land is facilitating greater involvement by landowners in private land conservation, providing improved connectivity across landscapes. Conservation on private and other (non-reserve) public lands complements the public reserve system by protecting a greater range of values. The extent of marine protected areas remains unchanged since 2009, covering 34% of NSW waters and managed under multiple-use zoning plans.

Widespread invasive species, including foxes, feral cats, rabbits, goats, carp and an increasing number of weeds, are a major threat to the survival of many native species. Deer are expanding their range and impacts, and fungal diseases, such as chytrid fungus and myrtle rust, are newly developing threats. Over half the listed key threatening processes in NSW relate to invasive species, while pests and weeds have been identified as a threat to more than 70% of the state's threatened species. Once established, there is little prospect of eradicating invasive species and broadscale control is rarely effective. Controls are therefore targeted to areas where the benefits will be greatest and on preventing the introduction and spread of new species.

Fire plays an important role in maintaining the health of many natural ecosystems, but at the same time altered fire regimes constitute a significant threat to the structure and function of ecosystems. The incidence and extent of fires vary from year to year and are strongly related to adverse weather conditions. The levels of hazard reduction burning and remote area fire suppression across NSW have risen sharply over the past three years as new fire management techniques are implemented.