The Martuwarra Fitzroy River
THE MIGHTY MARTUWARRA
The Martuwarra Fitzroy River is one of the world's most pristine, free-flowing river systems. Stretching 733km from the East Kimberley to the coast at King Sound. It has been National Heritage-listed for its outstanding cultural values.
The Martuwarra supports a huge array of wildlife, including 18 species of fish found nowhere else in the world. It is a critical breeding ground and nursery for the critically endangered freshwater sawfish.
Life on the river is unpredictable. When it rains, floods bring wetlands to life and restore the river. Between floods the river often stops flowing and animals hang on in permanent pools fed by underground water. In some years there are big floods, in other years there is almost no rain.
All river species rely on the permanent pools as well as the floods. Species such as Barramundi and Cherabin are subsistence foods for local people, and an essential part of the renowned recreational fishing experience.
The Martuwarra flows out to the Kimberley Coast, the world’s most pristine tropical coastline. A healthy river is essential for a healthy coast.
Indigenous people have lived along the Martuwarra for tens of thousands of years and have a profound connection to its living waters. The National Heritage listing celebrates the cultural value of the 'River of Life', with its four joined but distinct traditions of the Rainbow Serpent.
A RIVER UNDER THREAT
Proposals to extract huge amounts of water from the Martuwarra for large-scale irrigation threaten to harm the future of this beautiful river and turn it into another Murray-Darling disaster.
Irrigation projects to take water from the Martuwarra Fitzroy River include 325 GL from Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Agriculture and 50 - 200 GL from the Harris family, who are Murray-Darling cotton farmers. More than is used by homes in Perth and the South West combined each year.
In 2020, the WA Government released the Draft Fitzroy River Water Discussion Paper which considered scenarios on whether to take 300 billion litres (300GL) from the Martuwarra each year for large-scale agriculture. Following the release of the paper, more than 43,000 Australians sent messages to government calling for the river to be protected and no water to be taken from the river.
If irrigation proposals are approved, water would be extracted from the Martuwarra and tributaries through pumps, channels, leaky weirs and stored in ring tanks and dams on the floodplains.
Multiple fish kills have occurred on the Martuwarra in the one location where pumping of between 1 and 2 GL of water for irrigation occurs. In 2018, 46 endangered sawfish died upstream from irrigation infrastructure on Liveringa Station. Imagine the toll when more than 300GL (300 billion) are taken?
Traditional Owners along the river have been working for more than two decades to protect the Martuwarra and its tributaries from dams and irrigation. In a historical move, Fitzroy Valley Traditional Owners formed the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council in 2018 in response to growing concerns over water extraction proposals from the River.
In 2021, 10 Traditional Owners from along the Martuwarra Fitzroy River shared their connection to the river and its surrounding country in a 10-part documentary series Voices of the River. The series shares the concerns Traditional Owners have for the Martuwarra and the threat of large-scale development in the Fitzroy Valley. The series has been shown at film festivals across the world and has won a number of awards for its powerful storytelling.