Can the River Plan finally be delivered?

Boats of all sizes clog up a Noosaville public access point.

By Phil Jarratt

When Jake Hennessey took on the role of Noosa River Marine Officer for Maritime Safety Queensland 10 months ago he declared war on “river rats” terrorising other river users in their tinnies.

Now, in the wake of the most over-crowded holiday period in living memory on our waterways, he faces a much bigger challenge as he co-chairs the Noosa River Stakeholder Advisory Committee, which is tasked with keeping everyone happy during the long-awaited implementation of the Noosa River Plan. MSQ and Noosa Shire Council will jointly drive the committee as it seeks to actually do something to secure the future of the river after almost 40 years of Council and the State government squabbling about it, which is perhaps forgivable, given the complexity of the issues surrounding this most delicate and hugely popular waterway.

The river had been pretty much taken for granted until the “Residents’ Team” won election to Council in 1982, and former riverboat operator Noel Playford and environmentalist Michael Gloster put its problems squarely on the table. But achieving consensus on the management of the river’s fragile ecosystem and competing recreational and commercial uses has continued to be an issue, so much so that successive councils, including most recently those of Playford (2014-16) and Tony Wellington (2016-2020) have failed to deliver a comprehensive river plan. Some say the river plans have simply tried to cover too much territory, others claim lack of community and stakeholder consultation is to blame.

The reason that Jake Hennessey now sits in a highly visible waterfront office on the historically significant old Parkyn wharf is that MSQ a year ago decided it would have to beef up its presence in Noosa in response to a version of the draft Noosa River Plan recommending that Noosa Council take over most of the responsibilities of the State, including control of anchoring, mooring and living on the river. What may have seemed like a blatant power play at the time has actually resulted in a seismic shift of opinion about who should run the river.

Part of that can be attributed to MSQ’s “more actively engaging” in the management of the river since January 2020, including establishing the Tewantin office, working on the “war on wrecks” to remove 11 boats and a couple of collapsed boat sheds, and the launch of a Maritime Enforcement Team (MET) over several weekends conducting compliance and safety checks on the river in conjunction with the Water Police and the Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol. (The next MET will be this weekend through to Australia Day.)

But another important reason for a changing of gears in the river plan is that the two most powerful women in Noosa, Mayor Clare Stewart and Sandy Bolton MP, have formed a loose alliance to drive it forward, along with other community initiatives, such as the housing action group. “The river plan has been a very long haul,” Bolton told Noosa Today this week, “and now it has to be resolved for many reasons, but the key is that we need to know how to use our river. It can’t be policed 24/7 so we have to look at other solutions.”

Although Bolton wouldn’t elaborate at this point, it is known that in the wake of the holiday season mayhem and the blatant ignoring of the “6 knots no wash” speed limit in the lower estuary, there are real concerns about the safety of kayakers, paddlers and swimmers. “It’s a miracle we haven’t had a fatality,” said one source. The use of sand-monitoring cameras and drones in remote detection are believed to be in consideration. At the moment the Sunshine Coast has only one drone “on call” for marine incidents, which means a reactive rather than proactive response.

According to another source, close to river politics for decades, Stewart and Bolton represent the best chance the river plan has had in years to be pushed into action. “They haven’t closed the door on any of the stakeholders and together they just might be able to break the mould on this,” the source said.

Says Bolton: “It’s taken me three years to get it this far at State level, and Mayor Stewart and I have certainly consulted on it since she was elected. We both agree that it’s time to open the plan right up. The river can’t wait.”

Meanwhile, Maritime Safety Queensland has decided to adopt a low profile until the terms of reference for the Stakeholder Advisory Committee have been finalized. In response to Noosa Today’s questions, a departmental spokesperson offered this brief response:

“Maritime Safety Queensland has set up a permanent operations base … to provide a stronger presence in the area and help with quick responses to marine incidents. The new office also serves as a base for boating safety patrols planned by MSQ’s Maritime Enforcement Team (MET). These operations are supported by Queensland Water Police and the Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol, helping to reduce dangerous and unsafe activity across Noosa and Sunshine Coast waterways. A maritime safety education trailer can also be stationed at popular boat ramps to give boaties plenty of safety advice before they head out. Having a permanent base at Noosa allows Maritime Safety Queensland to build on relationships with the public and other agencies, expanding our stakeholder network.”

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