Western Australia’s high value waterways

Western Australia's high value waterways have been identified through several different processes.
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The waterways and their foreshores listed below require a high level of protection during strategic planning, decision-making and ongoing management (Environmental Protection Authority 2008).

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation regulates or advises on certain activities with the potential to adversely impact high value waterways. Read more about our role in waterways management.

More information about some types of high value waterways is provided below the list. It is acknowledged that in some areas of the state, the values of waterways have not been fully identified.

Lists of high value waterways

High value waterways include waterways that are:

  • listed as Ramsar wetland sites
  • listed in A directory of important wetlands in Australia
  • Wild Rivers as identified by the Australian Heritage Commission and Department of Water and Environmental Regulation
  • within public drinking water source areas1 under the Metropolitan Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Act 1909 and Country Areas Water Supply Act 1947
  • within clearing-controlled land under Part IIA of the Country Areas Water Supply Act 1947
  • within management areas under the Waterways Conservation Act 1976
  • within the Swan Canning development control area or Riverpark under the Swan and Canning Rivers Management Act 2006and named tributaries within the Swan Canning Catchment
  • within an environmental protection policy area under Part III of the Environmental Protection Act 1986
  • identified as being in the conservation or resource enhancement category in a wetland spatial dataset
  • with threatened or priority flora, fauna or ecological communities3
  • in environmentally sensitive areas under the Environmental Protection Act 1986
  • significant for Aboriginal cultural heritage
  • with other significant heritage values
  • within Bush Forever sites or Systems ‘Red Book’ areas
  • important for migratory birds
  • with foreshores in excellent condition
  • with mangroves, saltmarshes, samphires, seagrasses or microbial communities
  • defined as high value 'waterscapes' in the Agency statement of important natural resource management assets in Western Australia(State Natural Resources Management Office 2007)
  • listed in the Environmental factor guideline – Inland waters5 (Environmental Protection Authority 2018) or Chapter B5.2.2 of Environmental guidance for planning and development – Guidance statement 33
  • listed as sensitive water resource areas or important environments in Draft State planning policy 2.9 Planning for water or its guidelines
  • in areas listed under the Australian Government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.


  1. Catchment areas, water reserves and underground water pollution control areas.
  2. Administered by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA).
  3. The DBCA is the agency responsible for threatened and priority flora, fauna and ecological communities. The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation seeks advice from the DBCA regarding decisions that may impact on threatened or priority flora, fauna or ecological communities.
  4. This is commonly called the ‘State assets report’.
  5. Refer to the section ‘Environmental values supported by or dependent on Inland Waters, and their significance’.

Internationally significant waterways listed as Ramsar wetland sites

The Ramsar Convention is a treaty focused on the conservation of internationally important wetlands.

The Ramsar definition of wetlands includes waterways, subterranean aquatic ecosystems and coastal marine areas.

Ramsar wetland sites are recognised for their biodiversity and ecological values, including as breeding grounds and migration stopovers for birds, and for their value to Australian communities, as well as humanity as a whole.

Ramsar wetland sites are protected under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Under this Act, any action that has, will have, or is likely to have a significant impact on a matter of National Environmental Significance is required to undergo a rigorous assessment and approvals process.

Western Australia has twelve Ramsar wetland sites. Some are complex systems that include connected waterways and wetlands. Four are comprised largely or entirely of waterways; these are the Peel-Yalgorup System, Vasse-Wonnerup System, Lakes Argyle and Kununurra and Ord River Floodplain.

The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) is responsible for reporting on Ramsar wetlands and management of wetlands on CALM Act land. DBCA provides advice to decision makers and is involved in wetlands research and monitoring. Read more about Western Australia’s Ramsar wetland sites of international importance and their management on DBCA’s Wetlands webpage.

Information about Ramsar wetland sites is also available in the Australian Wetlands Database provided by the Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

Nationally significant waterways in 'A Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia'

A Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia was compiled jointly by state, territory and federal governments with the most recent version in 2001.

It identifies aquatic ecosystems, including waterways, with national significance. It describes what defines wetlands, their variety, and the many plants and animals that depend on them and includes information about their social and cultural values, and some of the benefits they provide to people.  

Wetlands are identified as nationally important if they:

  • provide a good example of a wetland type occurring within a biogeographical region in Australia
  • play an important ecological or hydrological role in the major functioning of a major wetland system/complex
  • provide important habitat for animals at a vulnerable stage in their life cycles, or a refuge when adverse conditions (such as drought) prevail
  • support at least one per cent of the national populations of any native plant or animal species
  • support nationally threatened plant or animal species, or ecological communities
  • are of outstanding historical or cultural significance.

Western Australia has 120 nationally important wetlands and wetland systems, many of which include parts of waterways or are entirely river systems.

Many of these occur within existing or proposed reserves managed by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions. Examples of listed waterways that are protected within conservation reserves for their biodiversity, ecosystem values and natural beauty include the Fitzgerald River National Park, Geikie Gorge National Park (Fitzroy River), Rudall River National Park and D'Entrecasteaux National Park (Warren River).

Some occur on private property or pastoral lease, or lands for other purposes so their conservation depends on cooperative arrangements.

The Australian Wetlands Database provides information on nationally important wetlands, often referred to as 'DIWA wetlands’.

Wild rivers

Wild rivers are largely unchanged natural systems where biological, ecological and hydrological processes continue without significant disturbance. These waterways and their catchments remain generally undisturbed due to their isolation, rugged topography or land tenure.

Through a project with the Australian Heritage Commission, the (then) Department of Water originally recognised 49 wild rivers in Western Australia.

The Upper Yule River was subsequently downgraded due to development in the catchment, bringing the state's total to 48, of which 37 are located in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions. They occur in a variety of landscapes, and may be permanent, seasonal or dry watercourses that flow or only flow occasionally.

Wild rivers have important values including rarity, habitat, water quality and scientific value.

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation advises on activities in the catchment that may adversely impact on the ecological values of wild rivers.

For more information, see Water note 37 - Wild rivers in Western Australia.

State Assets Report – 'Waterscapes'

The State NRM Office's Agency statement of important natural resource management assets in Western Australia (2007), is also called the 'State Assets Report'. Chapter 6 identifies waterways and wetland assets (described as 'waterscapes') based on a values-threats matrix.

The assessment by our department's senior officer's group took into account multiple values that were grouped as economic, social/cultural and environmental and a wide range of threats. Results are presented both for the whole state and by region.

This report does not represent a final priority list, but provides a starting point for further investigations and discussions when making natural resource management investment decisions.

All high value waterways are afforded a high level of protection. This includes high value waterways with high, medium and low threats to their physical condition and ecological health.

Further reading