Shifting currents : a history of rivers, control and change

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The benefits and costs of controlling rivers - building dams, controlling floods, extracting water - are constantly contested. Modifying rivers has brought great benefit to communities, fulfilling important community goals - supporting profitable commercial activities and providing a basis for vibrant communities. However modifying rivers has also had negative consequences - in particular, a decline in the quality and quantity of water. These impacts have undermined valued aspects of rivers (such as fish habitat) and have also caused decline in commercial activities (such as fishing and floodplain grazing). This thesis explores the ways that these contending perceptions of modification work out on the ground in rural communities. How are the benefits of modification recognised? How are the negative consequences of modification noticed and measured? Under what conditions are the benefits of modification reassessed? These are important questions in the current moment as our society reassesses the past modification of rivers and attempts to move towards more sustainable use of natural resources. This thesis explores this topic by undertaking in depth case-studies of two distinctive riverine environments: one coastal, the Clarence River in luscious coastal northern New South Wales; and one inland, the Balonne River, at the top of the Murray-Darling Basin, in semi-arid south-west Queensland. The case studies explore responses to modification of the rivers in two periods: the post-war decades - a time of widespread support for modification, and recent decades - a time of widespread recognition of the negative consequences of development. The thesis investigates perceptions of modification at three different scales: (i) groups within localities - the ways that modification is perceived by local groups with contrasting physical and conceptual interactions with the rivers (such as graziers, fishers, irrigators, Aboriginal people, ecologists and engineers); (ii) regional communities - which are constituted by groups with differing interests, and (iii) governments - which have the role of managing the long-term health of the economy and the environment, despite the long-term goals often being contested. This thesis provides insights into the ways that our complex society grapples with the possibility, and effects, of modifying the natural environment. This thesis suggests that local conditions - the actual local physical environment and local social conditions - shape the ways that modification of rivers is supported, challenged and reassessed. However, both local social conditions and the environment are constantly changing, often in surprising ways. Therefore outcomes are always an interaction between different levels of interest groups and the environment itself.
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