Last Wednesday evening was a bit of a treat for me. I was lucky enough to present alongside the Director of the Australian River Restoration Centre to an audience of RRC members, and lead a discussion of Australian perspectives on river management.
Anyone who has moved to live in a different country will understand the natural urge to compare and discuss the differences between ‘here and there’ with the people around you. As well as helping to manage homesickness, the comparison is a useful learning technique as the discussions regularly lead to a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are, in both locations. It’s also a technique for educating your colleagues far beyond the extent of their interest …and for this I thank my impressively polite colleagues for not once telling me to put a sock in it.
But back to last Wednesday. Dr Siwan Lovett, who founded the Canberra-based ARRC, is touring England and Wales with her family and had generously offered to share some of the new developments in river restoration and management in Australia, as well as an overview of the work of her organisation. Martin suggested that I present too and make an event of it, so we did.
I opened with some context-setting observations on the similarities and differences I’ve observed between river management issues and approaches in SE Australia and the UK. I then reported on the outcomes of a 2014 Victorian Government audit of riparian management projects, followed by a new Victorian Government tool to better communicate to investors and other stakeholders the requirements of a long term river restoration project (in short – a spike of initial funding followed by around three decades of patience!).
Siwan followed with lots of beautiful photographs as well as stories of some uniquely Australian solutions – carp herpes, environmental water and rivers of carbon.
One topic that inspired some interesting discussion was the concept of ‘environmental water’. South-eastern Australia’s highly variable rainfall means that the ecosystems have evolved to rely on successive dry years followed by very wet years. When the rivers spill onto the floodplains and inundate wetlands, this triggers a flurry of breeding – fish, birds, frogs and trees. A search for images of Barmah-Millewa forest or Hattah Lakes in flood will give you some idea of what this looks like on the iconic Murray River floodplains.
However, ‘river regulation’ – a term referring to hydrological modification, mostly caused by water storage dams – has meant that most south-eastern Australian rivers receive an unnaturally steady, or sometimes seasonally reversed flow pattern to reflect town and irrigation supply needs. This impacts the natural flooding-drying cycle. Many floodplain wetlands are in poor health due to insufficient flooding, or permanent flooding in cases where communities have decided that they are rather fond of the idea of a nice local lake. British/European invasive species tend to be also very fond of this modified environment.
One successful solution is environmental water – water that is actively managed to benefit the environment. The Commonwealth and Victorian Environmental Water Holders (CEWH and VEWH) are two organisations that exist to plan, purchase, manage and deliver environmental water when and where it is needed and available. This is sometimes purchased and sold as water entitlements on the water market from irrigators or other users. It may take the form of water deliberately released from a dam, or water that is allowed to continue flowing down the river that would otherwise have been extracted by another water user.
In many cases, the objective is to create a flood in a particular location. It was an adjustment for me working in river management in a country where floods are always bad news – an interesting reflection of the difference between the ecological needs, and population densities, of the UK and Australia.
At the seminar I also briefly described an audit project that I was involved in for the Victorian Government, looking into the delivery and success of publically funded river improvement projects. While I won’t dwell on it in this forum, the audit had some useful and some surprising results, and is relevant here – similar types of projects occur in the UK, in numbers large enough that the funding body is often not able to review everything. An independent audit of representative sites can pull out some very useful lessons learned, areas for improvement (including recommendations for ‘quick wins’) and ideas for different ways of doing things, as well as demonstrating accountability of funds.
As well as discussing more technical river management topics, Siwan enlightened us with some of her experience relating to valuing people and sharing knowledge. This is so important in supporting natural resource managers at all levels to deliver great work, and maximise positive outcomes for the environment.
My slides from the presentation are available on our website here. Siwan’s slides will be uploaded at a later date.
The RRC would like to again give our big thanks go to Jacobs, who generously hosted us for the evening in their Winnersh office. Also thanks to Siwan for sharing her stories, and the RRC members who gave up a couple of hours to come along and contribute to the conversation.
http://www.vewh.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/305749/01_What-is-enviromental-water_SWP_FS.pdf provides a more detailed explanation of environmental water for those who are interested.
https://arrc.com.au/ talks about some of the great work that the Australian River Restoration Centre does.
http://www.csiro.au/en/Research/BF/Areas/Managing-the-impacts-of-invasive-species/Biological-control/Biocontrol-of-carp elaborates on the carp herpes project, for those whose attention was pricked when I mentioned it earlier.
file:///C:/Users/e803305/Downloads/Water_for_Victoria_discussion_paper_WEB%20(2).pdf, from page 32, discusses the Victorian Government’s proposed plan for long-term river restoration. Page 38 introduces the communication tool that I discussed in my presentation.