Australia’s smallest fish among 22 at risk of extinction within two decades



Red-finned blue-eye
Bush Heritage Australia / Adam Kerezsy

Mark Lintermans, University of Canberra; Hayley Geyle, Charles Darwin University; Jaana Dielenberg, The University of Queensland; John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Stephen Beatty, Murdoch University, and Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University

The tragic fish kills in the lower Darling River drew attention to the plight of Australia’s freshwater fish, but they’ve been in trouble for a long time.

Many species have declined sharply in recent decades, and as many as 90 of Australia’s 315 freshwater fish species may now meet international criteria as threatened.




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No Australian fish species is yet listed officially as extinct, but some have almost certainly been lost before scientists even knew they existed. With so many species at risk, understanding which are in greatest peril is a vital first step in preventing extinctions.

This is what our new research has done. We’ve identified 20 freshwater fish species with a 50% or greater probability of extinction within the next two decades, and a further two with a 40-50% chance – unless there’s new targeted conservation action.

The Australian freshwater fishes at greatest risk of extinction.

Slipping through the conservation cracks

Many small-bodied species, including Australia’s smallest fish the red-finned blue-eye, look likely to be lost within a single human generation. These fish have evolved over millions of years.

Twelve of the species identified have only been formally described in the past decade, and seven are still awaiting description.

This highlights the urgent need to act before species are listed under the national legislation that gives fishes their conservation status, and even before they’re formally described.

These processes can take many years, at which point it may be too late for some species.

More than half the species on our list are galaxiids – small, scaleless fish, that live in cooler, upland streams and lakes. Trout, an introduced, predatory species, also favour these habitats, and the trout have taken a heavy toll on galaxiids and many other small species in southern Australia.

Shaw galaxias, a long light-brown fish.
Victoria’s Shaw galaxias – one of 14 galaxias species identified at high risk of extinction.
Tarmo Raadik

For example, the Victorian Shaw galaxias has been eaten out of much of its former range. Now just 80 individuals survive, protected by a waterfall from the trout below. We estimate the Shaw galaxias has an 80% chance or more of extinction within the next 20 years.




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Many galaxiids do not thrive or readily breed in captivity, so suitable trout-free streams are essential for their survival.

Improving trout management requires an urgent, sustained conservation effort, including collaborations with recreational fishers, increased awareness and changing values among government and key sectors of society.

Without this, trout will almost certainly cause many native galaxiids to go extinct.

Two researchers face a waterfall surounded by bushland.
This waterfall in NSW is all that protects the last population of stocky galaxias from the predatory trout below.
Mark Lintermans

Native fish out of their natural place can also be a problem. For example, sooty and khaki grunters – native fishing species people in northern Australia have widely moved – threatening the ancient Bloomfield River cod.

One disaster can lead to extinction

All of the most imperilled species are now highly localised, which means they’re restricted to very small areas. Their distributions range from only four to 44 square kilometres.

A single catastrophic event could completely wipe out these species, such as a large bushfire that fills their streams with ash and robs them of oxygen.

The SW Victoria River blackfish persists as three very small, isolated populations. The main threat to this species is recreational angling.
Tarmo Raadik

For example, until 2019 the Yalmy galaxias had survived in the cool creeks of the Snowy River National Park. But after the devastating Black Summer fires, just two individuals survived, one male and one female, in separate areas.

Millions of years of evolution could be lost if a planned reunion is too late.

One of the key steps to reduce this risk is moving fish to new safe locations so there are more populations. Researchers choose these new locations carefully to make sure they’re suitable for different species.

Climate change is another threat to all identified species, as it’s likely to reduce flows and water quality, or increase fires, storms and flooding. Many species have been forced to the edge of their range and a prolonged drought could dry their remaining habitat.

The short-tail galaxias existed in two small separated populations in creeks of the upper Tuross River Catchment, in the south coast of NSW. One stream dried in the recent drought, and the other was burnt in the subsequent fires.

Luckily the species is still hanging on in the burnt catchment, but only a single individual has been found in the drought-affected creek.

Rainbowfish swim among reeds
The main threat to the Daintree rainbowfish is loss of stream flow due to drought, climate change and water extraction.
Michael Hammer / Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Author provided

Unlisted, unprotected

Our study is part of a larger project to identify plants and animals at high risk of extinction.

We found the extinction risks of the 22 freshwater fish species are much higher than those of the top 20 birds or mammals, yet receive far less conservation effort.

Only three of the highly imperilled fish species are currently listed as threatened under national environmental legislation: the red-finned blue-eye, Swan galaxias and little pygmy perch.

Listing species is vital to provide protection to survivors and can prompt recovery action. Given our research, 19 fish species should urgently be added to the national threatened species list, but conservation action should start now.

The little pygmy perch in the far south-west corner of WA is one of only three of the 22 imperilled species identified that’s formally protected under Australian laws.
Stephen Beatty/Harry Butler Institute, Murdoch University

Small native freshwater fishes are worth saving. They play a vital role in our aquatic ecosystems, such as predating on pest insect larvae, and are part of our natural heritage.

By identifying and drawing attention to their plight, we are aiming to change their fates. We cannot continue with business as usual if we want to prevent their extinctions.The Conversation

Mark Lintermans, Associate professor, University of Canberra; Hayley Geyle, Research Assistant, Charles Darwin University; Jaana Dielenberg, Science Communication Manager, The University of Queensland; John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Stephen Beatty, Research Leader (Catchments to Coast), Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems, Harry Butler Institute, Murdoch University, and Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New Zealand government ignores expert advice in its plan to improve water quality in rivers and lakes



Tracey McNamara/Shutterstock

Michael (Mike) Joy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

New Zealand’s government has been praised for listening to health experts in its pandemic response, but when it comes to dealing with pollution of the country’s waterways, scientific advice seems less important.

Today, the government released a long-awaited NZ$700 million package to address freshwater pollution. The new rules include higher standards around cleanliness of swimming spots, set controls for some farming practices and how much synthetic fertiliser is used, and require mandatory and enforceable farm environment plans.

But the package is flawed. It does not include any measurable limits on key nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) and the rules’ implementation is left to regional authorities. Over the 30 years they have been managing the environment, the health of lakes and rivers has continued to decline.

For full disclosure, I was part of the 18-person science technical advisory group that made the recommendations. Despite more than a year of consultation and evidence-based science, the government has deferred or ignored our advice on introducing measurable limits on nitrogen and phosphorus.




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Waterways in decline

The declining state of rivers, lakes and wetlands was the most important environmental issue for 80% of New Zealanders in a recent survey. It was also an election issue in 2017, so there was a clear mandate for significant change.

But despite years of work from government appointed expert panels, including the technical advisory group I was part of, the Māori freshwater forum Kahui Wai Māori and the Freshwater Leaders groups, crucial advice was ignored.

The technical advisory group, supported by research, was unequivocal that specific nitrogen and phosphorus limits are necessary to protect the quality of people’s drinking water and the ecological health of waterways.

The proposed nutrient limits were key to achieving real change, and far from being extreme, would have brought New Zealand into line with the rest of the world. For example, in China, the limit for nitrogen in rivers is 1 milligram per litre – the same limit as our technical advisory group recommended. In New Zealand, 85% of waterways in pasture catchments (which make up half of the country’s waterways, if measured by length) now exceed nitrate limit guidelines.

Instead, Minister for the Environment David Parker decided to postpone this discussion by another year – meaning New Zealand will continue to lag other nations in having clear, enforceable nutrient limits.

This delay will inevitably result in a continued decline of water quality, with a corresponding decline in a suite of ecological, cultural, social and economic values a healthy environment could support.




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The government’s package includes a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser.
Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock

Capping use of nitrogen fertiliser

The other main policy the expert panels pushed for was a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser. This was indeed part of the announcement, which is a positive and important step forward. But the cap is set at 190kg per hectare per year, which is too high. This is like telling someone they should reduce smoking from three to two and a half packets a day to be healthier.

I believe claims from the dairy industry that the tightening of environmental standards for freshwater would threaten New Zealand’s economic recovery are exaggerated. They also ignore the fact clean water and a healthy environment provide the foundation for our current and future economic well-being.

And they fly in the face of modelling by the Ministry for the Environment, which shows implementation of freshwater reforms would save NZ$3.8 billion.

Excess nitrogen is not just an issue for ecosystem health. Nitrate (which forms when nitrogen combines with oxygen) in drinking water has been linked to colon cancer, which is disproportionately high in many parts of New Zealand.

The New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine and the Hawkes Bay district health board both made submissions calling for a nitrate limit in rivers and aquifers to protect people’s health – at the same level the technical advisory group recommended to protect ecosystems.




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Our dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is unsustainable, and it is adding to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas footprint through nitrous oxide emissions. There is growing evidence farmers can make more profit by reducing their use of artificial fertilisers.

Continued use will only further degrade soils across productive landscapes and reduce the farming sector’s resilience in a changing climate.

The irony is that for a century, New Zealand produced milk without synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Instead, farmers grew clover which converts nitrogen from the air. If we want to strive for better water quality for future generations, we need to front up to the unsustainable use of artificial fertiliser and seek more regenerative farming practices.The Conversation

Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia, it’s time to talk about our water emergency



Dean Lewins/AAP

Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Matthew Colloff, Australian National University; Paul Wyrwoll, Australian National University, and Virginia Marshall, Australian National University

The last bushfire season showed Australians they can no longer pretend climate change will not affect them. But there’s another climate change influence we must also face up to: increasingly scarce water on our continent.

Under climate change, rainfall will become more unpredictable. Extreme weather events such as cyclones will be more intense. This will challenge water managers already struggling to respond to Australia’s natural boom and bust of droughts and floods.

Thirty years since Australia’s water reform project began, it’s clear our efforts have largely failed. Drought-stricken rural towns have literally run out of water. Despite the recent rains, the Murray Darling river system is being run dry and struggles to support the communities that depend on it.

We must find another way. So let’s start the conversation.

It’s time for a new national discussion about water policy.
Joe Castro/AAP

How did we get here?

Sadly, inequitable water outcomes in Australia are not new.

The first water “reform” occurred when European settlers acquired water sources from First Peoples without consent or compensation. Overlaying this dispossession, British common law gave new settlers land access rights to freshwater. These later converted into state-owned rights, and are now allocated as privately held water entitlements.

Some 200 years later, the first steps towards long-term water reform arguably began in the 1990s. The process accelerated during the Millennium Drought and in 2004 led to the National Water Initiative, an intergovernmental water agreement. This was followed in 2007 by a federal Water Act, upending exclusive state jurisdiction over water.




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Under the National Water Initiative, state and territory water plans were to be verified through water accounting to ensure “adequate measurement, monitoring and reporting systems” across the country.

This would have boosted public and investor confidence in the amount of water being traded, extracted and recovered – both for the environment and the public good.

This vision has not been realised. Instead, a narrow view now dominates in which water is valuable only when extracted, and water reform is about subsidising water infrastructure such as dams, to enable this extraction.

The National Water Initiative has failed.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Why we should all care

In the current drought, rural towns have literally run out of fresh drinking water. These towns are not just dots on a map. They are communities whose very existence is now threatened.

In some small towns, drinking water can taste unpleasant or contain high levels of nitrate, threatening the health of babies. Drinking water in some remote Indigenous communities is not always treated, and the quality rarely checked.

In the Murray-Darling Basin, poor management and low rainfall have caused dry rivers, mass fish kills, and distress in Aboriginal communities. Key aspects of the basin plan have not been implemented. This, coupled with bushfire damage, has caused long-term ecological harm.

How do we fix the water emergency?

Rivers, lakes and wetlands must have enough water at the right time. Only then will the needs of humans and the environment be met equitably – including access to and use of water by First Peoples.

Water for the environment and water for irrigation is not a zero-sum trade-off. Without healthy rivers, irrigation farming and rural communities cannot survive.

A national conversation on water reform is needed. It should recognise and include First Peoples’ values and knowledge of land, water and fire.

Our water brief, Water Reform For All,
proposes six principles to build a national water dialogue:

  1. establish shared visions and goals
  2. develop clarity of roles and responsibilities
  3. implement adaptation as a way to respond to an escalation of stresses, including climate change and governance failures
  4. invest in advanced technology to monitor, predict and understand changes in water availability
  5. integrate bottom-up and community-based adaptation, including from Indigenous communities, into improved water governance arrangements
  6. undertake policy experiments to test new ways of managing water for all
The Darling River is in poor health.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Ask the right questions

As researchers, we don’t have all the answers on how to create a sustainable, equitable water future. No-one does. But in any national conversation, we believe these fundamental questions must be asked:

  1. who is responsible for water governance? How do decisions and actions of one group affect access and availability of water for others?

  2. what volumes of water are extracted from surface and groundwater systems? Where, when, by whom and for what?

  3. what can we predict about a future climate and other long-term drivers of change?

  4. how can we better understand and measure the multiple values that water holds for communities and society?

  5. where do our visions for the future of water align? Where do they differ?

  6. what principles, protocols and processes will help deliver the water reform needed?

  7. how do existing rules and institutions constrain, or enable, efforts to achieve a shared vision of a sustainable water future?

  8. how do we integrate new knowledge, such as water availability under climate change, into our goals?

  9. what restitution is needed in relation to water and Country for First Peoples?

  10. what economic sectors and processes would be better suited to a water-scarce future, and how might we foster them?

Water reform for all

These questions, if part of a national conversation, would reinvigorate the water debate and help put Australia on track to a sustainable water future.

Now is the time to start the discussion. Long-accepted policy approaches in support of sustainable water futures are in question. In the Murray-Darling Basin, some states even question the value of catchment-wide management. The formula for water-sharing between states is under attack.




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Even science that previously underpinned water reform is being questioned

We must return to basics, reassess what’s sensible and feasible, and debate new ways forward.

We are not naive. All of us have been involved in water reform and some of us, like many others, suffer from reform fatigue.

But without a fresh debate, Australia’s water emergency will only get worse. Reform can – and must – happen, for the benefit of all Australians.


The following contributed to this piece and co-authored the report on which it was based: Daniel Connell, Katherine Daniell, Joseph Guillaume, Lorrae van Kerkoff, Aparna Lal, Ehsan Nabavi, Jamie Pittock, Katherine Taylor, Paul Tregoning, and John WilliamsThe Conversation

Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Matthew Colloff, Honorary Senior Lecturer, Australian National University; Paul Wyrwoll, Research fellow, Australian National University, and Virginia Marshall, Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aren’t we in a drought? The Australian black coal industry uses enough water for over 5 million people


Ian Overton, University of Adelaide

Water is a highly contested resource in this long, oppressive drought, and the coal industry is one of Australia’s biggest water users.

Research released today, funded by the Australian Conservation Foundation, has identified how much water coal mining and coal-fired power stations actually use in New South Wales and Queensland. The answer? About 383 billion litres of fresh water every year.

That’s the same amount 5.2 million people, or more than the entire population of Greater Sydney, uses in the same period. And it’s about 120 times the water used by wind and solar to generate the same amount of electricity.




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Monitoring how much water is used by industry is vital for sustainable water management. But a lack of transparency about how much water Australia’s coal industry uses makes this very difficult.

Adani’s controversial Carmichael mine in central Queensland was granted a water licence that allows the company to take as much groundwater as it wants, despite fears it will damage aquifers and groundwater-dependent rivers.

Now more than ever, we must make sure water use by coal mines and power stations are better monitored and managed.

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available.
Shutterstock

Why does coal need so much water?

Mines in NSW and Queensland account for 96% of Australia’s black coal production.

Almost all water used in coal mines is consumed and cannot be reused. Water is used for coal processing, handling and preparation, dust suppression, on-site facilities, irrigation, vehicle washing and more.

Coal mining’s water use rate equates to a total consumption of almost 225 billion litres a year in NSW and Queensland, which can be extrapolated to 234 billion litres for Australia, for black coal without considering brown coal.

About 80% of this water is freshwater from rainfall and runoff, extracted from rivers and water bodies, groundwater inflows or transferred from other mines. Mines are located in regions such as the Darling Downs, the Hunter River and the Namoi River in the Murray-Darling Basin.




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The other 20% comes from water already contained in tailings (mine residue), recycled water or seepage from the mines.

The burning of coal to generate energy is also a large water user. Water use in coal-fired power stations is even harder to quantify, with a report from 2009 providing the only available data.

Water is used for cooling with power stations using either a once-through flow or recirculating water system.

The water consumed becomes toxic wastewater stored in ash ponds or is evaporated during cooling processes. Water withdrawn is returned to rivers which can damage aquatic life due to the increased temperature.

No transparency

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available. Despite the development of Australian and international water accounting frameworks, there is no reporting to these standards in coal mine reports.

This lack of consistent and available data means water use by the coal industry, and its negative effects, is not widely reported or understood. The problem is compounded by complex regulatory frameworks that allow gaps in water-use reporting.

A patchwork of government agencies in each state regulate water licences, quality and discharge, coal mine planning, annual reviews of mine operations and water and environmental impacts. This means that problems can fall through the gaps.

Digging for data

An analysis of annual reviews from 39 coal mines in NSW, provided data on water licences and details of water used in different parts of the mine.

Although they are part of mandatory reporting, the method of reporting water use is not standardised. The reviews are required to report against surface water and groundwater licences, but aren’t required to show a comprehensive water balanced account. Annual reviews for Queensland coal mines were not available.

Collated water use — both water consumption and water withdrawal – showed coal mining consumes approximately 653 litres for each tonne of coal produced.

This rate is 2.5 times more than a previous water-use rate of 250 litres per tonne, from research in 2010.

Using this rate the total water consumed by coal mining is 40% more than the total amount of water reported for all types of mining in NSW and Queensland by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the same year.

By the numbers

NSW and Queensland coal-fired power stations annually consume 158,300 megalitres of water. One megalitre is equivalent to one million litres.

A typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power station uses enough water in one year to meet the basic water needs of nearly 700,000 people. NSW and Queensland have 18,000 megawatts of capacity.

Coal-fired generation uses significantly more water than other types of energy.

In total, coal mining and coal-fired power stations in NSW and Queensland consume 383 billion litres of freshwater a year – about 4.3% of all freshwater available in those states.

The value of this water is between A$770 million and A$2.49 billion (using a range of low to high security water licence costs).

They withdraw 2,353 billion litres of freshwater per year.


Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The problem with large water use

Coal mining is concentrated in a few regions, such as the Hunter Valley and the Bowen Basin, which are also important for farming and agriculture.

In NSW and Queensland, the coal industry withdraws about 30% as much water as is withdrawn for agriculture, and this is concentrated in the few regions.

Coal mining and power stations use water through licenses to access surface water and groundwater, and from unlicensed capturing of rainfall and runoff.

This can reduce stream flow and groundwater levels, which can threaten ecosystem habitats if not managed in context of other water users. Cumulative effects of multiple mines in one region can increase the risk to other water users.

The need for an holistic approach

A lack of available data remains a significant challenge to understanding the true impact of coal mining and coal-fired power on Australia’s water resources.

To improve transparency and increase trust in the coal industry, accounting for water consumed, withdrawn and impacted by coal mining should be standardised to report on full water account balances.




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The coal industry should also be subject to mandatory monthly reporting and a single, open-access point of water data must be created. Comprehensive water modelling must be updated yearly and audited.

Coal water use must be managed in a holistic manner with the elevation of water accounting to a single government agency or common database.

Australia has a scarce water supply, and our environment and economy depend on the sustainable and equitable sharing of this resource.The Conversation

Ian Overton, Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Heavy rains are great news for Sydney’s dams, but they come with a big caveat


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Western Sydney University

Throughout summer, Sydney’s water storage level fell alarmingly. Level 2 water restrictions were imposed and the New South Wales government prepared to double the capacity of its desalination plant.

But then it began to rain, and rain. Sydney water storages jumped from 41% in early February to 75% now – the highest of any capital city in Australia.

This is great news for the city, but it comes with a big caveat. Floodwaters will undoubtedly wash bushfire debris into reservoirs – possibly overwhelming water treatment systems. We must prepare now for that worst-case pollution scenario.

Reservoirs filled with rain

The water level of Sydney’s massive Lake Burragorang – the reservoir behind Warragamba Dam – rose by more than 11 meters this week. Warragamba supplies more than 80% of Sydney’s water.

Other Sydney water storages, including Nepean and Tallowa dams, are now at 100%.
WaterNSW report that 865,078 megalitres of extra water has been captured this week across all Greater Sydney’s dams.

This dwarfs the volume of water produced by Sydney’s desalination plant, which produces 250 megalitres a day when operating at full capacity. Even at this rate, it would take more than 3,400 days (or nine years) to match the volume of water to added to Sydney’s supply this week.

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The Warragamba Dam before the drought and after the recent heavy rains.

But then comes the pollution

Thankfully, the rain appears to have extinguished bushfires burning in the Warragamba catchment for months.

But the water will also pick up bushfire debris and wash it into dams.

Over the summer, bushfires burnt about 30% of Warragamba Dam’s massive 905,000 hectare water catchment, reducing protective ground cover vegetation. This increases the risk of soil erosion. Rain will wash ash and sediment loads into waterways – adding more nitrogen, phosphorous and organic carbon into water storages.




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Waterways and ecosystems require nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, but excess nutrients aren’t a good thing. They bring contamination risks, such as the rapid growth of toxic blue-green algae.

Drinking water catchments will always have some degree of contamination and water treatment consistently provides high quality drinking water. But poor water quality after catchment floods is not without precedent.

We’ve seen this before

In August 1998, extreme wet weather and flooding rivers filled the drought-affected Warragamba Dam in just a few days.

This triggered the Cryptosporidium crisis, when the protozoan parasite and the pathogen Giardia were detected in Sydney’s water supplies. It triggered health warnings, and Sydneysiders were instructed to boil water before drinking it. This event did not involve a bushfire.




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The Canberra bushfires in January 2003 triggered multiple water quality problems. Most of the region’s Cotter River catchments, which hold three dams, were burned. Intense thunderstorms in the months after the bushfire washed enormous loads of ash, soil and debris into catchment rivers and water reservoirs.

This led to turbidity (murkiness), as well as iron, manganese, nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon in reservoir waters. The inflow of organic material also depleted dissolved oxygen which triggered the release of metals from reservoir sediment. At times, water quality was so poor it couldn’t be treated and supplied to consumers.

The ACT Government was forced to impose water restrictions, and built a A$38 million water treatment plant.

Have we come far enough?

Technology in water treatment plants has developed over the past 20 years, and water supply systems operates according to Australian drinking water guidelines.

Unlike the 1998 Sydney water crisis, WaterNSW, Sydney Water and NSW Health now have advanced tests and procedures to detect and manage water quality problems.

In December last year, WaterNSW said it was aware of the risk bushfires posed to water supplies, and it had a number of measures at its disposal, including using booms and curtains to isolate affected flows.

However at the time, bushfire ash had already reportedly entered the Warragamba system.

The authors crossing the Coxs River during very low flow last September.
Author provided

Look to recycled water

Sydney’s water storages may have filled, but residents should not stop saving water. We recommend Level 2 water restrictions, which ban the use of garden hoses, be relaxed to Level 1 restrictions which ban most sprinklers and watering systems, and the hosing of hard surfaces.

While this measure is in place, longer term solutions can be explored. Expanding desalination is a popular but expensive option, however greater use of recycled wastewater is also needed.




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Highly treated recycled water including urban stormwater and even treated sewage should be purified and incorporated into the water supply. Singapore is a world leader and has proven the measure can gain community acceptance.

It’s too early to tell what impact the combination of bushfires and floods will have on water storages. But as extreme weather events increase in frequency and severity, all options should be on the table to shore up drinking water supplies.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Geochemistry, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfires threaten drinking water safety. The consequences could last for decades



Warnings about poor drinking water quality are in place in some areas affected by the bushfires.
From shutterstock.com

Stuart Khan, UNSW

Bushfires pose serious short- and long-term impacts to public drinking water quality. They can damage water supply infrastructure and water catchments, impeding the treatment processes that normally make our water safe to drink.

Several areas in New South Wales and Victoria have already been issued with warnings about the quality of their drinking water.

Here’s what we know about the short- and long-term risks.




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Short-term risks

Bushfires can damage or disrupt water supply infrastructure as they burn. And the risks can persist after the fires are out.

A loss of power, for example, disables important water treatment processes such as chlorine disinfection, needed to kill microorganisms and make our water safe to drink.

Drinking water for the towns of Eden and Boydtown on the NSW south coast has been affected in this way over recent days. Residents have been advised to boil their water before drinking it and using it for cooking, teeth brushing, and so on.

Other towns including Cobargo and Bermagui received similar warnings on New Year’s Eve.




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In some cases, untreated water, straight from a river supply, may be fed directly into drinking water systems. Water treatment plants are bypassed completely, due to damage, power loss, or an inability to keep pace with high volumes of water required for firefighting.

We’ve seen this in a number of southern NSW towns this week including Batlow, Adelong, Tumbarumba, and the southern region of Eurobodalla Council, stretching from Moruya to Tilba. Residents of these areas have also been urged to boil their drinking water.

Untreated river water, or river water which has not been properly disinfected with chlorine, is usually not safe for drinking in Australia. Various types of bacteria, as well as the parasites giardia and cryptosporidium, could be in such water.

Animals including cattle, birds and kangaroos can excrete these microorganisms into river water. Septic tanks and sewage treatment plants may also discharge effluents into waterways, adding harmful microorganisms.

Human infection with these microorganisms can cause a range of illnesses, including gastrointestinal diseases with symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting.




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Long-term risks

Bushfires can damage drinking water catchments, which can lead to longer term threats to drinking water. Drinking water catchments are typically forested areas, and so are vulnerable to bushfire damage.

Severe impacts to waterways may not occur until after intense rainfall. Heavy rain can wash ash and eroded soil from the fires into waterways, affecting drinking water supplies downstream.

For example, bushfire ash contains nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Increased nutrient concentrations can stimulate the growth of cyanobacteria, commonly known as “blue-green algae”.

Cyanobacteria produce chemicals which may cause a range of water quality problems, including poor taste and odour. Some cyanobacteria can produce toxic chemicals, requiring very careful management to protect treated drinking water.

Boiling water will kill microorganisms, but not chemical substances.
From shutterstock.com

Many water treatment plants include filtration processes to filter small suspended particles from the water. But an increase in suspended particles, like that which we see after bushfires, would challenge most filtration plants. The suspended particles would be removed, but they would clog the filters, requiring them to be more frequently pulled from normal operation and cleaned.

This cleaning, or backwashing, is a normal part of the treatment process. But if more time must be spent backwashing, that’s less time the filters are working to produce drinking water. And if the rate of drinking water filtration is slowed and fails to keep pace with demand, authorities may place limitations on water use.




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Boiling water isn’t always enough

In order to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal and other illnesses, water suppliers and health departments may issue a boil water alert, as we’ve seen in the past week. Bringing water to a “rolling boil” can reliably kill most of the microorganisms of concern.

In cases where water may be contaminated with chemical substances rather than microorganisms, boiling is usually not effective. So where there’s a risk of chemical contamination, public health messages are usually “do not drink tap water”. This means bottled water only.

Such “do not drink” alerts were issued this week following bushfire impacts to water treatment plants supplying the Victorian towns of Buchan and Omeo.




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Impacts to catchments from bushfires and subsequent erosion can have long-lasting effects, potentially worsening untreated drinking water quality for many years, even decades.

Following these bushfires, many water treatment plant operators and catchment managers will need to adapt to changed conditions and brace for more extreme weather events in the future.The Conversation

Stuart Khan, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘New Bradfield’: rerouting rivers to recapture a pioneering spirit


Waters from the Herbert River, which runs toward one of northern Australia’s richest agricultural districts, could be redirected under a Bradfield scheme.
Patrick White, Author provided

Patrick White, James Cook University and Russell McGregor, James Cook University

The “New Bradfield” scheme is more than an attempt to transcend environmental reality. It seeks to revive a pioneering spirit and a nation-building ethos supposedly stifled by the bureaucratic inertia of modern Australia.

This is not a new lament. Frustrated by bureaucracy, politicians in North Queensland have long criticised the slow pace of northern development.




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In 1950, northern local governments blamed urban lethargy. One prominent mayor complained:

… these young people lack the pioneering spirit of their forebears, preferring leisure and pleasure to hardships and hard work.

These sentiments were inspired by an agrarian nostalgia that extolled toil and toughness. Stoic responses to the challenges of life on the land are part of the Australian legend.

With drought devastating rural and urban communities and a state election looming in Queensland in 2020, both sides of politics have proposed a “New Bradfield” scheme.

An idea with 19th-century origins

Civil engineer John Bradfield devised the original scheme in 1938. His plan would swamp inland Australia by reversing the flow of North Queensland’s rivers. Similar proposals go back to at least 1887, when geographer E.A. Leonard recommended the Herbert, Tully, Johnstone and Barron rivers be turned around to irrigate Australia’s “dead heart”.

Blencoe Falls, on a tributary of the Herbert River, North Queensland, during the dry season.
Patrick White, Author provided

As the “dead heart” became the “Red Centre” in the 1930s, populist writers revived the dreams of big irrigation schemes.

These schemes have always been contested on both environmental and economic grounds. A compelling history of Bradfield’s proposal reveals many errors and miscalculations. But what the scheme lacked in substance it made up for in grandiose vision.

Water dreaming has been a powerful theme in Australian history. The desire to transform desert into farmland retains appeal and discredited schemes like Bradfield keep reappearing.




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Contempt for nature and country

While less ambitious than the original plan, the “New Bradfield” scheme still engineers against the gradient of both history and nature. It would have irreversible consequences for Queensland’s environment, society and culture.

What’s more, the new scheme manifests much the same mindset as the old.

It’s an attitude that privileges the conquest of nature: in this case literally up-ending geography by turning east-flowing rivers westward. Its celebration of the human struggle against defiant nature reprises the pioneering ethos.

Like many pioneers, “New Bradfield” proposals disregard the interests and land-management practices of Indigenous people. The bushfires ravaging the eastern states show the folly of ignoring traditional ways of caring for country .

Overlooking native title realities can also cost governments and communities.




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Remote Indigenous Australia’s ecological economies give us something to build on


Polarising debate neglects more viable projects

“New Bradfield” is promoted as “an asset owned by all Queenslanders for all Queenslanders”. But environmental destruction and disputes over water sales in the Murray-Darling Basin sound a warning.

The Queensland Farmers Federation has cautiously welcomed the new scheme. Others have dismissed it as a “pipe dream”.

Thus, northern Australia again sits amid a polarised debate about its utility to the nation. Such polarising contests diminish the likelihood of more viable projects being implemented.

Extravagant expectations of “untapped” northern resources have been proffered for nearly two centuries. Distant governments have fantasised the Australian tropics as a land of near-limitless potential. Northern communities have many times been disappointed by the results.

Today’s promises to “drought-proof” large areas of Queensland rely on similar images. “Drought-proofing” aims to keep people on the land but often defies economic and social reality.




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We can’t drought-proof Australia, and trying is a fool’s errand


Dam developments have an underwhelming record

The “New Bradfield” rhetoric echoes the inflated expectations of myriad disappointing northern development plans in the past. The Ord River project was touted as an agricultural wonder that would put hundreds of thousands of farmers into the Kimberley. Its success lies forever just over the horizon.

Much closer to the present proposal is the Burdekin Falls Dam. It sits in the lower reaches of the same river earmarked for the Hells Gates Dam that would feed the “New Bradfield” scheme. Damming Hells Gates has been advocated since at least the 1930s and has new supporters.

The proposed site for Hells Gates Dam is on Gugu Badhun country on the Burdekin River.
Dr Theresa Petray, Author provided

Back in the 1950s, damming the Burdekin was expected to generate hydro-electric power and irrigate vast swathes of farmland. After decades of political squabbling, the dam was completed in 1988. It does not generate hydro power. Although it irrigates some land downstream, the anticipated huge agricultural expansion never happened.

The Burdekin Falls Dam has helped the regional economy and could help to overcome the water shortages of the nearby city of Townsville. But it has not met the inflated expectations widely proffered decades earlier. The benefits that would flow from another dam further upstream are likely to be even more meagre.




Read more:
Damming northern Australia: we need to learn hard lessons from the south


Grandiose visions of northern development have a habit of failing. A “New Bradfield” scheme, animated by an old pioneering ethos, is unlikely to be different.

Drought-affected communities would derive more benefit from sober proposals that acknowledge the past, integrate Indigenous knowledge and incorporate agricultural innovation.The Conversation

Patrick White, PhD Candidate in History and Politics, James Cook University and Russell McGregor, Adjunct Professor of History, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Researchers allege native logging breaches that threaten the water we drink



Researchers have uncovered what appears to be widespread logging of steep slopes in Victoria, which has the potential to damage critical water supplies.
Chris Taylor, Author provided

David Lindenmayer, Australian National University and Chris Taylor, Australian National University

The Victorian government’s logging business is cutting native forests on steep slopes, in an apparent rule breach that threatens water supplies to Melbourne and rural communities.

Our research indicates that across vital water catchments in the Central Highlands of Victoria, state-owned VicForests is logging native forest on slopes steeper than is allowed under the code of practice. Logging also appears to be occurring in other areas supposedly excluded from harvesting.

Logging operations are prohibited from taking trees from slopes steeper than a certain gradient, because it can lead to soil damage which compromises water supplies. There are far better commercial alternatives to this apparent contravention of the rules, which must immediately cease.

A steep slope recently logged measuring 33 degrees on site near Mount Matlock in the Upper Goulburn Catchment.
Chris Taylor

Logging on steep slopes matters

Water catchments are areas where the landscape collects water. They are defined by natural features such as mountain ridgelines and valleys. Rain drains into rivers and streams, which supply water to reservoirs.

Forest cover protects the soil in water catchments by preventing erosion and other damage which can pollute water.

Areas that provide water for drinking, agriculture and irrigation are known in Victoria as special water supply catchments. Under the state’s Code of Forest Practice, logging in these catchments is prohibited on slopes steeper than 30 degrees (or 25 degrees in some catchments). VicForests claims it does not log trees on such slopes.

Sobering evidence

Water in some affected catchments ends up in Melbourne’s drinking water supply.

We analysed slopes across multiple special water supply catchments. We first examined the relationships between slope and logging disturbance using data from the Victorian government, Geoscience Australia, and the European Space Agency. To confirm the results, we visited multiple sites in the Upper Goulburn catchment, which supplies water to Eildon Reservoir, to measure the slopes ourselves.

We found logging in many areas steeper than 30 degrees. In larger catchments such as the Upper Goulburn, around 44% of logged areas contained slopes exceeding this gradient. In many instances, logged slopes were far steeper than 30 degrees and some breaches covered many hectares.

In the Thomson, Melbourne’s largest water supply catchment, 35% of logged areas contained slopes steeper than 30 degrees.

We also found areas that should have been formally excluded from logging but where the forest had been cut. Many of these exclusion zones were around steep slopes. In the Upper Goulburn catchment, nearly 80% of logged areas contained exclusion zones that should not have been cut.

Recently logged areas near Mount Matlock in the Upper Goulburn Water Catchment. The top map shows where we detected slopes exceeding 30 degrees in logged areas (red). The bottom map shows areas designated by the Victorian government as exclusion zones (magenta).
DELWP 2019, ESA 2019, Gallant et al. 2011

Why is this happening?

Last week, VicForests rejected our allegations of slope breaches. VicForests claimed it was complying with a rule under which 10% of an area logged can exceed 30 degrees. This rule applies to general logging areas; our interpretation is this exemption does not apply to the special water supply catchments.

Forest on steep and rugged terrain is economically marginal for wood production because the trees are relatively short and widely spaced. Almost all timber from these areas is pulpwood for making paper.

So why are such areas being logged at the risk of compromising the water catchments that supplies Melbourne and regional Victoria?

We suspect pressure to log steep terrain is tied to the Victorian government’s legal obligation to provide large quantities of pulp logs for making paper until the year 2030 (coincidentally the year the government plans to phase out native forest logging).

This pressure is reflected in recent reductions in log yields. Some commentators have blamed efforts to protect the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum for this trend. However, only 0.17% of the 1.82 million hectares of forest allocated to VicForests for logging has been taken out of production to protect this species.

In our view, other possibilities for declining yields are past over-cutting and bushfires. VicForests failed to take into account the effects of fire on its estimates of sustained timber yield – despite some of Victoria’s forests being some of the world’s most fire-prone environments.

There are alternatives

Pulp logs sourced from native forests is not a commercial necessity; there are viable alternatives. Victorian hardwood plantations produced 3.9 million cubic metres of pulp logs last year. Most of this was exported.

If just some of these logs were processed in Victoria, it would be enough to replace the pulpwood logged from native forests several times over. Plantation wood is better for making paper than native forest logs, and processing the logs in Victoria would boost regional employment.

Degrading soil and water by logging steep terrain is not worth the short-term, marginal gain of meeting log supply commitments, especially when there are viable alternatives. The Victorian government must halt the widespread breaches of its own rules.


In a statement, VicForests said it “strongly rejects” the allegations raised by the authors.

In addition to the refutations included in this article, the company said:

  • Any concerns about its practices should be referred to the Office of the Conservation Regulator

  • VicForests does very little harvesting in catchments, where restrictions are in place

  • In the Thompson catchment, VicForests only harvests on average 150ha a year out of about 44,000ha in the catchment – which is 0.3%, or around 3 trees in 1000

  • VicForests only asks contractors to harvest on slopes if it complies with regulation.The Conversation

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Chris Taylor, Research Fellow, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dams are being built, but they are private: Australia Institute



A senior water researcher at the institute said politicians don’t want to talk about private dams because “they do nothing for drought-stricken communities”.
Shutterstock

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A report from The Australia Institute rejects government claims new dams are not being built, saying at least 20 to 30 large private dams have been constructed in the Murray-Darling basin in recent years.

While information on the number of private dams and the cost of their taxpayer subsidy is limited, the report says “it appears that just two of these dams cost taxpayers nearly $30 million”.

“Over $200 million was spent on dam-related projects [in the Murray-Darling Basin] according to official data, although not all of this will have been specifically on dams,” it says,

Maryanne Slattery, senior water researcher at the institute, said politicians don’t want to talk about these dams because “they do nothing for drought-stricken communities, the health of the river or struggling farmers”.

“These dams have been built on private land and are for the exclusive use of corporate agribusiness, such as Webster Limited,” she said.

“Politicians are reluctant to talk about why millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent subsidising dams that make the problems of the Murray Darling Basin worse”.

Water Minister David Littleproud has repeatedly berated the states for not building new dams. He said recently that of the 20 dams completed since 2003, 16 were in Tasmania.

“If NSW, Queensland and Victoria don’t start building dams, their water storage capacity will fall by more than 30% by 2030,” he said. “We put $1.3 billion on the table in through the national water infrastructure development fund in 2015 and have still had to drag most states kicking and screaming to build new dams.”

The report says new public dams would require public consultation, including with stakeholders who had environmental and economic concerns.

But private dams involved “minimal public consultation and can be approved and constructed based on environmental assessments commissioned from private consultants by dam proponents”.

The report looked at three dams in detail, on properties in the Murrumbidgee Valley owned by Webster Ltd – Glenmea, Bringagee and Kooba Station. The dams were funded out of the federal government’s $4 billion water efficiency program.

The report argues such dams are not the best way to save water. It points to the department of agriculture and water resources saying new dams can save water where they replace shallower ones (which have more evaporation), or where they collect recycled irrigation water.

“However, none of the three case-study dams in this report save water in this way. They are new dams, not replacing smaller, shallower dams. Water stored behind their approximately eight metre high walls would otherwise be stored in public headwater dams around 100 metres deep.”

These dams are designed to divert normal irrigation water and “supplementary water” – not to simply recycle irrigation water, the report says. Thus “they increase both evaporation and irrigation water use”.

Supplementary water is water that is surplus to consumptive needs. It is important environmentally and to downstream users, historically making up almost all the water flowing from the Murrumbidgee into the Murray, the report says.

“With major dams now targeting this water, the Murrumbidgee could be disconnected from the Murray in most years. This has implications for all NSW Basin water users, who are already grappling with how to meet downstream obligations within the Murray’s constraints and with no water coming down the Darling.”

The report says a Canadian pension fund had just been reported as “swooping” on Webster, “with specific mention of a property with one of these new dams”.

“The new dams that Australian taxpayers helped build appear to be highly valued by international investors,” the report says.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Three reasons why it’s a bad idea to ramp up Adelaide’s desalination plant


Sarah Ann Wheeler, University of Adelaide

Drought-affected farmers in New South Wales have called for South Australia to increase the use of its desalination plant to enable an increase in water allocations for other users along the Murray River.

The farmers’ argument is that if Adelaide in particular draws less water from the river more will be available for agriculture in NSW and Victoria.

The logic may sound appealing, but there are three good reasons why it’s not a good idea. Not only is desalination an incredibly expensive project, there are other strategies – like water pricing – that can more effectively reduce water demand.




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It’s also important to remember that the water flowing to South Australia is not “wasted” if it’s not diverted for industry. Stream flows are vital for keeping many ecosystems alive, and there are already serious concerns about current levels.

Adelaide doesn’t use that much water

First, Adelaide uses a very small amount of water from the River Murray. Over the past two decades, average diversions for metropolitan Adelaide and associated country areas have been just over 100 gigalitres (GL). This represents an average 1.25% of the water diversions in the Murray-Darling Basin.

SA in general (including irrigator use) has used an average 11% of water diversions over the past two decades. NSW has diverted 52% of surface water in the Murray-Darling Basin over the same period. Hence, the reality is that ramping up SA’s desal plant will have very little actual impact on NSW irrigators’ water allocations.

South Australia (the grey line) receives much less water from the Murray River than other states.
MDBA Water Audit Monitoring reports, CC BY

Desalination is expensive

Second, increasing desalination has heavy financial and environmental costs. The financial cost is why the plant has been run at only about 10% capacity (the minimum needed to maintain its working condition).

Previous economic analysis by consultants has suggested the desalination plant should only be used to increase water allocations to SA irrigators when temporary water market prices are above A$510 per megalitre (ML).

Given that temporary water prices are now trading around A$300/ML (albeit increasing due to increased water scarcity), we’re still a long way from a financial argument for turning to the desal plant, let alone considering the cost of its negative environmental impacts.




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Farmers experiencing drought-related stress need targeted support


Water is always variable

Third, we need to take into account the variable nature of Australia’s irrigation sector.

Farmers in NSW are complaining that they are on zero percentages of water allocations at the start of the water year (August 1). This sounds like a big problem. But it doesn’t mean the farmers will get no water from the river at all.

At the start of the season, water managers allot water in districts to irrigators every two weeks. Depending on the type of water entitlement owned, and given the current state of water conditions (e.g. storage, inflows, rainfall predictions), water managers will allocate a percentage of water to high security entitlements first, then general security, then low security. Only in high rainfall years will the low security group get any water. Most years they get none.

Since water was separated from land in the Murray-Darling Basin, this water is not tied to any particular use. Once allocated, irrigators can use their seasonal water for their crops, store it, sell it on the water market, or even choose to let it flow down the river.

It is not unusual for irrigators with low or general security entitlements to start the water year with low or no water allocated, especially in times of water scarcity. One reason is that these rights are traditionally associated with districts where farmers typically grow annual crops like rice and cotton. They have larger farms and more water rights – but also more flexibility about the amount they plant every year.

Low water allocations at the start of the water year act as a signal to these producers to think carefully about the amount of acreage to plant in the coming months. In addition, many NSW and Victorian farmers have access to carry-over water (unused stored water from the previous year).

The other option is the water market; irrigators can enter the water market to buy water. Current temporary water prices are still historically a lot lower than prices in the Millennium Drought, when temporary prices hit over A$1000/ML in many regions.

Finally, it is important to emphasise that water destined for urban use in SA is not “wasted water” for NSW and Victoria. It is still providing surface-water flows in the basin as it makes it way to SA.

Economic studies show that a healthy and sustainable river is worth millions of dollars in tourism and recreation, plus providing important cultural values, on which many small regional town economies are heavily dependent. And there is ongoing evidence that the Murray-Darling Basin is still far from being sustainable.




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Unfortunately, many of the people who support more sustainable water reallocation for the environment are widely dispersed. They often do not have the lobbying power or the resources to engage successfully in policy debate.

The ConversationOf course, farmers need support. But the calls for more water to be allocated to irrigators will sound loudly as the drought continues, and it’s important to remember that there are other, less costly, options that also protect our environment.

Sarah Ann Wheeler, Professor in Water Economics, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.