Flows through our land

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Natasha Childs links us with the network of waterways connecting people and animals in our landscapes.

Not too far from where we are, a patchwork of forests, farms and towns stretches out across the landscape. Bush tracks connect country kids with school bus routes. Rail lines carry world-class food and fibre to market. Freeways bring the wide brown land a little closer to our doors.

There’s another layer to this dynamic system. Water – the lifeblood of countless inland communities – is flowing through a network of rivers and creeks, feeding crops, watering stock and nourishing whole communities.

There’s the Southern Bell Frog that spends its days hunkered down by a river or swamp, waiting for nightfall to serenade the wetland.

The Superb Parrot that nests in a hollow tree by the river, alighting at dusk and dawn to forage on the ground or find fruity treats in the understorey.

There’s the Antechinus, a mouse-sized marsupial that sleeps all day in a fallen log before scampering out onto the forest floor, bulldozing its way through the leaf litter in search of spiders and insects.

Overhead, a Barking Owl emerges at dusk and watches silently over the forest floor awaiting its next meal, perhaps an unsuspecting Antechinus, a frog or a snake.

Each has its own territory, its own paths and corridors all intrinsically linked to the floodplain and the river of life running through it. In that river are the fish, yabbies, water rats, platypus, insects, tadpoles and microscopic animals that help to make up the wetland food web.

It’s an interlinked and dynamic system that has evolved over millennia. Rivers have carved their way through the terrain, sometimes moving quickly, sometimes slowly. They have spread out onto the floodplain, pooled and reconnected.

Native plants have adapted to the numerous and varied ecosystems along the river’s course. And animals have too. Some retreating into dormancy until conditions are just right, others travelling thousands of kilometres to enjoy times of plenty, and more still just making do until conditions improve.

Today, rivers are a shared resource. Large dams ensure a steady supply of water for towns, agriculture and industry, but the needs of people don’t always align with those of the environment. The timing and extent of natural flows through rivers and wetlands has been permanently altered with significant impacts on native wildlife. While some plants and animals seem to survive on the promise of rain, others have more particular requirements.

That’s where the work of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) comes in, with OEH managing a share of the water held in dams to direct that water to rivers and wetlands at times when they need it most. This water is the trigger for plants to regenerate, reproduce and set seed. Water gives the tiniest of wetlands insects the cue to multiply. They become food for other animals and the food chain boom begins. Waterbirds hone in on these freshly-watered sites and arrive in their thousands to feed, build their nests and raise the next generation of young.

Kayaking on the Booligal wetlands.

Behind the scenes, OEH and partners are employing the best science and natural resource management to ensure these plant and animal lifecycles reach completion, and the floodplain ecosystem remains healthy and productive, while posing the least disruption to other river users. Water from wetlands returns to the rivers richer in carbon and nutrients, and ready to fulfil the needs of plants, animals and people downstream.

Australia’s longest river, the iconic Murray, is managed by a team of water resource champions, all devoted to maintaining the balance between human demands and the needs of the environment.

Senior Environmental Water Manager Paul Childs grew up in southern New South Wales, just a stone’s throw from the Murray River. His childhood was filled with stories of ancient River Red Gums, monster Murray Cod and the shifting landscape that changed the course of the Murray 10,000 years ago.

“It’s a great privilege to return to the region where I grew up and work alongside farming families and communities to ensure a healthy river environment.

The river is such a focus for the people who live alongside it. Everyone you meet has memories of swimming there, throwing a line in the water, camping under a gum tree and taking a boat upriver.

I now work with landholders and communities to find the balance between human needs and protecting these beautiful wetlands.

Along the Murray and its tributaries there are hundreds of wetland sites where threatened and endangered plants are known to live. The requirements of each site can vary significantly. Plants like the River Red Gum require a regular cycle of flooding and drying to remain healthy.

In the wetlands of the Millewa National Park, we find the Moira Grass plains. It’s a threatened ecological community that needs regular inundation of a particular depth and duration in order to grow, form grassy mats, set seed and slowly die down, ready for the next watering event.

Water is used to support habitat for particular species like the endangered Southern Pygmy Perch. This small fish as very particular requirements and our work is helping to restore the habitat that it requires to breed and survive.

Every effort we make has a flow-on effect for plants and animals in and around wetlands. It’s an amazing field to work in and one that allows you to see the positive outcomes of your work on a daily basis,” Paul said.

Swamp lilies bloom in the Macquarie valley.

Emma Wilson grew up on a rice farm near Coleambally and now works as an Assistant Environmental Water Manager with OEH.

“Farmers know the value of a healthy landscape. They are the custodians of 80 per cent of wetlands in New South Wales. In my job I work with these landholders to identify wetlands on private property that can benefit from environmental water.

In the past 15 years, water has been delivered to more that 200 wetlands and 280 kilometres of creek sin the Murray valley. We’re seeing threatened Southern Bell Frogs expand their territory and respond to targeted watering throughout the valley. Monitoring is revealing new nesting sites for endangered birds like the Australian Bittern.

All manner of native plants are responding, creating healthier ecosystems, stronger food webs and more robust wildlife networks that can support a diverse range of native animals like the endangered Southern Bell Frog, the fishing bat and the Great Egret,” Emma said.

Limits on water availability from season to season influence the management of the water flowing through the network of rivers, creeks and wetlands. During dry times, environmental water managers prioritise the sites that will receive water according to a range of criteria including ecological significance, species survival, river health, water quality and international agreements on the protection of rare or important environments and the plants and animals that rely on them.

Every day the work of water managers is making a difference to the health and long-term sustainability of New South Wales floodplains from the Macquarie and Gwydir catchments in the north, to the Lachlan, Murrumbidgee and Murray in the south. It’s a complex and ever-evolving system that enables Australia’s unique native plants and animals to survive and thrive alongside the people who also enjoy the myriad of riches of the floodplain environment.

The national parks of inland New South Wales provide the perfect vantage point to see the rivers, wetlands and floodplains that support our native plants and animals. At many locations across the state you will find walking trails, lookouts, bird hides and camping spots that enable visitors to experience nature close up. Take a moment. Look, listen and be a part of your amazing environment.

This article was written by Natasha Childs.

You can download a pdf of the article ‘Flows through our land’.
More information is available at www.environment.nsw.gov.au/environmentalwater/what-is-it.htm
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