January 2013

Power vs people

25.01.2013 - Posted by Kane Travis
I recently read about the new dams planned for the lower Mekong and the expected impacts on the people who rely on this river. It is an interesting case study that on one hand is responding to the global need for low carbon electricity, but on the other will have significant local economic, social and environmental consequences.

The lower Mekong flows through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Combined, eleven major hydropower dams have been proposed on the main stem of the river in these four countries, and a further eight are being constructed in China. The proposed dams will change the system’s natural hydrology and block the migration of freshwater fish, which will in turn reduce fish breeding.

Australian National University (ANU) has undertaken research into the impacts of these dams. Their work indicates that fish populations will fall somewhere between 16 and 42 per cent (depending on how many dams are built). Given there are around 60 million people who live in these countries and whose main source of protein is freshwater fish, you can start to see the problem. To give some perspective on the importance of fish, in Australia we each on average consume 6 kg of fish annually; in the lower Mekong the average is 33.7 kg per person per year. In addition to the loss of protein, around 54 per cent of all riverbank gardens along the Mekong would be lost to inundation.

The social and economic impact will be felt primarily by the rural communities who depend on fishing and farming, and raises the broader question of how the protein source is to be replaced. One likely answer is through the consumption of domestic livestock, but the ANU research suggests the additional land required to accommodate such an industry ranges from 7,080 to 24,188 km2 and that the best agricultural land will be flooded by the dams (estimated to be around 1,300 km2). Where does the extra land come from – forested areas?

I think this is a good example of how the global push to lower carbon electricity can deliver unintended consequences and I wonder how these low income farmers can possibly compete with the major power companies and the politics at play. I did see that Oxfam appears to be quite involved in this issue. If you are interested in learning more about the social considerations visit Oxfam.

Locals depend on the Mekong for fishing and transport

Booroolong frog revival

22.01.2013 - Posted by Clare Ferguson
Here’s another good example of why rivers need a decent flood from time to time: populations of the nationally endangered booroolong frog have flourished since the March 2011 floods in the Upper Murray region, according to a recent collaborative survey by the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and Parks Victoria.

The booroolong frog had significantly declined in numbers as a result of disease and drought, as well as the typical post-European settlement impacts on the landscape. In Victoria, there are now only two known populations of booroolong frog, both located in the Upper Murray region. The one in eighty year ARI flood there in 2011 exposed and deposited rocky cobble along the stream edges, restoring ideal breeding habitat for the frog. It seems the booroolong, one of Victoria’s rarest frogs, has taken to the new breeding habitat quite nicely and has wasted no time getting down to business.

The booroolong frog's response to the high flow event is encouraging. It reinforces the ecological importance of having a range of flows along the stream. It also illustrates how a species in decline can recover if appropriate flows are returned to the system, even when the species has been in decline for some time.

Picture of a booroolong frog from the Australian Broadcasting Commission webiste.

The heat is on!

15.01.2013 - Posted by David Barratt

Preliminary data released by the World Meteorological Organization estimated the global mean temperature for 2012 (January–September) to be 0.43 ±0.11 °C above the 1961–1990 annual average of 14.0 °C. Based on these preliminary figures, 2012 ranks as the ninth-highest on record. In no year since 1985 has the global mean temperature been below average, and the years between 1997 and the present have been the 14 warmest on record. The 10-year global average for 2003–2012 was 0.45 °C above average, making it the third-warmest 10-year period since 1880.

South east Australian landscape (from the 2008 BoM calendar, photo: Ralph Whitten)

According to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, the Earth has warmed about 1.44 degrees Fahrenheit during the last 40 years. But the poles are warming even faster; the Arctic has warmed by more than 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit during the same time period due to changes in clouds, water vapour, surface albedo, atmospheric temperature and energy transport.

While obviously a lot of uncertainty remains, two significant consequences of global warming for southern Australian landscapes are more extreme flood events, particularly in summer, and longer and more extreme dry periods. All communities, and rural communities in particular will need  strategies and actions that better mitigate flood events and increase dry season base flow.

POAMA Equatorial Pacific Ocean Sea Surface Temperature forecast from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology

As for the coming year, for Australia at least, sea surface temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific are currently predicted to remain ‘neutral’ for much of the year (less than a ±0.8°C anomaly), so rainfall is unlikely to be particularly remarkable one way or the other. Having said that, on the temperature side, in the absence of the sudden appearance of an unexpected La Nina, I’m happy to bet it’ll be another warm year…

SA joins NSW in funding cuts to MDBA

14.01.2013 - Posted by Kane Travis
The South Australian government recently cut $14.3 million in funding from 2014/15 for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which represents a 50% cut in the state's joint-funding contribution. The cut follows a similar move by the NSW government in June 2012 to cut $20 million from this year's contribution and a further $3 million cut next year, which equates overall to a 73% cut overall from NSW.

It seems likely the other Basin states will follow suit, as they may feel their contribution is subsidising NSW and SA. If this happens, the joint program budget could be reduced to about $27 million by 2014-15, down from this year's allocation of $110 million.

To put this in some perspective, NSW has a budget revenue of around $68 billion. The 2012-13 NSW budget overview documents the state's commitment of $941 million to duplication of the Pacific Highway (a further $1.5 billion will be invested as the NSW Government's contribution to complete the duplication by 2016), $472 million towards key regional highways, $248 million to increase capacity and improve travel times on roads in Sydney, and $30 million to plan for a future Sydney Motorway network. That’s around a whopping $3.2 billion on roads.

The Basin Plan is the most significant piece of water reform in Australia for the past century. It is designed to protect our rivers, wetlands and estuaries, and preserve their environmental value for the future. Personally I find it hard to put a value on that. If the other states follow suit, the level of funding will be insufficient to cover even basic river operations, resulting in limited funding available for any natural resource management programs in the Basin. Already we have seen the termination of the Sustainable Rivers Audit and the Native Fish Strategy as a result of the NSW cuts.

The finalisation of the Basin Plan has been an amazing hurdle to get over and we have been proud to have been closely involved in supporting the MDBA in the science of the Basin Plan. The production of the Basin Plan has cost millions of dollars and engaged with hundreds of thousands of people across the country. It has been a massive investment of time and funds to date. I am not suggesting NSW (and other states) don’t need to spend billions on roads, but I find it very hard to wrap my head around the decision to pull $23 million from a program that has come so far and has the potential to do so much for the health of our environment.

I don’t claim to understand the State Government mechanisms and the political environments that sit behind State budgets, but I think if we let this slip now, we have lost the opportunity to leverage all the hard work that got the Basin Plan over the line.

New coal seam gas policy – a step in the right direction

7.01.2013 - Posted by Kane Travis
The Queensland Government has recently released a new policy on water reuse from Coal Seam Gas (CSG) production. Prompted by increasing community and environmental concerns about the release of groundwater to surface creeks and rivers, CSG companies will be required in the first instance to reuse water in ways that are beneficial to local landholders, water-dependent industry and the environment.

Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection Andrew Powell said "Firstly, CSG water could be used for the benefit of the environment, water users or water-dependent industries. After all feasible beneficial use options have been considered, CSG water must then be treated and disposed of in a way that minimises impacts to the environment."

It was only November 2011 that the Queensland Government was accused on ABC Lateline of risking the environment by allowing the release of treated coal seam gas water into the Condamine River. At the time over 20 ML of coal seam gas water was discharged per day.

After recently driving the back road from Mullumbimby to Nimbin the ‘lock the gate’ signage on every gate reminded me of the challenges that are faced to develop an industry that respects the needs of the community and the environment. The new policy is a step in the right direction and will result in increased investment into the science of waterway flow requirements in Queensland. Hopefully this knowledge then gets translated into better management of our rivers and estuaries.

Coal seam gas wells south of Chinchilla in south-west Queensland source: ABC News