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Down the drain

By Sophie Love - posted Tuesday, 12 March 2013


This has been the view from my kitchen window for the last 10 days or so. The rate of flow, amount of debris and muddiness has varied, but the waste of water is relentless. We spent three months this summer on our knees begging for rain, watching pasture die as the heat sucked the life out of the earth. On high bushfire alert as the ground was baked and the dams dried.

Now to see this amount of water wasted, to witness its ravages on its raging path to the sea, is heartbreaking because there is a very simple way to minimise flood damage, store water close to the source and minimise the need for farm and rural dwellers to pump out of rivers.

In rural Australia those who live near watercourses, springs, underwater aquifers etc have the right to pump water for our own, and our stock's, consumption. We drink, bathe in and do the washing in creek, river, dam or bore water. We have some rights to construct dams (depending where we live, size of proposed dam etc) and of course we can harvest rainwater. But rainwater tanks are very expensive (especially when we want them to last for a few generations) and unlike our city cousins, country folk don't get any rebates or assistance with buying rainwater tanks. Why not?

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The likelihood is that we would install large tanks, harvesting enough rainwater for our own use and negate the need to pump out of watercourses.

Building dams is a huge expense – dozer or excavator hours cost somewhere between $100 and $150.00 which is about $1,000 a day. No landowner gets earthmoving equipment freighted onto their property without a long list of things to do, so often dams are very low on the list of financial feasibility even though they are essential water management tools.

Julia Gillard has pledged $50 million to raise the walls of Warragamba Dam but instead of bolting the stable doors after the horse has bolted, shouldn't we be tracking back up the watercourses and implementing sensible, sustainable, water management techniques and devices to stop the increasing salination of our soils, curb the pillaging of our waterways in drought, and minimising the erosion caused by flood damage.

As landowners we are beset by rules and regulations about what we can and cannot do, and know in the back of our minds that since we don't own what lies beneath it, Government and mining companies can always force us off the land we love. In watercourses the rules are worse and yet we are the ones who watch the daily fluctuations of our rivers and streams which are literally our lifeblood.

In our region we have casuarina (she oaks) clogging the arterial waterways by creating islands which divert the water course when in full spate which then erodes riverbank. Yet we are not allowed to remove them. She Oaks are lauded as native whereas Willows are damned as weeds. Yet both suck vast quantities of water from the watercourses they surround.

We are told that we must never take earthmoving equipment or similar into the watercourses in case we divert the flow – but every flood changes the river bed and walls dramatically and a fallen tree can divert the flow for ten or twenty years to come , gouging out the opposing bank, etc. Judicious management by sensible landholders can prevent erosion, spate speed and native vegetation loss. Far better that a landholder takes the time and effort to remove flood generated debris from the river, than it go hurtling further downstream in the next flood. Only someone who has never seen the consequences of a major flood, the tonnes of silt, pebbles and rocks rearranged overnight, huge boulders ripped from the river bed, trees uprooted and flung downriver etc, could make such nonsensical laws.

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Last weekend we heard the crack and saw a huge old gum slip, roots and all, down into the raging river, creating an obstacle to the flow. Immediately downstream, on the opposing bank, two huge she oaks and a tonne or more of rich black alluvial soil have been ripped away as a result. The only way we can move either the gum or the she oaks now lying, root ball and all, midstream, is with a tractor and chains or dozer. Officially we are not allowed to, but only a fool would obey and watch thousands of years worth of soil generation be lost to the sea. My son is still mourning the platypus who lived in that bank, and our beloved 'platypus walk'. As landholders and custodians we protect the habitat of the native wildlife, and our precious platypus population will always take precedence over any policies from the city slickers.

Droughts and floods are part of the pattern of life, they are not new, though there is no doubt that they are becoming more frequent and that the climate we work with, and battle against, is changing very fast. We need to go back to the source and plan, with the landholders, water management strategies which benefit everyone. Which safekeep our landscape and lifeblood web of waterways for future generations.

Landholders have to start planting trees, building dams, creating ways to capture water both in and on the ground so we don't suffer from the huge run offs which cause major flooding. When major rains fall we need to know that the ground is absorbing to maximum capacity, that the mountain run off is being saved in dams and that only the excess is rushing down into the rivers.

If we can capture water BEFORE it creates problems in swollen rivers, flooded roadways, homes and businesses etc. If we can work together for once surely we can mitigate flood damage for the future.

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About the Author

Sophie Love has been involved in the advertising and media industries since the 1980's 'greed is good' heydays. British by birth, but Australian by choice, she is passionate about this beautiful sunburnt continent and re-connecting Australians to their literal roots - where their food comes from. She runs a farm, a family, and a marketing/design agency. In her free time (!) she likes to put pen to paper and share her thoughts about a wide variety of issues and modern day dilemmas. You can read more at www.littlehouseontheriver.com.au.

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