Reflecting this World Rivers Day

This World Rivers Day, on Sunday, 27 September is an opportunity to reflect on the importance rivers play to all aspects of our lives and think more broadly than the pathway the river forges through the landscape.

“The flood plains and wetlands that have developed over thousands of years are as crucial to the health of a river as the river itself,” said CEO of the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority Martin Fuller.

“Over recent years, the CMA has been privileged to work with some inspiring landholders who have seen the importance of wetlands and flood plains and done some amazing work to either protect or reinstate them,” added Martin.

One project that has seen 6,700 trees planted and seven hectares of land fenced to exclude stock from wetlands is on the Ryan family farm at Denison.

“The farm is around 500 acres (200 hectares) has three kilometres of Thomson River frontage and seven lagoons which fill when floods come through,” said John Ryan.

“The land wasn’t particularly productive from a grazing point of view. Our approach was how can we add value to the landscape with a goal of improving and creating more space for habitat?”

The work undertaken on the Ryan property follows work done with the WGCMA in the early 2010s when the property was owned by another family.

“We worked with the previous landholder to remove heavy willow from the river on the eastern half of John’s property, and to fence and rehabilitate the riparian corridor with indigenous plants,” said WGCMA project officer, Elsa Burnell.

“It has been awesome that John has seen great results of this work, including increased productivity when compared to the un-treated half of the river flat, and we were delighted to get another opportunity to work on his property.

“Fencing and revegetating these off-stream lagoons will increase the strength or resilience of the river system, reduce sediment load and nutrient run-off and provide important floodplain habitat for native species, particularly birds. The works will also help slow down and spread the water in flood events, reducing potential damage downstream.” added Elsa.

Recent flood events have allowed John to observe how the water enters the property and journeys across the farm until exiting.

“We see a lot of turbidity. Water will come out of the river. It will come out as a fast flow. When it hits these lagoons, it decelerates that turbidity and takes the power and the damage out of that flow. When the water leaves this property after a flood it is almost crystal clear.

“What we’re trying to achieve here is to take the damaging aspects of a flood out of the process. Allow that water to do its thing but use these lagoons to act as traps for some of that sediment and organic matter that can cause problems downstream to potable water and later in the Gippsland Lakes where it can contribute to algal blooms and other destructive events.”

“When that water leaves our property, it is in better condition than when it arrives. The farm acts as a filter.”

John’s approach of working with occasional flood events and seeing his farm as a part of a larger catchment is different to the historic view that saw some farmers try and keep flood waters off properties by building up river banks and constructing levees to keep a river in its banks.

“I think that approach is putting pressure on our river system to effectively be the drain of our land and contain it all into the river is the wrong way to look at it. A river is not a drain. A river is part of an eco-system and it shouldn’t be used as such,” added John

“We have this tendency to think of rivers as fixed in space and time, but in reality, they would have wandered through the floodplain, commonly changing course, and leaving behind old meanders and billabongs” said Elsa.

“You just have to look at an aerial map of the Macalister Irrigation District to see how our rivers have moved through the landscape over time. These movements create wetlands and billabongs that become meccas for native wildlife and provide important refuge in dry conditions.

“Allowing the river to properly interact with its floodplain not only reduces the ferocity of water flow during flood events but allows the water to regenerate the floodplain with nutrients and sediment that drops out when the flow slows down and encounters vegetation. Fresh water is undoubtedly Australia’s most precious resources, so it makes sense to capture this, allowing it to soak in and regenerate the soil and groundwater, rather than working to channel it off our land”

“I think a day like World Rivers Day reminds us all of the role rivers have on our lives and how they touch every part of our modern life whether that be the economic impact of rivers, the social impact or of course the environmental aspect,” added Martin Fuller.

“But what World Rivers Day does for us at the CMA is remind us of the extraordinary landholders we are able to work with as well as the people who make up local Landcare groups and their individual commitments to improving the landscape we are all a part of.”

John Ryan speaking with WGCMA Elsa Burnell
Some of the lagoon area fenced off and planted at Ryan farm
Hard working members of the tree planting crew at Ryan property.

Photos taken pre-current COVID-19 restrictions