(Photo Credit – Angus Emmot)
Rivers are life
Noonbah Station sits pretty much smack bang in the centre of Queensland. It’s in the heart of the so-called Channel Country. With International Rivers running campaigns for river protections globally, I was keen to see one of the biggest fights currently being fought for rivers in my country, Australia. I’ve come here four months after the last big rains to learn more about the life that’s at stake if these free-flowing rivers aren’t protected from their latest threat – fracking.
Queensland’s Channel Country rivers underpin extensive wildlife in the hot, often dry, floodplain ecosystems. The braided rivers form an extensive natural channel network, and their floodplains have supported indigenous peoples for millennia, providing food and refuge in hard times and good.
On the surface there’s a strange mix of bed-fellows wanting these rivers and the floodplain country protected. Regional tourism is growing fast off the back of new protected areas and iconic natural history sites. Environmentalists know the value of these river ecosystems for diverse bird populations. Indigenous peoples, many disenfranchised from their country, retain strong links to country. And graziers, with long connection through leaseholds, rely on a healthy floodplain to raise cattle and sheep. I’ve come to understand more about how the rivers provide economic value for communities here; including in particular the local graziers like Angus and Karen Emmott from Noonbah.
Its the graziers who are some of the strongest advocates for river protection in this area right now. These rivers and their rich grass plains, now support the world’s largest organic beef operations. But that industry, and the rivers which bring the economic bounty for the pastoralists, face new pressures—coming in the form of gas exploration and fracking. There’s a new alliance for the western rivers, and a campaign building, to keep the rivers free flowing, protected from pipelines and drill bores.
Grasslands rich for cattle… and biodiversity
We arrived at Noonbah, as Angus was raising the ramps on the last three decker, and the road train headed off to Longreach full with prime beef cattle. While just early Spring it had been a hot and dusty muster. With big hat, low strung dusty jeans, logoed work-shirt, in many ways Angus fits the bill, the epitome of the outback grazier. But behind the dusty visage, Angus has some unexpected passions and talents.
Angus is third generation Noonbah, while his wife Karen’s been here 20 plus years. They brought their kids up here and home-schooled them in the early years. The old school building and teacher’s house is freshly renovated as a luxury accommodation option. Surprisingly, a small creek burbles past the house. Its Angus’ newest construction, a wetland surrounded by reeds and acacia, thick with birds. Built to attract the flocks closer in and around the house.
We get an insight into this the next day. The house a-bustle, Karen and her back-packer helper Alexia baking, getting ready for the paying guests: a wildlife photography group. Angus himself packs some serious photography gear. He’s won awards for his wildlife shots.
But more than this, he’s also an accomplished ecologist, literally knowing his land like the back of his hand. We’re lucky to have him and Karen as our hosts and guides to this country. Bearing versions of his and Karen’s family names, Angus has found many new species of bird, reptiles and insects on the family property. Several are named after him and the family. He knows this land, he knows the plants and animals, and he knows the rivers.
Grazier-riverkeeper, Angus Emmott, at Noonbah Station in western Queensland’s Channel Country. Angus is one of many landowners in the region fighting to keep the rivers flowing to Lake Eyre.
(Photo Credit – Glenn Walker)
In the Channel Country of Outback Queensland rivers literally bring life
This is the eastern heart of Australia’s Outback. Running from the deep north of the state the three main rivers—the Diamantina, the Georgina and Cooper Creek—drain south west through vast floodplains, filling Lake Eyre in the good years. In the not so good years, rains deliver a drink to some areas while others just across the range can be in drought. These rivers are ephemeral, reduced to just a few scattered waterholes over long periods. The rivers’ extensive watershed forms the heart of the huge catchment of Kati-Thanda Lake Eyre Basin: one seventh of the total landmass of Australia. (1,200,000 square kilometres or about twice the size of Texas). At 15 meters below sea level, the Lake is the lowest natural point in Australia, and when filled the lake covers 9500 square kilometers
Driving through the channel country requires long range four-wheel drive vehicles. Rough roads, deep bull-dust coats every surface. The brrrrr of driving fast over cattle grids replaces the hassle and heat of opening gates. The roads here cut through the vast cattle stations. There’s little on the horizon for miles. Every now and then a stand of trees, wheeling black kites, indicate a bore, some stockyards and a holding dam, drawing the brahman cattle in from the scrub. We’re covering hundreds of kilometers driving east to west towards the red dunes of the desert country. Long flat plains, mirages, and on the horizon: jump-up country and ironstone- capped mesas, some wearing the softer crowns of Minni ritchi thickets.
Travelling west from Noonbah we cross into the Vergemont River Basin and through the gates to Sunnyside Station, home to grazier Leonie Nunn and family. Leonie’s family run cattle and Merino sheep. Leonie has a quiet, strong drive for this area and her community; she is the Deputy Mayor, and the only woman on the Longreach Regional Council (covering 40,000 square kilometres, but sparsely populated with 4300 people). She speaks of her concerns for the future of the floodplain economies and communities if fracking was allowed in, worried that the agricultural livelihoods and the tourism that underpin the local communities would be lost. We talk about how fracking can affect the underground waters, facilitating mixing of the shallower aquifers, as well as the threat of water pollution if the settling dams from fracking chemicals were to leak or fail. We also discuss the imposition of new infrastructure for mining: roads, pipelines and wells. Leonie wants to see more development in western Queensland, but not at the cost of the environment and the rivers.
The 2019 flood
In March and April, seasonal rains that fell in central north Queensland were unlike most. Tropical cyclone Trevor moved inland, dumping an unprecedented deluge in the upper catchment of the Diamantina River. Downstream in the Diamantina Lakes National Park, chief ranger ‘Mitch’ (Chris Mitchell) tells us floods as extensive as these haven’t been seen since 1974: the big flood. He’s recorded this year’s at just three centimeters short of that previous peak. Mitch, and ecologist partner Fiona Leverington, were stuck here for months. The black soil plains turn to thick glue. Supplies had to be flown in.
While the big rains brought massive life-giving flows to the central and lower basin in the Diamantina National Park, up north they were of such sustained volume, and so unseasonably cold, that many tens of thousands of cattle died from exposure and drowning. Already weakened from years of drought. Boom and bust.
Just a few months on from these most recent rains, as we drive across the floodplains from East to West, many of the river beds are dry again. But the remnants are clear to see. The floodplains and dunes are now thick with flowers, and grasses. Dusty mud caked onto the rough bark of the coolabah trees, and grasses lodged in the tree tops, clearly points to the height of the floods. Five to seven meters in the deepest gullies, one to two meters on the extensive flats. Away from the channels, a stark line delineates where the flood petered out, on one side dense flowered foliage and thick grass cover–lush yet drying fast–and the other, the harsh gibber plains where the waters never reached.
Using recent satellite pictures that Mitch has in his ute, we were tracking the braided flows in behind elliptical sand dunes. The first dune was thick with tracks—big numbers of the native long-haired rats Mitch thought—a good sign that the boom was still playing out. But back behind the dunes the waters had already receded. We drove on to Lake Constance for a swim and lunch. Here the waters remain, and the birds. We see our first brolgas, the beauty of spoonbills and bee-eaters, and strangely for, us city folk, coastal terns and silver gulls that had flown in from the coast for the boom time of the floods.
Life is transient, triggered by the arrival of waters. Drink fast and deep. Bloom and produce seed. Die back. The water’s arrival, and its impact on plant life, also plays out for the fauna. Frogs, fish, insects that have been in stasis deep under crusted mud wake up, feed, and breed. Marsupial mouse and rats likewise boom, but it’s the birds arriving and breeding that really hit you in the face. By the time we arrive, many of the birds have already done their thing, and wheeling flocks—murmurations of budgerigars, masked woodswallows, and zebra finches—indicate the success of the season. Flocks of brolgas dot the plains, a panoply of raptors wheel overhead feasting on the volume of juvenile and unsuspecting birds below. A clear indication of the life that has come with the arrivals of the waters.
Aerial shot of the Channel Country during after floods
(Photo Credit – Matt Turner)
Station to station to park.
As we walk at the base of sand dunes, and sit under coolabahs by the banks of the standing water, clear remnants of previous peoples’ long occupation are all around. Baked earth sticking out of the sand are old fire pits, sharp flints nearby core stones point to knifes, and spear tips, larger hand sized oval rocks and flat grinding stones all indicate long industrious activity in the area. A few beer bottles under the gidyea trees (stamped 1921) point to more recent occupation. A rich and long history.
And yet despite the large river systems and the long occupation, these are truly arid lands. Rainfall is variable throughout the basin, average annual falls deliver just 125 mm per year. And its rain that is unpredictable year on year; some of these rivers might get a mighty deluge, while others remain dry.
These are some of the most intact ecosystems in the Australian outback. The rivers are free flowing. The land is flat. The ecosystems diverse. Many species and habitats unique. These rivers flow inland. The lake they drain into is a vast salt expanse. The threat to the basin from fracking is stark. It is a dispersed industry, and one that is weakly regulated. Access roads and pipelines, deep bores and drill sites would form a myriad of structures and barriers to the movement of water. They would stop flows and redirect them. The structures would deny flow to sections of these ephemeral streams, while pushing flood waters to other areas. This can’t be done safely. Being so vulnerable, the campaign coalition is calling for fracking to be excluded from the Lake Eyre basin.
River Protection is possible.
Coming into the 21st century Queensland had been at the cutting edge globally of recognition of the values of free-flowing rivers. Back then the passing of the Queensland Wild Rivers legislation set a line in the sand against wanton development of the rivers, enacting protections for Queensland’s remaining free flowing, ecologically intact rivers. Though opposed by some it was supported by a broad church of river stakeholders—
environmentalists, indigenous landowners, graziers, politicians and river communities—
the Wild Rivers Act enshrined protection of 10 of Queensland’s most intact rivers. The Act focused on two areas: restricting activities that would impact on the river’s flow and on developments or uses that would affect water quality. It provided these protections for the rivers, immediate watersheds and for their floodplains.
But a change in government saw a strong push to dissolve these hard-fought protections. The conservative Newman government ultimately repealed the Wild Rivers Act, but did not completely annul the protections for the rivers. The channel country rivers and the wider basin do retain protections, these were clarified and enhanced in existing planning legislation.
The Planning Act means that the rivers of the Channel Country are free from damming, the floodplains and rivers protected from development of irrigation lands and from hard rock mining. But fracking is still allowed. This is where the Western Rivers Alliance want to see action from their government to have the protections extended to include fracking as an industry blocked from exploration and development in the floodplain ecosystems. As Angus says, “these rivers are of local, national and international importance. Why wouldn’t we act to protect them?”