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Boom time for the Channel Country rivers of Lake Eyre Basin

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It’s boom time for the Channel Country rivers of Lake Eyre Basin in central Australia – for nature, and for the local community. For the second year running, major rains and floods have completely transformed Australia’s arid heart into a lush, green water-land, bursting with birdlife and brimming with breeding fish. It is without doubt one of the most spectacular natural events on the planet.

The incredible satellite at right (from Geoscience Australia) shows the extent of the recent floods, and arid Australia’s bright green bloom. The big blue areas in the centre of the image are huge masses of water extending over floodplains. To give an idea of the scale of these colossal natural features, the biggest floodplain, shown third from the left (on Cooper’s Creek), is about 320km in length, and about 60km wide in some parts.

Just imagine standing on the edge of this expansive shallow lake as Pelicans and Yellow-Billed Spoonbills and Black Swans fly over your head. It’s a stark contrast to the normally bone-dry, sandy plain that would be the common sight in this area. In large floods, up to 10 million waterbirds congregate in these temporary wetlands.

Some of the water in these floodplains, after soaking the soils and replenishing the waterholes, will flow all the way down into Lake Eyre, turning the salt flats once again into a huge inland lake.

The nature of the Lake Eyre Basin

The flows of one of the major rivers in this basin, Cooper's Creek, has been measured as the most unpredictable and variable of all the major rivers in the world. This incredibly sporadic and dramatic cycle from dusty dry to a booming wet is what drives life in the Lake Eyre Basin. Many people refer to this cycle as the “boom and bust”.

This is because, most of the time, the landscape is dry and the only permanent water found in the region is in some of the larger waterholes in the bottom of the basin. Here, aquatic plants and animals are hanging on by a thread, with overall populations at low levels. Likewise, activity in the local grazing and tourism industries becomes slow and still, like the water sitting in the waterholes. This is the “bust”.

But then the “boom” comes with pouring rain as it did in early March this year. Macroinvertebrates (such as snails, beetles and mosquitos) take full advantage of the rare rain event, and suddenly breed at an exponential rate in an explosion of life. The basin becomes one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth. This in turns provides a smorgasbord for fish, and in turn tens of thousands of waterbirds.

The water from the rains quickly fills the waterholes and the river channels and spills out onto the floodplains, connecting all in one big blanket of water, allowing animals and seeds (and some plants) to move about freely, and encouraging even more breeding and the important exchange of genetic material. The water also signals a wildflower bloom, carpeting the landscape in a rainbow. This year, the burst of water comes on the back of last year’s flood in the Georgina and Diamantina Rivers, which has accentuated the burst of life.

Native grasses also thrive from the deep soil soaking, colouring the red and brown landscape with a bright green. This is what the local grazing industry depends on as cattle feeds mostly on native grasses. The tourism industry also experiences a boom time as people from all over the world flock to Australia's outback centre to witness the natural spectacle.

This flooding event of the Lake Eyre Basin is the supreme example of what the Wilderness Society calls “WildCountry science” in action. That is, it shows the beauty of landscape-scale ecological processes at work, and the need to ensure that conservation measures aren’t just confined to small protected areas, but also keep nature connected and healthy across an entire landscape.

Wild River protection

In Queensland, the Wilderness Society is working with local graziers, Traditional Owners, and local and state governments to ensure these floodwaters and natural flows can continue their life-giving journey unimpeded, and that the waterhole refuges aren’t sucked dry during the “bust” times. This is through the protection of the rivers under Queensland’s groundbreaking Wild Rivers Act, which prevents excessive water extraction and keeps irrigation schemes and mining out of the river systems. In other words, it will help maintain the natural connections of water across the landscape.
Learn more about the Wilderness Society's Wild Rivers campaign here >>

Following an election commitment in March 2009, the Queensland Government has already commenced consultation with the local community to ensure the Wild River declarations are best catered to local needs, and acknowledge the wealth of land management skills from Traditional Owners and other non-Indigenous landholders. A draft Wild River declaration for Cooper’s Creek is expected to be released in a few months time.

The Wilderness Society is also working to ensure that the protection measures are supported with real resources to local people to manage their rivers sustainably. We hope to see the Indigenous Wild River Ranger program – so successful in Far North Queensland – expanded to the Lake Eyre Basin rivers.

Take Action!

You can voice your support for Wild River protection of the Channel Country Rivers of the Lake Eyre Basin rivers by emailing the Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and encouraging her to follow through with her election promise. Email: thepremier@premiers.qld.gov.au

More info

The ABC has a great short video clip on the replenishing floods in the Lake Eyre Basin - Click here to view >>

YouTube link: “Flying over the flooding Georgina and Diamantina rivers in January 2009” - Click here to view >>

Read about our alliance with grazier groups and see our TV ad from last year’s election here >>