Channel Country

Channel Country

The free-flowing rivers of Channel Country in the south-west corner of Queensland travel through the Simpson Desert and replenish Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre to the south. The prospect of fracking these delicate rivers and floodplains poses a terrible risk to the overland flows—the lifeblood that feeds the heartlands of Australia.

Channel Country is an incredible place, a labyrinth of branching channels carved into the floodplains of an otherwise arid landscape. Home to an extraordinary array of endemic species, this is a culturally important and biodiverse-rich region.

When the rains come Channel Country teems with life. Image: Geoff Spanner Productions

In a nutshell

Channel Country is special because:

    • Spectacular intertwining channels are carved through desert landscapes

    • Floodplains can be 40-80km wide in places

    • Waterholes and wetlands provide crucial refuges that sustain the wildlife in these desert landscapes through long, dry periods

    • When the floodplains fill, plants rapidly germinate and grow, and dormant invertebrate eggs hatch providing a huge foraging area for fish, turtles, waterbirds and small mammals

    • The waterways form the foundation of several First Nations cultural stories, including those of Mowana (budgerigar), Multhuri (pelican), Magwiri (stork) and others.

Why is it under threat:

    • Santos and Origin Energy have been granted petroleum leases (ie production of gas, oil and petrol, including harmful fracking)

    • Many other companies are actively exploring for fossil fuels

    • Infrastructure, like roads and wells, disrupt the overland water flows during wet seasons, potentially channelling water away from important wetlands

    • Fossil fuel developments can reduce water pressure and water quality in these sensitive systems

    • More fossil fuels will exacerbate climate change, placing Channel Country's delicate and unique ecosystems in increasing danger

The Kati-Thanda-Lake Eyre Basin is globally significant—it is one of the last water catchments on Earth that can flow uninterrupted, albeit on an intermittent basis. The catchment area is vast, encompassing central Queensland, Northern Territory, New South Wales and South Australia.

In Queensland, the Georgina, Diamantina and Cooper Creek river systems do not flow permanently. Rather, the floodplains along these arid and semi-arid rivers fill every few years after long dry spells. During these wet periods, a complex network of waterways forms that support an abundance of life. During the dry periods, the water system is reduced to isolated waterholes and wetlands that provide crucial habitat for the animals that depend on them until the next big wet. The rivers in this basin are the life-blood for the flora and fauna of the Simpson Desert and Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre itself; the Cooper region alone has eight nationally important wetlands and 26 threatened species!

Millions of birds depend on the wetlands of Channel Country. Image: Glenn Walker

The rivers of Channel Country support several endangered fish species, which depend on either permanent waterholes or artesian springs, including the Cooper Creek catfish, the Red-finned blue eye and the Edgbaston goby. They also support waterbird breeding events on a scale of international significance. During major floods, several million waterbirds can gather in these waterways; the ebb and flow of water over the years in Channel Country is vital for birds like pelicans, cormorants, darters, spoonbills, egrets and herons.

The artesian springs in the Channel Country contain endemic wildlife not found anywhere else in the world that have evolved to fill a niche found in particular springs—some are only found in a single spring complex. These pockets of rare biodiversity are extremely vulnerable because they are entirely dependent on permanent groundwater supplies from the Great Artesian Basin aquifers.

Natural channels not man-made scars

Unfortunately, as seems to be the case all too often across Australia, fossil fuel companies are determined to exploit Channel Country for what lies beneath it: oil and gas.

Fracking in sensitive areas like Channel Country poses enormous risks, including the loss, degradation and fragmentation of land and aquatic habitat from mining infrastructure; disrupted surface water flows which, if altered, can reduce flows into sensitive wetlands; reduced water pressure and water quality (both groundwater and surface water); and the disruption of aquifers can put permanent waterholes, and the threatened species that depend on them, in danger.

There are two immediate fossil fuel threats in the Channel Country—Santos and Origin Energy. Both have been granted petroleum leases for the production of gas and oil, which will likely need significant infrastructure and possibly fracking.

The Queensland Government's response to the threat of fossil fuels

The Georgina, Diamantina, and Cooper Creek rivers were protected under Wild Rivers legislation in 2011, however that legislation was repealed by the Newman LNP government in 2014.

In 2014, the Regional Planning Interest Act (RPI Act) was introduced. The protections provided under the RPI Act are similar to those protections provided by the Wild Rivers Act in terms of what uses are permitted and not permitted. The regulations under the RPI Act prohibit hard-rock mining, broadacre cropping, and large dams within the ‘Channel Country Designated Precinct’. However, the RPI Act regulations do not regulate or restrict oil and gas activities.

The Queensland ALP have been committing to protect the pristine rivers of the Channel Country since 2015. To date, they have taken little action to fulfil their commitment beyond commissioning expert advice, commencing consultation with Traditional Owners and taking initial steps to establish a stakeholder advisory group. In 2019, the Lake Eyre Basin Traditional Owner Forum met twice, releasing statements that call for all resource activities including unconventional gas to be prohibited from the rivers and floodplains.

The vast expanse of waterways flowing through Channel Country. Image: Glenn Walker.

Disappointingly, the Palaszczuk Government approved Origin Energy’s petroleum leases in October 2021 before completing the consultation process! This makes a mockery of the proposed consultations and, combined with a lack of publicly available information on the proposed developments, points to a serious lack of community involvement in the decision making process.

Protecting Channel Country

Sunset over an arid Channel Country. Image: Glenn Walker.

In conjunction with our friends at several other organisations, the Wilderness Society has been working to hold the Queensland Government to account on its long standing commitment to protect the Channel Country rivers and floodplains. We have repeatedly communicated with decision makers about the need to protect this area from oil and gas development. And in 2021, our supporters called on their local Labor MPs to protect the region from mining and gas developments.

Quite simply, the sensitive rivers and floodplains of the Channel Country cannot be put in danger from the mindless extraction of yet more fossil fuels. Together with our supporters, we will be doing everything we can in the coming years to protect Channel Country for good. Watch this space!