Sunday, April 6, 2008

Downstream, it's a long way down

Sylvie Shaw

The mouth of the Brisbane River was carefully hidden from the early explorers. The entrance was narrow, sheltered by Fisherman's Island, tangled rain forest, a tightness of mangroves and the huge spreading Moreton Bay Fig. It was as if, states one historical account of the river, '[n]ature herself seemed to have made certain that the river would never be found' (ABC, 2008).

It is said that the explorer John Oxley 'saw such beauty that it took his breath away.' Oxley was so staggered by the lushness and fecundity of flourishing colour that he wrote:

'From the giant trees hung vines and creepers of every description, staghorns by the thousands jostled for space with the wild passionflowers. And here and there extra dark green patches of palms and giant fern forests were sprinkled with the delicate colours of thousands of orchids. And on the river itself Oxley’s boat glided through millions of pink and white water lilies' (ABC, 2008).

The Fishing Monthly laments this spectacle of disappeared and disappearing beauty, saying: 'It's hard to believe that the Brisbane River, as recently as 170 years ago, was lined with rainforest, clear running creeks, and teemed with fish and wildlife beyond your imagination' (Lee, nd).

The results of such drastic environmental change can be seen in research on water quality. The SE Queensland Healthy Waterway study on ecosystem health of the Brisbane River estuary states that water quality is 'generally poor' due, in part, to the concentration of nutrients from sewage and stormwater runoff which flows straight into the precious mangrove-encased Moreton Bay.

Along with the damage to the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay ecosystems, many of Australia's rivers, estauries and embayments are in trouble, none more so than the Murray Darling Basin and the end of its long and seemingly arduous flow, the wondrous Coorong on Australia's southern shore.

In 2006 The Age newspaper declared the Coorong 'dead'. The article began:

'To witness the death of a beautiful, wild creature would be torture enough for most lovers of nature. To witness the decline of a beautiful, wild ecology along a fabled stretch of Australia's coast has been the excruciating duty of biologist David Paton for 20 years' (Chandler 2006).

It's hard to imagine that a river can stop flowing. That birds now stroll across the mud where once a sacred river ran. This situation was highlighted in a recent blog from Angry Pengiun (April 2008) who documented the sad plight of waterbirds as well as other deleterious effects along the Coorong.

'The swans were walking in the river. Yes, walking. In fact I walked in the river – quite a long way across dry mud to photograph a group of perplexed-looking ducks and pelicans sitting on an island that did not used to be there.'

In contrast, early settler accounts of the Coorong described 'vast flocks of waterfowl [that] once blackened the skies over this world-renowned South Australian wetland' (Chandler, 2007). But now water bird numbers have dwindled. Fish species are missing. Extinct perhaps.

Coorong researcher David Paton says that a major cause is the lack of environmental flows. 'Sure,' he says, 'you’ll have a Coorong with water in it, but it … isn’t going to go back to what it was.' (Chandler, 2007). Elsewhere he says: 'Wetland systems deteriorate without environmental flows... [The] Coorong had capacity to cope with drought – but not an extended period of no flow.'

The Brisbane River flows. Slowly. Windingly. Tidally. Breathe the tides flowing in the water, salt to fresh, ocean to river, moon to ocean to river to flow.

Angry Penguin, 2008, Coorong so wronged,, April 7, 2008.
Australia's Centenary of Federation, 2001, Oxley's Discovery Of The Brisbane River, ABC, April 19, 2001.
Chandler J, 2006, The Coorong is dead. What's taking its place? The Age, Jan 21, 2006.
Chandler J, 2007, The Great Coorong – A Biological Barometer, The Age, Jan 29, 2007. Found on:
Lee M, nd, The Brisbane River, Fishing Monthly,
Paton D, nd, Lessons Learned from the Coorong. Powerpoint presentation,