Friday, April 25, 2008

A Field of Blue

Along the trail I meet Susan walking her black and white sheep dog. The first thing she remarks on is the quality of the sky, its clarity, its intensity and its depth of colour. The seasons are changing. Mornings are cooler and the cloying humidity has dropped.

In the summer months Brisbane is bathed in a sweltering humidity which covers the city in a sheer film of water vapour that seems to dull or blur the colours of nature.

As the Kookaburras call in the background, Susan remarks on the refreshing cooling breeze. It's been quite a while since tufts of wind have murmured across the trees and rippled the usually smooth smooth river. 'But,' she says, 'it's so dry.' I agree. I'd been lying on the tough yellowing grass taking pictures of the sky and saw how sparse the grass was becoming. It was as if the drought had not really gone away but had just been hiding during the few wet weeks. Now it was back and the plants had begun to suffer. And Susan had noticed.

So I began to wonder - what makes someone aware and observant about the river's ecoclimate? And could this awareness be translated in any way to river care?

To help me answer these questions I turn to Helen Dunn's article 'Defining the ecological values of rivers: the views of Australian river scientists and managers' (2004). She recommends that the first step towards protecting a river is 'to define the particular values and attributes that describe [its] conservation significance' (413). Dunn surveyed river scientists and found, perhaps not surprisingly, that what they valued about rivers was their naturalness, rarity and diversity of ecosystems and endemic species.

Rivers valued for their naturalness such as wild rivers or rivers in remote areas are considered a high priority for conservation although Dunn's respondents did mention the significance of pockets of the wild as ecological value in already 'disturbed rivers'. They also noted 'the role of rivers in providing corridors for dispersal and migration, and refuges in times of drought'. Dunn mentions that in the past rivers have been protected because of their high scenic value and their wildness but her survey pointed to current emphasis on the importance of ecological and conservation values of river systems.

Other studies outline that the vital values influencing river conservation are recreational, cultural, economic, social and environmental. According to the Victorian Department of Natural Resources and Environment (2002), rivers are valued for their 'assets' including 'environmental assets' such as rare species, sites of significance, naturalness, health; 'economic assets' which relate water supply and industry's reliance on river health; and 'social assets' such as sites for recreation and those of special significance for indigenous and European (only?) cultures.

So what does the Brisbane River offer by way of values, especially in the urban area? A paper by Lauren Schroeder (2002) about the values arising from the restoration of the Mahoning River Watershed in the US sheds a different light on definitions of conservation values. Schroeder defines river values in more socially engaged terms. These relate to the benefits that future generations will enjoy from a fully restored river, to residents' increased quality of life, and to the pride residents will feel by living near 'a restored, beautiful river'.

She surmises that these values are likely to engender a sense of social wellbeing manifest in a greater sense of 'social cohesion, social conscience and self-esteem'. She suspects that these outcomes could lead to a reduction in crime and a rise in work performance and productivity. She agrees it's hard to assess these values in monetary terms but says this shouldn't be a reason not to seriously consider social impacts and beneficial outcomes. In fact she comments that the process of restoring the Mahoning River system 'invites' local citizens 'to speak with pride of the river as a symbol of beauty, and of how we care for our environment, how we value and care for our heritage may prove to be the most valuable asset that we have...'.

Studies on local rivers tend to focus on water quality, allocation and flow and not on the social impacts of these issues. But the Brisbane River is more than its scientific value; it is an interdependent network of people, places and natural amenity. Thus, to incorporate this concept of interconnectedness, studies on the ecological and economic value of the river system need to be expanded to embrace social and spiritual values.

Dunn H, 2004, Defining the ecological values of rivers: the views of Australian river scientists and managers, Aquatic Conservation, Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 14, 4, 413–433.
Schroeder L, 2002, The Value of a River: How the Mahoning River’s Restoration Will Impact Our Quality of Life & Economic Vitality,