Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Yandina Creek Wetlands Drained Again

Yandina Creek Wetland this week: a scene of desolation
The campaign to protect the Yandina Creek Wetland on Queensland's Sunshine Coast has taken a turn for the worse, with the entire 200-hectare site being drained for the second time, this time in defiance of assurances by Queensland Government authorities. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is urged to intervene to protect a site that had national and international significance as a waterbird refuge before it was drained.

It has emerged that the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) and the Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH) are either unable or unwilling to force floodgates to be opened to replenish the wetland, which at this time last year was frequented by hundreds of migratory shorebirds and other waterbirds, several of which were nesting. The move is particularly unfortunate because the Sunshine Coast Council and private conservation reserve groups had been indicating that acquiring the site for a reserve might be possible with financial assistance from the Queensland Government. As an ecotourism destination with no parallels in the region, there is growing awareness that the site has great potential as an economic drawcard for the Sunshine Coast.

Yandina Creek Wetland this week
The land had been used for sugarcane production until it was sold to family trusts with links to property developers 12 years ago. During that time, floodgates connecting the tidal Yandina Creek to cane farm canals fell into disrepair, allowing the site to be inundated and re-establishing wetland habitat that occurred there naturally before the development of the cane industry in the 1920s.

The result was a diverse and rich wetland that was a magnet for rare and threatened species, including large numbers of migratory shorebirds. The then Abbott Government opted to ignore its obligations under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to protect endangered species on the site, along with its commitment under six international treaties to protect the habitat of migratory shorebirds. Although Tony Abbott has been replaced by Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, Environment Minister Greg Hunt has reiterated his intention to do nothing to protect the site.

Yandina Creek Wetland before it was drained
Present land zoning in the area does not allow the site to be subdivided. The landowners leased the site back to the original cane farmer owners last year. The farmers replaced the broken floodgates and the wetland was drained in July in just two days after three newly installed gates were shut. However, one gate was reopened in September following intervention by DAF, which was concerned about the potentially unlawful killing of mangroves and other protected vegetation resulting from the draining. As soon as the wetland was partially replenished, waterbirds began returning.

DAF said at the time it was the intention of the department to work towards the gradual restoration of water flow to the wetland. Complicating matters, however, was the prospect of acid sulfate pollution being caused by the draining: arsenic and other toxic metals may have leached to the exposed land surface during the two months that the wetland was dry. DAF said the landholders had agreed to monitor the site to ensure that acid sulfate pollution was detected and contained.

Floodgates shut
It now emerges that the single floodgate opened last September has been shut again. The wetland has been drained for the second time. An inspection this week from the high water mark of Yandina Creek - the only point of legal access available to the site for the public – shows that the entire wetland has been dry for several weeks. Access tracks on the boundary are overgrown, suggesting that any work to monitor acid sulfate pollution has been minimal. A fourth floodgate installed last year on a second canal linking the wetland to Yandina Creek was also shut. 

DAF is understood to have discovered that acid sulphate acidification occurred when the site was drained last year. Its concern is that if water returns to the wetland too quickly, toxic metals could wash into Yandina Creek, killing fish and marine life. However, the area has been drained previously with no such pollution being noted. Moreover, any pollution would presumably be short-term and be more than offset by the environmental value of restoring the wetland.

Mangroves, reeds and other aquatic vegetation was either dead or showing signs of severe stress this week. No waterbirds were present. While kayaking along the nearby Maroochy River at low tide, I saw species of waterbird feeding along the narrow strip of exposed mud that would not normally be attracted to such habitat. Red-kneed Dotterels, Black-fronted Dotterels and Latham's Snipe were present in numbers; none of these birds habitually feed on tidal mudflats. All three were common in the wetland before it was drained; presumably they were displaced and are surviving in suboptimal conditions. Numbers of migratory Latham's Snipe in the wetland were sufficiently large to warrant the site being regarded as internationally significant under Commonwealth guidelines. 

Yandina Creek Wetland this week
Government sources said that contrary to assurances given last September, DAF was powerless to force the opening of floodgates. The department's Boating and Fisheries Patrol has a number of prosecution briefs with its legal section relating to possible offences under the Fisheries Act 1994 and the Sustainable Planning act 2009. However, those interested in protecting the wetland believe it is much more important to be opening floodgates than prosecuting fourth generation cane farmer lessees who, after all, are in a sense the meat in the sandwich as a consequence of the wetlands controversy. Nor does it seem sensible to pursue prosecutions while doing nothing to address the problem at hand. 

Government sources said that DEH could move to open floodgates by using powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1994. However, the office of Environment Minister Steve Miles has indicated there are no such powers available under the legislation that are applicable in the circumstances. Successive state governments in Queensland have a woeful record of enforcing environmental laws, which all too often are inexplicably inapplicable to various circumstances. Many of us live in hope that Minister Miles will be more proactive.

Red-kneed Dotterel on tidal mudflats: displaced
Those supporting the wetland campaign are invited to urge the Premier to intervene to ensure that the site is protected. The wetland is comprised of two adjoining properties. One or both could be acquired with contributions from the state, the Sunshine Coast Council and private organisations. Funding could be sourced from offsets, with some of the land to be subdivided and sold.

The landholders and cane farmer lessees should not be penalised financially; surely it is possible for the authorities to negotiate a fair price. The Premier can be written to or emailed, both at her ministerial office and electoral office below, asking her to move to open all four floodgates, while at the same time intervening to ensure the site is acquired and protected as a reserve, with the landholders being adequately compensated.

Readers can write to write to:

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk
PO Box 15185
City East
Queensland 4002

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