|Scott, Anna & Sam Dwan at the wetland this week|
An internationally significant wetland on Queensland's Sunshine Coast that was destroyed when government authorities dismissed it as unimportant is to be restored in a move which paves the way nationally for a fresh approach to environmental management.
The 200ha Yandina Creek wetland will be recreated by Unitywater in what the Queensland corporation described as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” in the heart of one of Australia's fastest growing tourist destinations.
|The Dwan Family at the wetland when it was drained in 2015: Pic Glenn Hunt|
The wetland was home to critically endangered wildlife protected under Commonwealth and state laws as well as large numbers of migratory shorebirds protected under several international treaties to which Australia is a signatory.
However, the wetland was drained after the federal and Queensland governments, backed by local councils, determined it was not worth protecting because it had been created artificially.
The failure of three levels of government to protect the wetland sparked debate about a key principle at the heart of environmental decision-making in Australia: whether an environmentally significant area deserves protection if it is shaped by human activity.
The area had been natural wetland before it was developed for sugar cane farms in the 1920s. Two Yandina Creek farm properties were sold to developers in the mid-2000s after the closure of the Nambour sugar mill.
The new owners failed to maintain floodgates that prevented inundation by tidal flows from the Maroochy River. After the floodgates collapsed in 2012, the land was swamped twice daily at high tide, recreating a wetland.
The developers leased the properties back to their original farmer owners in 2015 to repair the floodgates and drain the wetland so cane crops could be re-established. Large numbers of black swans and other protected waterbirds were nesting at the time.
The federal and Queensland governments rejected calls to intervene to block the drainage plan; Queensland Environment Minister Steve Miles dismissed the wetland as “highly modified”.
Government indifference was echoed by mainstream environmentalists. The Australian Conservation Foundation and Queensland Conservation Council ignored the issue; there is no mention of it in the archives of the Sunshine Coast Environment Council.
|Drainage canals at the wetland this week|
However, a campaign by bird-watching and community groups to rehabilitate the wetland was stepped up, with thousands signing petitions demanding government action.
Government sources said coverage of the issue by The Weekend Australian prompted a rethink by Dr Miles, who inspected the site.
Unitywater chairman Jim Soorley, the former Brisbane Lord Mayor, was approached to examine the rehabilitation proposal.
Unitywater acquired the properties late last year for $4.1 million and is implementing a management plan to restore the wetland, with flood-gates being reopened in stages. Water levels at the site this week were boosted by increased flows through drainage canals.
Dr Miles said he recognised the significance of the acquisition and the Queensland Government was co-operating with Unitywater during the project's early stages.
Unitywater is a statutory authority, owned by local councils, that discharges effluent from sewage treatment plants into the Maroochy River, boosting potentially harmful nutrient levels in the river. The restoration plan allows Unitywater to offset that pollution by extracting nutrients and sediments from the river in water that returns to the wetland through reopened floodgates.
The project will be overseen by Unitywater infrastructure planning chief Simon Taylor, who has wide experience with rehabilitating wetlands overseas.
Mr Taylor said extensive investigations were undertaken into the benefits of restoring the wetland.
“As the owners of this land we intend to bring these wetlands back to life,” Mr Taylor said.
“Nature will be allowed to take its course in a way that is managed to achieve win-win outcomes. This will translate into benefits for our nutrient offsetting as well as for the environment - a great outcome for everyone.”
BirdLife Australia Southern Queensland convenor Judith Hoyle said the restored wetland will be one of the most important sites for wildlife on the east Australian coast.
|BirdLife Australia's Judith Hoyle|
“There was a belief by government that an artificial wetland was not worth saving but the presence of such a wide diversity of species demonstrated that this was not the case,” Ms Hoyle said.
“We need to look at innovative solutions such as creating new habitat or in this case, protecting artificial wetlands, so birds and other wildlife have somewhere to go as natural wetlands around the country continue to dry up or be destroyed.”
Unitywater plans to collaborate with BirdLife Australia and local residents in management plans for the site and to allow public access to the wetland, with authorities believing it has considerable potential as an ecotourism destination.
Scott and Anna Dwan, whose property adjoins the wetland, welcomed Unitywater's restoration plan.
“This is exactly the sort of thing we need to do if we want to ensure a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren,” Mr Dwan said.
“We want our kids to grow up learning to appreciate birds and the natural environment. It's better than fiddling with Playstation.”
|Looking towards Mt Coolum at the wetland this week|
The Yandina Creek wetland will abut 440ha of woodland reserves near the tourist heartland of Coolum Beach. The Sunshine Coast Council is examining the prospects of protecting a further 100ha of seasonally inundated land it owns in the area. A council spokesman said the area was presently zoned for sport and recreation, but its future would be determined by the outcome of environmental assessments.
Wildlife occurring in the wetland before it was drained included the endangered Australian Painted-Snipe and the critically endangered Curlew-Sandpiper.
End of newspaper story; the last few paragraphs were omitted from the published version.
|Flooded track in wetland's western sector this week|
Please note there is not yet public access to the site. Water has only just begun returning and it will be some time before the wetland is re-established. The main floodgates remain closed at the time of writing but will be opened over time as Unitywater carefully monitors water flows. It appeared this week that a floodgate upstream of the main gates was open as the wetland's western sector was replenished.
|Cane on the wetland properties|
A small area of sugar cane had been planted in a corner of the properties before they were acquired by Unitywater. This area will revert to wetland or grassland.
|Dead Australian Water-Rat|
Of concern were a couple of dead Australian Water-Rats that I found on the edge of the properties. I am not sure if this is a water quality issue - acid sulfate levels rose when the wetland was drained and it will take some time for these elements to be washed away - or due to 1080 baiting for wild dogs. I have found a few dead water-rats around the wetland over the years; in all cases, there is no evidence of them having been caught in fish traps or attacked by predators.