By Mitch Guy
ROBIN Lowe’s 36 acre farm is being destroyed as it lies beneath floodwater at the closed mouth of the Powlett River near Wonthaggi.
The water could be easily released with an artificial opening at the beach, but the controlling authority, the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, is reluctant to do so citing environmental concerns.
The overflowing river – caused by a blockage of the estuary mouth – has flooded up to 80 per cent of Mr Lowe’s 36 acre property for the past six weeks.
He’s had to sell and agist his cattle, and even when the water is released – through natural or artificial means – it will take months for his pastures to recover.
Mr Lowe says the problem is a result of the WGCMA’s decision to control artificial openings of the mouth 10 years ago.
Prior to the shift of control, the mouth was opened artificially when needed to reduce flooding.
The mouth has been blocked since March, and after a significant rainfall and storm surge on May 13, the WGCMA has refused to open the mouth, citing the environmental impacts to the estuary.
According to the WGCMA, care must be taken when considering an artificial opening.
In other parts of Victoria, artificial openings have occurred when water quality conditions were not suitable, causing extensive fish deaths.
Fish deaths happen when dissolved oxygen (DO) levels are low in the bottom waters of an estuary.
Due to the low DO levels in the bottom waters, fish and other aquatic invertebrates survive in the oxygenated top waters.
The top waters are the first to be released during an artificial opening, leaving fish and aquatic invertebrates stranded in the low oxygen bottom waters where they suffocate and die.
Mr Lowe acknowledges the potential environmental impacts of an artificial opening, but has raised question marks over the WGCMA’s strategies.
“I’m not aware of seeing any fish kills occurring in my time,” he said.
“After 150 years since European settlement, the river has been opening up, there’s still fish in the river and it hasn’t been devastated so I sort of wonder about that.
“I’m sympathetic to the environment and if we can do something to benefit that then we’re open to it, but we’re not rich enough to say ‘here, have our property’.”
Mr Lowe sacrificed nine acres of his land 10 years ago for conservation reserve.
Now his property and neighbouring properties are inundated with flood waters, he has been forced to sell off much of his stock and he has moved his remaining cattle to his father-in-law’s neighbouring property, which is also inundated.
He believes property owners should be compensated.
“The problem is that this has been put upon private land owners and there hasn’t been any funding to compensate,” he said.
“Effectively, we’re in this position after 10 years of management by the WGCMA.
“Our pastures have been fundamentally changed and our ability to grow grass for cattle and function as a farm has been taken away from us.
“People weren’t really given the choice; it was imposed and there is no compensation out there at this point of time.
“I’m a fan of the environment myself, so if I thought it was for the greater good I’d compromise our property. People shouldn’t be expected to roll over and lose their business or lose their property.”
WGCMA CEO Martin Fuller said “an opening will be considered if the impact of the inundation is a significant risk to the integrity of the estuary’s environmental, socioeconomic (such as farming) or cultural values”.
“The risk assessment is undertaken by us and is informed by a decision support tool called the Estuary Entrance Management Support System (EEMSS),” he said.
“EEMSS generates risk ratings (insignificant, minor, moderate, major and extreme) for all known environmental, socioeconomic and cultural values associated with the estuary at a given water level height and duration of inundation at that height.
“Risk ratings are given for each value under an opening or not opening scenario.
“If we decide that an artificial opening is needed based on a risk assessment, a feasibility assessment must be undertaken before the estuary can be opened.
“This involves assessing water quality, river flow, ocean conditions and access to the estuary mouth.”
Mr Fuller said there is evidence that there have been at least three illegal attempts to artificially open the estuary this year; however catchment inflows have yet to be sufficient to sustain the opening.