By Mitch Guy
LAST year’s flooding at the mouth of the Powlett River left a trail of destruction with surrounding properties inundated with flood water.
The closure of the mouth of the river and the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority’s reluctance to artificially open it caused water levels to rise, flooding roads and farmland for two months from May to July.
The closure of the mouth in recent weeks has local resident Robin Lowe anticipating a repeat of last year’s event.
His 36 acre property is yet to recover after the severe inundation, forcing him to sell most of his cattle or move them to other properties.
He has also had to purchase four semi-loads of hay in the past few months.
But this is just the beginning of Mr Lowe’s struggles.
He’s written a letter to the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water, Lisa Neville and continually pleaded his case to the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority (WGCMA), but said he feels like he’s hitting his head against a brick wall.
“There’s a first stage of flooding where there’s a fair bit of inundation but it inundates the lowest of areas and it’s just shy of flooding the roads so the road’s still serviceable,” Mr Lowe said.
“The fish are able to get up in amongst the tussocks and reeds, so there’s an environmental benefit there.
“But the WGCMA’s basically not happy with that. They want it to go to the next level which is where it inundates widely on private property.
“I would like to see a compromise where the first level of flooding is as far as it is allowed to go.
“I’m all for the environment and I’m happy to do good things for the environment.
“We’ve voluntarily given up nine acres of our land for the environment, but they’re not content with that section, they want all of it. It’s our property and they don’t want to pay for it.
“Until they can fund the damage, how about we just let it go back to the way it was managed for 150 years before the WGCMA came along?
“Whilst I’m sure it could be made better by doing what they’ve been doing, until they can compensate for the damage they’re doing to public infrastructure and private land, maybe they should just chill a bit.”
The WGCMA’s defence for not allowing the artificial opening to occur last year was due to the risk of mass fish kills.
But Mr Lowe said the WGCMA has now admitted it’s about improving habitats for birdlife.
“They’ve helped put in more fences on a neighbour’s property,” he said.
“It’s all well and good to bring the birds in, but as we saw in previous years, we get huge swan kills from the swans flying into fences.
“The duck shooters come down, fire a few rounds off and the birds fly into the fences even more.”
WGCMA CEO Martin Fuller said while the Powlett River estuary is closed, it creates a drought refuge for many native and migratory birds – particularly this year after a lengthy dry period.
He said the WGCMA start monitoring conditions and the impact of an artificial opening from the moment the estuary closes.
“If the sandbar is opened under the wrong conditions, oxygen-rich water from the top of the estuary drains into the sea, leaving oxygen depleted water,” he said.
“The low oxygen levels in the water can damage the health of the river and cause fish and other aquatic life to suffocate.
“Any decision to intervene is not made lightly. The Powlett River and its estuary are well loved by the coastal community and the health of the river is extremely important.
“We make informed decisions about artificial openings by using the Estuary Entrance Management Support System.
“We will continue to monitor the estuary closure closely.
“Socio-economic impacts are part of the decision making – as are many factors, including the overall health of the river and species that live in and round it.”
In response to claims birds may be killed by fences on nearby farms, Mr Fuller said many of the birds that will come to area may not be able to survive elsewhere due to drought conditions.
“The number of birds being caught in fences would be small compared to the number of birds flocking to the area,” he said.
“We are working with landholders to fence and revegetate sections of land along the river.
“By constructing fences we are able to keep stock out of the waterways which protects nests including eggs and habitat that could otherwise be destroyed.”