Gippsland lakes revisited

| November 17, 2020

There is abundant evidence that European settlement of Australia has resulted in widespread land degradation with consequential impacts on waterways, wetlands and lakes. News, current affairs and social media posts indicate that the community is becoming more receptive to supposedly ‘traditional or indigenous’ environmental management methods.

Indigenous land conservation methods are being taught at Geraldton TAFE alongside conventional agricultural practices. An Indigenous mentor teaches students about the spiritual link to the soil as a living being. Soil science once concentrated on classification and the physical and chemical nature of soils. More recently, there has been a growing emphasis on improving our understanding of soil biology.

Euahlayi man and ANU researcher Bhiamie Eckford-Williamson told the Bushfire Royal Commission that ‘the Black Summer bushfires created extraordinary public interest in Aboriginal people’s land management practices, especially burning’.

Mr Eckford-Williamson also told the commission that Aboriginal people must be involved in any cultural land management. “There are a number of popularly held misconceptions that we need disabuse ourselves of if we are to understand this practice,” he said.

“Whilst popularly known as traditional burning, cool burning, Indigenous burning, etcetera, the practice is actually cultural land management. Burning is but one tool Aboriginal land managers may use to manage their country.” I venture to suggest that Mr Eckford-Williamson’s precautionary approach might apply to other forms of land and water management.

The catchment area of the coastal lagoons and fringing wetlands in Eastern Victoria we know as the Gippsland Lakes is approximately 20,000 square kilometres. It may be assumed that until the arrival of European settlers, the land was occupied and managed according to the traditions of the indigenous Gunaikurnai people.

Archaeological evidence discovered in the Mitchell River National Park and elsewhere is expected to improve our understanding of these cultural traditions. The evidence clearly shows that people occupied and moved through the landscape over many thousands of years.

Hunting and gathering were no doubt important and it seems likely that palaeoecological investigations will show the extent to which fire and other ‘tools’ were used. For example, to maintain favourable habitat for food plants and animals. It is reasonable to suggest that, apart from seasonal and climatic variations – e.g. the last glacial period, ending nearly 12,000 years ago – landscape changes would have arisen from human activity.

Land clearing, agriculture, industry and urbanisation have drastically changed the catchments draining to the Gippsland Lakes. Stream flows and water quality are now very different to their former condition. The Lakes have become more estuarine in character than freshwater. A previous post of mine offers a more detailed discussion relating to the Lakes being not only a reflection of catchment conditions but also of human attitudes and behaviour.

The opening and maintenance of an entrance to the Lakes allowing seawater to enter from Bass Strait illustrates the effect of past decisions on present and future management options. The Lakes were once fringed by the common reed (P. Australis). The reeds, which protected the shores of the Lakes from erosion, have largely disappeared due to salinity.

Closing the entrance might eventually reduce water salinity to a level that the reeds can tolerate but nutrients stored in the sediment and dissolved in water flowing from the catchments would most likely promote severe eutrophication (nuisance weed and toxic algal growth) with resulting fish kills, odour and loss of amenity.

Limiting access to Bass Strait would presumably affect offshore oil and gas activities and curtail amateur and professional fishing, tourism and other forms of recreation and water sport. The value of residential property, holiday homes and real estate adjacent to the Lakes might also be expected to decline.

The ACT Green’s political platform asserts that “indigenous knowledge is critical to our understanding of the natural environment and sustainable management of the land and water”. But is it reasonable to assume that ‘traditional’ methods are necessarily applicable and likely to be effective in dealing with unprecedented and, arguably, intractable environmental, political and economic problems?

The state government of Victoria has announced that the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation will receive 2,000 megalitres of “unallocated” water in the Mitchell River under a ‘Traditional Owner Settlement Agreement’. The Mitchell River flows to Lake King, one of the Gippsland Lakes, which is especially prone to blue-green algae blooms.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Gabrielle Williams, said that the agreement recognises both the connection of traditional owners to Country and our responsibility to protect it.

Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville said she wants to see the water sector and traditional owners working closely together, with water entitlements supporting business, cultural, recreational and environmental outcomes for Aboriginal communities and the broader region.

The demand for water may be expected to continue increasing in the household, industrial and rural sectors. Water is therefore a form of currency and the quantity we are discussing here is worth around $1million per annum at $500 per megalitre.

Two thousand megalitres of water would be enough to irrigate about 400 to 500 hectares in East Gippsland, depending on the crop. But irrigation requires extensive land disturbance and the drainage water contains nutrients which enter the Gippsland Lakes and promote nuisance weed and algae growth.

It is hard to imagine that this kind of water use would be consistent with traditional land management. But, instead of agriculture, the ‘traditional owners’ may decide to supply the water in support of the unspecified “environmental outcomes” envisaged by the Minister.

Most Australians would agree that wildlife extinction and declining biodiversity are serious problems needing urgent attention. Incorporating traditional cultural values – such as the idea of soil being a living entity – is entirely consistent with science being the key to restoration of land and water habitats for strengthening failing ecosystems.

The traditional owners, who have a deep connection with the Lakes stretching back thousands of years, would appear to be confronting a formidable dilemma. But if we accept that European settlement released irreversible environmental and economic forces, then our expectations of traditional land management should be moderated accordingly.