Newsletter - 04 June 2007

An update on our ARC Project..
"LP4455080_ Restoring hydrological connectivity of surface waters and groundwaters: biogeochemical processes and environmental benefits for river landscapes."

The aim of our ARC project has been to examine the application of NSF for improving the sustainability and function of river landscapes. The function of the landscape in this case being the provision of high quality aquatic and riparian habitat, improved security of surface waters, and enhanced connectivity of surface waters and ground waters. Key aspects of our proposal have been completed ahead of schedule, with startling results. The significance of these results is reflected in the invitation to present our research in two oral papers at the upcoming "5th Australian Stream Management Conference" to be held in Albury, May 22nd-25th. The ABC science program Catalyst, will also be featuring our research during May.

Over the past 4 months the research team have been finalising a number of the key monitoring aspects of our NSF project at Baramul. The project commenced two and half years ago and the results are curiously outstanding. We have been surprised by how fast the riverine corridor has responded to the NSF initiative. Our key observations and their significance are:

1) The dramatic recovery of riparian vegetation through the treatment reach at Baramul. Conditions along the stream appear to strongly promote the colonisation of the stream banks, lower floodplain and benched within the channel with Casuarina (she-oak). There is evidence of the native vegetation out-completing the exotic vegetation and in many reaches the Willow, which was introduced and planted on a large scale by the state govt., is being replaced by the native vegetation. The colonization is so prolific, many areas where we conducted channel terrain surveys only 12 months ago, are now entirely vegetated.

2) There has been the development of channel features indicative of a stream undergoing incredible recovery within and immediately downstream of the NSF treatment reach. These landforms include the development of substantial channel bars and benches, the development of pools, rifles and low flow meandering runs (shallow connecting flows). Historical records tell us that such landforms were once common in the Widen Brook, but like so many other degraded streams, it has been totally lost through channel erosion.

The recovery of these channel features is most dramatic immediately downstream of the NSF structures (7 major structures in total), this demonstrates the compounding benefit of an integrated NSF system. The conclusion is that "scale" and the integration of multiple NSF structures can be optimised. Further testing of NSF over a number of implementation scales would be useful for optimising investment vs. landscape improvement.

3) Surface water resources have persisted in the stream and pools in the NSF treatment reach whereas surface water has been absent both in the non-NSF treated areas upstream and down stream. This is significant given that last year Baramul received just 400mm of rainfall, far below the 700 mm average for the Widden catchment. The enhanced availability of surface waters in the NSF treatment reach is puzzling, although predicted by Peter Andrews.

We have tested a number of hypotheses including high spatial resolution mapping of bed-rock to determine if bed-rock confinement was a factor. It was not. Next week we will be testing additional aspects of groundwater recharge/discharge through detailed pump tests of groundwater bores

4) Groundwater-surface water monitoring clearly shows that NSF is enhancing the connectivity of the stream flow with floodplain shallow alluvial aquifers. A major issue raised by the 2002 CSIRO report was the potential for this enhanced connectivity to increase salinisation.

Our monitoring, including detailed and highly sensitive continuous monitoring of groundwaters and surface waters in very close proximity to the stream, have not detected a measurable change in the prevailing salinity of either the groundwaters or the surface waters in the NSF treatment reach.

5) Macro invertebrates are a tremendous indicator for water quality and aquatic health. Our industry partners (NSW Dept of Environment) have conducted two annual surveys so far following the AusRivas national protocol and have reported far greater diversity within the NSF study reach, a diversity that is equivalent to that found in the very upper pristine reaches of Widden Brook, deep within the Wollombi National Park.

The significant diversity and abundance of macro invertebrate in the NSF treatment reach has been attributed to the development of a connected and relatively stable aquatic habitat. The availability of surface waters, diversity in habitat types (pools-riffles-runs that are absent elsewhere in Widden Brook) and the healthy riparian vegetation are important factors contributing to the diversity and abundance of macro invertebrates within the NSF treatment reach. This is a very positive tick of environmental improvement. The final survey is to be conducted in the coming months.

The NSF system is producing some remarkable improvements to the sustainability and function of the riverine landscape at Baramul. These results are very interesting and indicate a great potential for similar benefits in other landscape settings and agriculture production systems.

However, the ARC Project because of its very narrow focus on river management is obviously no substitute for the WaterSmart Landscape Rehydration Project. The National Water Commissions' Landscape Rehydration Project bid offers a great opportunity to apply NSF and gain benefits at a significant environmental, social and economic scale, crossing many agricultural production systems.

Dr Richard Bush

Australian Research Fellow of the Australian Research Council Co-Director of Centre for Acid Sulfate Soil Research School of Environmental Science and Management Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW, 2480.

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