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A river in recovery

Published 07 Oct 2021 
by Eliza Herbert

The bushfires of January 2020 left Australia’s second longest river, the Murrumbidgee, thick with ash and silt. Now, its waters are clearer thanks to a community-led effort to restore its health.

Most summers, the Murrumbidgee River is a haven for native animals. Swamp- and Red-necked Wallabies, lizards and antechinuses seek cool refuge. Birds splash on the water’s surface, drawn in by small prey, and Platypus and Rakali build burrows in the banks.

In late January 2020, this was not the case. The Orroral Valley and Mount Clear fires swept through 80% of Namadgi National Park, burning the hillsides along the river’s edge, including large parts of Bush Heritage’s Scottsdale Reserve, and over 3000 hectares of surrounding farmland.

Scottsdale was burnt in January 2020 fires. Photo Daniel Shipp.
Scottsdale was burnt in January 2020 fires. Photo Daniel Shipp.

The Murrumbidgee remained a refuge, but of a different kind, as animals that survived the fires retreated to unburnt patches along its banks.

The heavy rains that followed offered an alarming glimpse at what life in a more extreme climate could look like.

“It was heart breaking,” says Scottsdale Reserve Field Officer Kim Jarvis. “When the fire burnt, it baked the soil and turned it into loose powder. When the big rains came, they just washed it all away.”

To survey the damage, Kim joined Upper Murrumbidgee Demonstration Reach (UMDR) facilitator Antia Brademann and a group of Bush Heritage ‘Adventurous Volunteers’ for a paddle up the river.

They were headed to a spot in the Scottsdale Gorge where, months earlier, they had found deep pools - important refuges for native fish in times of drought or hot weather. But they arrived to discover the pools were no more.

“We were dragging the boats over areas that used to be metres deep, and now were filled with sand and sludge that had washed into the river,” says Kim.

The hills above the former pools were one of the worst burnt areas along the river. Without intervention, they were at risk of losing even more of their topsoil and forming huge erosion gullies.

So the team got to work putting in coir logs to stabilise the soil, planting long-stem shrubs and trees and installing GPS monitoring devices on what is known as the ‘riparian one.’

If all went to plan, these measures would prevent further erosion and sedimentary run-off that affects the water quality. New native plants would outcompete invasive weeds. And the revegetation would create shade to buffer water temperatures and support native animals through predicted future climatic extremes.

Volunteer David Kelly plants a tree to help stabilise the 
banks of the Murrumbidgee River. Photo by Rohan Thomson/
Pew Pew Studio.
Volunteer David Kelly plants a tree to help stabilise the banks. Photo by Rohan Thomson/ Pew Pew Studio.

At over 1485km long, the Murrumbidgee River (or the Mighty ’Bidgee as it is affectionally known) is a major tributary of the Murray River and the second longest river in Australia. It sits within the Murray Darling Basin and flows through Ngarigo, Ngunnawal, Wiradjuri, Nari Nari and Muthi Muthi country.

The Adventurous Volunteers work along 4km of river frontage, a metric that might seem minor by comparison, but which is part of a bigger story about a community rallying to protect its river. That’s where Antia Brademann comes in.

“Antia ties it all together,” says Kim. “As facilitator of the UMDR she connects and educates everyone along the whole stretch of the reach and spearheads the Adventurous Volunteers program.”
UMDR Facilitator Antia Brademann. Photo Rohan Thomson/Pew Pew Studio.
UMDR Facilitator Antia Brademann. Photo Rohan Thomson/Pew Pew Studio.

The UMDR initiative was established in 2009 to restore a 100km reach of the upper Murrumbidgee. It proved so successful in its early years that it was later expanded to encompass more than 320km, spanning from the Snowy Hydro-controlled Tantangara Dam in Kosciuszko National Park to Burrinjuck Dam north-west of Canberra.

The UMDR partnership has brought together local governments, conservation groups and landholders, including farmers, with the aim of reducing the effects of many different threats on the upper Murrumbidgee:

Local landholders Mike and Alice on their property by the Murrumbidgee River with UMDR Facilitator Antia Brademann. Photo Rohan Thomson/Pew Pew Studio
Local landholders Mike and Alice on their property by the Murrumbidgee River with UMDR Facilitator Antia Brademann. Photo Rohan Thomson/Pew Pew Studio

  • water extraction
  • sediment deposition
  • weeds
  • introduced fish
  • the loss of vegetation along the river’s edge – and now,
  • the effects of the Black Summer bushfires.

Helping native fish populations to recover is one of the UMDR’s main goals – their numbers have declined to less than 9% of pre-European levels.

“The health of our rivers says a lot about our relationship to our landscapes, how we work as a collective community and our values in relation to the natural world,” says Antia.

“We know we are ‘getting it right’ with managing our river systems when we have healthy and thriving fish populations as they are a key indicator of river health.”

Two fish are of keen interest to the UMDR: the endangered Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica) and the Murray Cod (Maccullochella peelii).

“A Murray Cod can live to be over 50 years old and grow to 1.8 metres. These impressive fish have evolved over thousands of years, living with drought and flooding rains. When I think of this, it evokes a feeling of awe and sacredness for this species; we need to work to protect it,” says Antia.

Murray Cod. Photo Guo Chai Lim (flickr.com/photos/guochai/1292824702/)*.
Murray Cod. Photo Guo Chai Lim (flickr.com/photos/guochai/1292824702/)*.

Ultimately, the way to do that is through engaging people.

Eighteen months after the fires, Antia, Kim and the Adventurous Volunteers prepared to paddle back to those once-deep pools in Bredbo Gorge. Into their three inflatable rafts they packed buckets, monitoring equipment, picket rammers, augers and plants.

“When we got to shore, the six of us tied our boats up and we walked up the bank. I said to everybody, ‘everywhere that you walk today, be careful and look where you step.’ It was incredible – there was so much regeneration from 10cm to 20cm high.”

The understory was full of annual herbs, forbs and different species of shrubs and the diversity of native recruitment was amazing. For Kim, this was a welcome sight after the fires.

“Prior to the bushfires this was intact nature, and it’s coming back.”