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Inland floodplain wetlands - from a whole of landscape perspective


 
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Sharon Bowen, who is completing her doctoral thesis on inland Floodplain wetlands in New South Wales as part of work from the Climate Change Cluster at the University of Technology Sydney, explains how new methodology can assist in knowing what changes are happening in those landscapes.     
Sharon Bowen, who is completing her doctoral thesis on inland floodplain wetlands in New South Wales as part of work from the Climate Change Cluster at the University of Technology Sydney, explains how new methodology can assist in knowing what changes are happening in those landscapes.
Sharon started her research into wetland ecology in June 2009 and, despite their iconic status (think “drought and flooding rain”) there is much to be learnt about these landscapes. The dry landscapes that are left after flooding and in drought are as important to wetlands as the floodplain itself.
Changes to the dry landscapes impact upon wetlands. Land clearing, for instance, means less roosting trees for waterbirds in flood events and changes in agriculture (from grazing to cropping) alter the ecological relationship. This is evident in some wetlands which have not seen the expected explosion of bird life due to changes in the dry landscape.

 
These landscapes are vast. The Macquarie Marshes cover some 250,000 hectares and include cool wetlands and drylands with coolibah, myall and black box. The Gwydir wetlands occur in a floodplain of 450,000 hectares with wetlands distributed along the river along with wooded areas which are filled with myall, coolibah, river cooba and lignum. Studying these vast areas is now possible with digital aerial photography, satellite imagery as well as people mapping the flooding events along with those that study the vegetation.

 
Weeping myall on the pristine property, 'Old Dromana'  purchased under the Rivers and Environmental Restoration Program, creating a new protected nature reserve along the Gwydir.

 
This leads to a picture of how these landscapes have changed over time. So powerful is the digital photography that it gives large scale and small scale view in high resolution, enabling all vegetation to be identified. Other people are producing models for flooding and Sharon Bowen can use the output from those models in her research. Anecdotal evidence pointed to changes in the landscape but Sharon’s work sough to quantify this. In the Gwydir wetlands, for instance, mapping showed that there was still a lot of vegetation in 1996 but by 2008 75% of the wetlands had disappeared, a simply staggering amount.

 
What is happening is that water is flowing into the catchment but not into the wetlands.    
This is made worse by swapping land use from grazing (which relied on flooding to grow pasture) to cropping which is more irrigation based and which inevitably results in more land clearing. In the Macquarie Marshes about 95% of the river red gums are in poor or declining health, even within its nature reserves, ringing alarm bells for the region’s Ramsar status.

 
Perhaps more disturbing in these landscapes is the change from small family based farm holdings to larger multinational conglomerates that resist land clearing compliance in favour of business plans. Halting such change and restoring the wetlands is a challenge. Sharon’s work allows her to not only look at different vegetation communities but to compare them between wetland systems. This new technology paints a much clearer picture of the mosaic of wetland landscapes, so much so that its data was used to convince the federal government to purchase a property “Old Dromana “(owned by the Southerons) under the Rivers and Environmental Restoration Program, creating a new protected nature reserve, the first of its kind along the Gwydir, a sobering first.

 
Gwydir Wetland comes alive

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Rare species of waterbirds and endangered ecological communities benefit from the rehabilitation works to restore natural water flows to parts of the internationally important Gwydir Wetlands in inland north western NSW. Sharon Bowen is leading the work to monitor the vegetation community response to the environmental watering of the Gwydir Wetlands on the new Gwydir Wetlands State Conservation Area and on wetlands watered for the first time in years on the Gingham Watercourse after watercourse rehabilitation work. Daryl Albertson Senior Wetlands and Rivers Conservation Officer with the Office of Environment and Heritage photographed the images and prepared this slideshow during monitoring of the environmental flows in the Gwydir during October 2010.

 
Sharon Bowen was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images of the Gwydir floodplains supplied by Sharon Bowen. Summary text was prepared by Victor Barry, April 2011.

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