Geoff Wakeman is not against the principles of environmental watering. He does, however, have a huge problem with the way it is being used in the Gunbower Forest/National Park, particularly around Cohuna.
Geoff spent his early childhood roaming the bush, camping and chopping wood for pocket money.
Life took him away from the area for over three decades but when he returned home to Cohuna, his love for the bush was reignited.
As a geologist, his interest was piqued when he came across some commentary surrounding the Barmah Choke, which prompted him to take a closer look at what was happening out in the Gunbower Forest.
It was then he became alarmed.
“At one stage, I read the forest used to flood 50km each side of the river seven out of every ten years. For that to happen, the river would have to be 7m above bank level and the town of Cohuna would have to be evacuated seven years in ten,” Geoff said.
This is just one of many examples of inconsistent statements he has come across.
“Current management is destroying the bush. I just don’t know how to say it any other way. I totally support environmental watering and I am not about starting trouble, however, I remain extremely concerned there is no accountability or acknowledgement for any of the mistakes out there and that really worries me,” he said.
Geoff said if management is trying to mimic the natural system, they are not doing a very good job.
“In a natural flood, once the river dropped, the majority of floodwater would drain out of the forest, but management is using regulators to artificially keep water in the forest for months on end and this was never natural.”
According to the Victorian Environmental Water Holder seasonal watering plan 2018-19, ‘Water for the environment was delivered to Gunbower Forest to support river red gums and the flood dependent understorey’.
Geoff said this particular watering has been nothing short of a disaster.
“Fast forward three years, and the area at the corner of Koondrook Track and 5 Mile Break still looks like a desert. The understorey has disappeared and there is not a bird in sight and yet, the other side, which was protected by the track, still has a healthy understorey and hasn’t seen a single drop of environmental water,” Geoff said.
He said throughout environmental watering sites, the only places that still have understorey are the high spots which were protected from the long inundation of floodwater.
He also said environmental water is contributing to increased red gum encroachment in the floor of some of the lagoons and swamps and the spreading of Paterson’s curse.
“I have been told numerous times, floodwater kills Paterson’s curse and it won’t be found where there has been environmental water, but I can see it growing in the flood runners and as the water flows through these runners, it disburses more and more seed over a much wider area.
“Red gum and giant rush encroachment is also a huge problem and there appears to be no active management to control any of these issues that are arising,” Geoff said.
A vegetation report is completed annually and nowhere can Geoff see mention of Paterson’s curse, giant rush infestation or red gum encroachment.
As a RAMSAR listed site, it is imperative regular monitoring occurs in the forest.
In 2018, a birdlife survey found 250 waterbirds and 48 nests. The MDBA Environmental Water Management Plan suggests that in a minimum operating scenario, 50GL of water would be used for bird breeding. However, based on the amount of environmental water actually used, and allowing approximately 16GL for bird breeding, this equates to a staggering $116,000 per nest for birds that are not considered endangered.
Geoff, along with a small but determined team from the Central Murray Environmental Floodplain Group, now spend a couple of days out the bush each week checking and monitoring sites.
“Nobody is prepared to say that bad things are happening and we are sick of not getting listened to. We are not the enemy, we are just concerned residents who love the bush and want to see it protected for generations to come.
“Just adding water simply isn’t enough.
“Nobody is observing or monitoring any of the results objectively to ensure there is a future for the forest. There just seems to be a whole lot of people trying to justify their own jobs.”
This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 4 November 2021.