HISTORY OF THE YANDINA CREEK WETLAND CAMPAIGN
by GREG ROBERTS
With floodgates being reopened in May 2018 so the Yandina Creek Wetland on Queensland's Sunshine Coast can be restored, the future is looking bright for this important site. A campaign spanning six years has finally resulted in an excellent outcome for biodiversity in the heart of Australia's tenth largest city. Supporters of that campaign have suggested that its history be documented; this account is penned in response.
I began campaigning to protect a wetland along River Road, Yandina Creek, back in 2012. At the time I thought the wetland was restricted to a small area of privately owned land adjoining the eastern end of the road. I was struck by how this property was so rich in birdlife. Birds included Black-tailed Native-hen and Australian Painted-Snipe: both are very rare in south-east Queensland.
I was disturbed by the destruction of similar habitat on a neighbouring River Road property, and proposed to the then Sunshine Coast Council (Sunshine Coast Regional Council at the time) that it acquire part of the area and protect it as a nature reserve. The proposal was rejected, largely on the grounds of cost.
I stumbled across the main area of wetland - two neighbouring properties totalling 200ha - by accident in October 2014. The wetland is hidden by trees from Yandina-Coolum Road to the north and River Road to the south. One day I ventured beyond my usual wanderings and was flabbergasted to find a wonderland of birds. Flocks of migratory shorebirds flew about; a pair of stately Black-necked Storks strutted their stuff; scores of egrets, spoonbills, pelicans and other waterbirds graced the horizon in every direction.
The fallow farmland was owned by fourth generation sugar cane growers until it was acquired by property developers in the mid-2000s following the closure of the Nambour sugar mill. The new owners planned to convert it to cattle pasture initially. They hoped the land would eventually be rezoned from rural to allow residential or commercial development. The wetland was created artificially because farm floodgates collapsed in the late-2000s, allowing tidal water from Yandina Creek and Maroochy River to inundate the site.
While I was in awe of what I dubbed Yandina Creek Wetland, the original smaller area on River Road was drained when that property's owners blocked the flow of tidal water to their land.
I prepared another submission for the Sunshine Coast Council, this time suggesting the acquisition of the two larger properties for conservation purposes. At the same time, I wrote and spoke to the federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, and to the Queensland Government, urging intervention because the cattle pasture plans threatened species protected under federal and state laws. In late-2014, I pulled together a comprehensive case for saving the wetland.
The wetland provided habitat for numerous bird species regarded as rare or difficult to find in Queensland. Good numbers of migratory shorebirds of various species frequented the site that are protected under several international treaties to which Australia is a signatory. The large population of one species, Latham's Snipe, at Yandina Creek indicated the wetland was internationally significant under Australian law.
It was important to stress how preserving the rural landscape of the Maroochy River canelands was essential to maintaining the integrity and attraction of the Sunshine Coast both as a major tourist destination and as a desirable place to live. Protecting low-lying areas as wetland could play a crucial role in controlling floods as the region is notoriously flood-prone. A thriving wetland full of waterbirds and other wildlife could be a major ecotourism destination, boosting the Sunshine Coast economy while at the same time protecting biodiversity.
The battle for the wetland slowly began to gain traction, with publicity in the media and growing numbers of residents and community organisations coming on board in support of both the council acquiring the land, and federal and state intervention. The Sunshine Coast Daily and ABC Radio were especially supportive.
I gave talks to community groups; met with Sunshine Coast Council officers; organised online petitions; set up a Facebook page and mailing lists of several hundred supporters; and monitored developments at the site on my blog. I took people (among them Australian Formula One driving champion Mark Webber) into the wetland; they were invariably impressed with what they saw. Organisations that lent their support included Birds Queensland, Sunshine Coast Environment Council, Protect the Bushland Alliance and Noosa Parks Association.
2015 was a torrid year. The landholders became increasingly hostile, threatening legal and police action as it became evident to them that the campaign risked derailing their development plans. Then the landholders decided to lease the land back to its original cane farmer owners, so the floodgates could be repaired and the site again planted with cane. The intention was to establish a continuing land use legally, thereby circumventing possible government intervention.
In June 2015, the Sunshine Coast Council rejected my submission to acquire the land for conservation purposes under its Environmental Levy. Although the wetland was easily the most diverse and largest of its kind in the region, the council determined it was low priority. No inspection of the site was undertaken; no studies were commissioned; and no reasons were given to justify the decision. The council ignored the advice of some its own environmental experts in reaching this conclusion.
The following month, in July 2015, the wetland was drained after the floodgates were repaired, preventing further inflows of tidal water. Hundreds of waterbirds were on the site at the time; many were nesting. The site turned from a flourishing wetland to a bare wasteland in a couple of days. As I wrote then:
“How did it come to this? The 200-hectare Yandina Creek Wetland ticked all the boxes. This wetland was without equal in terms of biodiversity in the Sunshine Coast region. It was one of the finest wetlands of its kind in the whole of Queensland, embracing a wide range of habitats including mangroves, sedges, grasslands, mudflats and deep-water pools.”
Around the same time, Commonwealth and state officers inspected the site and concluded there was no case for intervention. They argued the wetland was “human modified” and therefore not worthy of conservation. This argument ignored the fact that wetlands around the world are increasingly artificial as natural habitat diminishes; just a tiny fraction remains of the once extensive wetlands on the Sunshine Coast. Moreover, the “artificially created” Yandina Creek Wetland closely resembled what was there naturally before the area was developed for cane farms in the 1920s. Nor does wildlife frequenting these places care whether or not they are “artificially created”. The failure of both governments to act is further evidence of the uselessness of Commonwealth and state environmental legislation.
Things were looking grim. But three significant things happened more or less around the same time in mid-2015, and the tide began to turn, so to speak. The Speaker of the Queensland Parliament, Peter Wellington, who held the balance of power and whose support was crucial to the survival of the minority Labor government, became involved. Wellington convinced state Environment Minister Steven Miles to visit the site and meet with some of us engaged in the campaign; this proved to be a pivotal point in the campaign. The Queensland Government began to have a change of heart.
Meanwhile, BirdLife Australia, the country's biggest birding organisation, became seriously active in the campaign, promoting it to a national level and ensuring that hundreds more people lent their support. BLA Southern Queensland convenor Judith Hoyle was the driving force behind this key development.
At the same time, a substantial package I wrote as a journalist about the wetland for The Weekend Australian was splashed across the front and feature pages of the newspaper, further shaping a national profile for the cause.
Photographs were a crucial weapon in the campaign. I had taken numerous images of the wetland before it was drained and the scenes of desolation after the floodgates were shut. The contrast sent a powerful message.
Then I filed complaints with Queensland Fisheries alleging the drainage works had destroyed protected marine vegetation. The lessees were required to reopen the floodgates in September 2015 and served with multiple infringement notices. The reprieve was short-lived. The floodgates were closed again three months later and the wetland drained for the second time in 2015. They have not been reopened until now.
It emerged during a meeting between Judith Hoyle and Queensland Government officers in November 2015 that for the first time, the landholders were showing an interest in selling the properties, and there was a real prospect of the wetland being salvaged. The landholders had evidently reached the conclusion that the site was nothing but trouble for them and were prepared to negotiate; a commercial-in-confidence process was entered into between them and an unknown third party. BirdLife Australia and Judith beavered away in the background with efforts to persuade the Queensland Labor Government and government agencies to come to the table and ensure that this sensitive process was not derailed.
The identity of the third party soon emerged. Government sources say the office of Environment Minister Steven Miles was in touch with the former Labor Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Jim Soorley, the chairman of Unitywater, a statutory authority responsible for water supply and sewage treatment on the Sunshine Coast. Soorley, who as mayor did much to protect Brisbane's wetlands, tells me he became interested in the site after reading a BirdLife Australia article. He says he contacted the Unitywater chief executive, George Theo, and requested that Unitywater investigate whether nutrient capture and offsets were feasible on the land. Soorley adds it was only after the positive outcome of scientific studies was confirmed with the Queensland Environment Department that negotiations with the land-owners commenced.
The plan was for Unitywater to reopen the floodgates so the wetland would be replenished. Tidal water entering the wetland would carry with it nutrients from the Maroochy River which come from a range of different land uses. The wetland will remove some of the nutrients and Unitywater can use this to offset nutrients released after treating the community’s sewage at a nearby treatment plant.
The landholders sold the properties to Unitywater for $4 million in August 2016. Finally, all those efforts over so long by so many had paid off. The wetland was to be restored and protected.
At Unitywater's request, the news was not made public at the time of the acquisitiion. In January 2017 I put together a pictorial account of of the 150+ bird species recorded from Yandina Creek Wetland. Then in February 2017, I revealed the excellent news of the in an article which featured prominently in The Weekend Australian, and on my blog.
Unitywater entered into agreements with BirdLife Australia and the University of the Sunshine Coast to undertake studies of birds and fisheries habitat before and after the floodgates were reopened and the wetland replenished. The Yandina Creek Wetland was offically opened at a ceremony in November 2017 but is not yet open to the public.
It is a matter of regret that this otherwise edifying saga culminated in something of a sour note. The opening ceremony was clearly a significant milestone. Yet I was not invited or told of it until after the event. Although BirdLife Australia Southern Queensland was there, BLA Sunshine Coast and the volunteers surveying the wetland were not invited. Neither were the owners of properties adjoining the wetland who backed the conservation campaign. With the exception of the Sunshine Coast Environment Council, community groups that played important roles in the effort were absent. In his address to the function, Jim Soorley effectively claimed full ownership of the outcome, making no reference to the long-running campaign or the efforts of others.
On the plus side, Soorley gave a public assurance that the wetland will be eventually opened to the public. In making this pledge, Soorley debunked claims made publicly by one resident, a vocal opponent of the wetland campaign, that she was repeatedly assured by Unitywater there would be no public access to the site. Unitywater deserves plaudits also for engaging BirdLife Australia and others to survey the wetland; BLA has successfully completed a series of pre-flooding bird surveys.
Four floodgates along the wetland's northern edge on Yandina Creek were reopened this week. Three floodgates in the south-east corner of the site remain closed. The result is that the northern half of the wetland has been replenished while the southern half remains dry. A Unitywater spokesperson says: “We will assess if additional gates can be opened. Our priority is to ensure none of our actions adversely affect neighbouring properties and the opening of any tidal gates needs to be well considered. Our key purpose for this site is to generate nutrient and vegetation offsets. While the opening of tidal gates is an opportunity to also improve biodiversity on the site, this is not our primary intention.”
In September 2016 I found another area of wetland at West Coolum, 1.5 kilometres east of Yandina Creek. This 90-hectare site has similarly been inundated by tidal water following the breakdown of floodgates on former cane farmland. The area does not appear to be as rich in birdlife as Yandina Creek but nonetheless has potential. The land is owned by the Sunshine Coast Council and is presently zoned “open space sport environment”.
I wrote to the council asking that the site be rezoned so it could be also protected as wetland. The council replied that it is assessing the environmental value of the land, which is separated from the Yandina Creek Wetland by the 440-hectare Coolum Creek Reserve. All three sites – Coolum Creek Reserve, Yandina Creek Wetland and West Coolum – may be protected as a contiguous 740-hectare bushland and wetland reserve in the heart of the Sunshine Coast.
Now that would be one for the birds.
Special thanks to Greg Roberts for his efforts to bring out this great outcome for the region's biodiversity and bird conservation and for preparing this anniversary account and providing the accompanying images. Stay up-to-date and learn about the amazing bird and wildlife the Sunshine Coast is fortunate to be home and seasonal hosts at Greg's informative and visually engaging Sunshine Coast Birds blogspot