A tale of two rivers

Galari at Oxley, Kim V. Goldsmith, December 2020
Galari at Tupra near Oxley, December 2020
Galari/ Lachlan River at Tupra near Oxley

The Galari/Lachlan River is the fourth-longest river in Australia. It flows through the lands of the Wiradyuri, Nari Nari and Yita Yita Nations starting on the Breadalbane Plains near Goulburn (696m above sea level), terminating at the Great Cumbung Swamp near Oxley on the Hay Plains (about 70m above sea level).

Recording sites, December 2020
Where the Lachlan meets the Murrumbidgee, at the Great Cumbung Swamp

The river is considered the lifeblood of the Lachlan Valley and the plains at her flank and feet. Today, the Lachlan River supports towns, industry, agriculture and the environment. However, the Galari of 2020 is a very different river to the pre-European version. Seeing her in the heat of an early summer after years of drought, it’s hard to believe this river could have supported any traditional hunting and gathering life – managed or otherwise. The channels of the Great Cumbung Swamp I witnessed about 50 kilometres west of Oxley in December 2020, with tannin-tinted water cutting through flat, grassy paddocks were choked with carp, stirring clouds of mud. Fish nets set up over several days in the area captured nothing but carp – hundreds of them, although yabbies and some big, healthy turtles, including the long-necked, Broad-shelled River Turtle (Chelodina expansa) rarely caught in the mid to upper Lachlan, were present at almost all sites.

Carp control underway in the lower Lachlan sees tonnes of the fish commercially netted and processed for liquid and pelleted fertiliser. Department monitoring shows no shortage of carp in the system despite the commercial enterprise, but the good news is yabbies and turtle species are also evident. The upside is carp are a food source for colonial waterbirds. Images: Kim V. Goldsmith; netted fish (image 2): Mal Carnegie, Lake Cowal Foundation

The poor representation of native fish and impacts of a carp dominated system is typical of a regulated river’s lower reaches, which is a result of almost no consumptive demand and sustained low operational base flows almost all year round. While I didn’t have time on this trip to witness it for myself – reports of positive outcomes from recent floodplain inundation resulting from environmental flows* were creating a buzz within the team. The Southern Bell Frog (Litoria raniformis) and Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) were heard calling for the first time in a long while, box and gum trees were thriving, and waterbirds were seen congregating in their thousands at individual wetlands along the system.

One of the success stories from recent environmental watering is Moon Moon Swamp (north of Booligal) – a River Red Gum lined open water body up to around 1.5 m deep in general, fringed by lignum swamps. From October to December 2020 an estimated 600+ colonial waterbird nests counted of mostly Little Black Cormorants, but also Little Pied Cormorant, Great Egret, Royal Spoonbill, Great Egret and Australian Darter. Images of nests taken with a zoom lens.

About 100km south of Moon Moon Swamp, 70 threatened Blue-billed Ducks were recorded in one survey alone during the December 2020 field trip by Warren Chad for NSW Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment’s Environment Energy and Science Group (NSW DPIE EES) waterbird monitoring program. The species likes deep water, and the Lachlan appears to be a stronghold. It’s also been spotted at various other wetlands during spring/summer 2020 thanks to environmental flows.

Images of Moon Moon Swamp and nests: NSW DPIE EES

According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, carp now account for 90% of the fish biomass (total weight of fish caught) in some areas of the Murray-Darling Basin. They’re highly adaptable and thrive in degraded riverine environments, like the Lachlan. What came first? The degradation or the carp? Either way, carp symbolise what less than 200 years of European settlement has done to the river.

The lower Galari and the Great Cumbung Swamp are choked with carp

A century of progress has brought with it not only a higher quality of living and the ability to support more human life than previously, but the building and expansion of dams and the resulting regulation and sharing of water have meant there are trade-offs. It’s a tight-rope act, and there’s no safety net or easy compromise. Like in every river catchment, everyone seems to have an opinion and a voice in the sharing debate but the river in question.

My trip to the Great Cumbung Swamp in December 2020 was to watch and listen – to both the river and the people who know her from years of close observation. I took some kit with me to capture what I could where I could, but I knew I’d most likely come back. The team I joined came from across NSW in passionate and dedicated support of the organiser, Jo Lenehan, from the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment at Cowra – who has a working title longer than most to match the task of managing over 1400 km of regulated river and some 400,000 ha of floodplain. From Booligal to the Great Cumbung Swamp, they undertook bird counts, fish and frog monitoring, as well as talking with landholders, community and traditional owners about how best to manage and preserve what’s left of this compromised ecosystem.

As the team met with the local community, I wandered. I squatted beside the edge of the Murrumbidgee River, listening to the woodland birds, insects and water; I stuck my underwater camera into the turbid shallows of channels capturing carp as they swarmed; and my AudioMoth acoustic recorder spent the night beside the still waters of the Galari near Oxley capturing the night sounds of frogs, birds, fish and turtles, and the dawn chorus. Over dinner and breakfast, I had the chance to talk with various members of the team about what they do, what they’ve witnessed, and what they hope for the future. I was fortunate enough to have a long conversation with Wiradyuri Elder, Uncle Ray Woods, about the importance of the Galari and Murrumbidgee to his people.

Dawn chorus on the Galari at Tupra, December 2020 (recorded on AudioMoth)

By the time I got home, I’d done 1300 kilometres in two and a half days. However, there’s still much more of this river to explore and sample before what she has to say tells the full story – that includes the story of her vital, life-sustaining partner, the expansive alluvial floodplain and aquifers.

*I captured an image of the e-water release from the spillway at Wyangala Dam in October.

Sound and video footage on this field trip were captured using the Olympus Tough Tracker action camera, RØDE lavalier mics into the Zoom F6, AudioMoth acoustic recorder, and poorly improvised hydrophones in the form of a ‘sacrificial’ RØDE SmartLav for iPhone with animal bone sinker (instead of JrF hydrophones inadvertently left at home…650km away). The soundtrack on the carp video is a mix of native sound from the Olympus Tough and the SmartLav mic. Images 1 + 2: Kim V. Goldsmith; image 3 of the artist: Mal Carnegie, Lake Cowal Foundation

Associated posts: Giving the Galari her voice, December 2020

Published by Goldsmith's Studio

Digital media artist, creative content producer & instigator of ART e-Parties.

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