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Up to a century ago there was a 1,400ha lake and wetlands in the heart of Byron Bay. It would have been teeming with fish, prawns, and waterbirds. Every now and again during storms it would breach the sandbar across its mouth and its waters would rush out to sea, filling the bay with its fish and prawns. These waterbodies are called Intermittently Closed and Open Lakes and Lagoons (ICOLLS). Belongil used to be one, but Council has progressively drained it, making it into a polluted outlet for the West Byron Sewerage Treatment Plant (STP). At first farmers began opening its mouth to drain the water so they could clear the wetlands for farming. Soon the town of Byron Bay began to be built where it had been. While once the waters would rise up to 2.6m above mean sea level, Council decided to open it whenever it reached 1.2 metres to stop flooding of the growing town, reducing the size of the lake down to 120ha.
A toxic legacy Over the millennia of the lake’s existence a toxic legacy had accumulated in its depths. When it had opened seawater would intrude and, aided by bacteria, sulfates from the seawater reacted with iron-rich sediments and organic matter to form iron sulfides (pyrite). As the lake was drained over the last 100 years iron sulfides were exposed to air, causing them to oxidise and produce sulfuric acid. This is how the acid sulfate soils (ASS) have been created here. As sulfuric acid moves through the soil, it dissolves iron, aluminium, and heavy
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NORTHERN RIVERS & THE GOLD COAST
16 The Byron Shire Echo ƖīƖƆƐǮǽǩǧǨǰ
Some of the fish that washed up on the banks of Belongil Creek following a fish kill in March 2019. Photo Reid Waters metals (such as cadmium and arsenic) and transports them into the Belongil estuary and the bay. At high levels these can all have toxic effects on fish and invertebrates, and can be lethal. Runoff of nutrients and pollutants from agricultural land, urban and industrial areas, and the STP have compounded these problems.
Low oxygen However, rather than the direct impacts of pollutants being the cause of most mass fish kills, in this region it is low dissolved oxygen. The oxidising of dissolved iron in the acidic runoff, particularly when it reaches seawater, is one cause of deoxygenation. The rusted iron may precipitate and smother plants and the streambed. This has been attributed as the ultimate cause of the March fish kill when the Belongil was opened. Other causes include the oxidisation of organic material resulting from decay of nutrient-induced algal blooms and the flooding and killing of inundation-intolerant vegetation (ie pasture). Stratification of standing water likely played a significant role in the recent Tallow Creek fish kill as oxygenated surface waters ran out when Council opened it, leaving deoxygenated bottom waters behind. For our ICOLLs oxygen levels plummet and fish kills primarily occur during artificial opening events when there is insufficient rain to dilute runoff, stir waters, and provide fresh oxygenated waters.
Degrading Belongil The most effective means of restoring the health of the Belongil would be to restore the lake to stop oxidisation of the lake sediments and to replace inundationintolerant pastures with water-tolerant species.
Because of development in the catchment, restoring natural water levels is not feasible. In a perverse move in 2001 Council decided to reduce the opening height for the Belongil ICOLL from 1.2m down to 1.0m as an ‘interim’ measure. This further reduced the size of the remnant lake by 70 per cent down to 34ha, its volume by 30 per cent, and reputedly increased overall drainage of waters in the catchment by 90 per cent. The rationale for lowering the opening to below the highest tide level was to convert the remnant ICOLL into an open estuary to allow increased marine incursions to improve water quality and reduce fish kills. Though the exposure of a further 86ha of the lake sediments, extensive drainage of surrounding soils and increased tidal influences will have significantly increased oxidisation of the soil, acidic runoff and pollution of the Cape Byron Marine Park.
Council’s failed process exposed The reduction in estuarine habitat and draining of statesignificant wetlands initiated major ecological and habitat changes. Council should have prepared an environmental impact statement (EIS) before doing this, but instead the government allowed it to continue under a series of interim licences while the required assessments were undertaken and an estuary opening strategy (EOS) prepared. A draft EOS was prepared in 2005 and subjected to a Review of Environmental Factors, which identified that the multiple environmental impacts are highly significant and warranted preparation of a species impact statement and EIS.
Not wishing to be denied, Council then commissioned a review of water quality in 2007, which also criticised the reduction on the basis it was likely to increase pollution from ASS and violated the precautionary principle. Since then Council has continued openings at one metre while they prepared a new EOS. Eighteen years after the height was lowered the new EOS was released for public comment in June, again proposing continuing openings at 1m. The review was superficial and did not bother to undertake an analysis of the decades of monitoring data or undertake an impact assessment.
Acid sulfate soils Rather than improving water quality, it is evident that reducing the opening height has compounded ASS problems and increased pollution of the Cape Byron Marine Park. Reducing fish kills would be better achieved by modifying the estuary opening process to coincide with periods of high rainfall, and siphoning out water to lower it at other times. Despite the advice of significant environmental impacts, and the need to address catchment issues to improve the health of the estuary, our supposedly ‘Green’ Council has deliberately continued to knowingly cause significant environmental harm while they obsessively pursue the reduced estuary opening height.
Time to adapt Current evidence is that owing to accelerating loss of the icecaps sea levels are likely to rise by over a metre, and possibly over 2m, by the end of this century, with the highest annual tides over a metre above this and storm tides far higher. It will soon be impossible to open the estuary at a height of 1m, or even 1.2m, above historical mean sea levels. Given the significant environmental impacts, Council should immediately restore the opening height to 1.2m and redirect our rates into preparing an adaption strategy for the Belongil catchment detailing how to cope with rising sea levels, the increasing threat of inundation of the town centre, and the increasing volumes being discharged from the STP.
North Coast news daily in Echonetdaily www.echo.net.au
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