Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

Two years ago, the Macquarie River stopped near Warren, in the New South Wales Central West.

It was the first time since Burrendong Dam was built in the 1960s, and it created a critical situation for the world-famous Macquarie Marshes.

Now that’s a different story.

Professor Richard Kingsford conducts an air survey every year for the University of New South Wales’ School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to search, up and down arrows for volume.
Macquarie Marsh from the air

Professor Kingsford has been conducting the study for more than 30 years and said 2019 was one of the worst seasons he had experienced.

“I think we saw two black ducks in the northern part of the marsh,” he said.

A family of black and white ibis birds and their chickens in grasslands
Straw-necked ibis are among the birds that have returned to the wetlands after rejuvenating rain.(Delivered by: Heather McGuinness, CSIRO)

At the same time as the air survey is taking place, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage is also conducting its annual on-site survey.

Tim Hosking said that after years of drought, dust storms and a grass fire that destroyed native weed beds, the recovery could take at least another year.

An aerial photo of a brown surface.
Macquarie Marshes were dry and lifeless during the 2019 drought.(Delivered by: Ryan Shields)
A lush green wetland with water, reeds and trees
A recent display of the revitalized Macquarie Marshes from the Burrima boardwalk.(ABC Western Plains: Robyn Herron )

“[But] between the natural river currents and the managed environmental water we have added, the system is on the right track for recovery, “he said.

And he is hopeful that if there remains water in the wetlands, there will be a strong breeding season.

Several pairs of rogue geese have already arrived at the marsh to breed.

Magpie Geese in flight
Skagese geese are among the birds that flock back to the marsh to breed.(ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)

But Mr Hosking said parts of the wetlands took longer to recover.

“For example, there are some coolibah-black box areas that I think would love a drink, but the core of the marsh is on its way back from drought,” he said.

Back from the edge

Back in 2019, critical urban supplies were in doubt for some communities, and water authorities prioritized human needs over environmental ones.

The Burrendong Dam, which supplies the Macquarie River and feeds the marsh, was less than 5 percent full.

Warren Shires Mayor Milton Quigley said the council was considering evacuating the local hospital as it was close to not having a water source to fight fires.

Large fire burns in Macquarie Marshes
The fire in 2019 burned thousands of acres of important reed beds and river red gums.(Supplied by: Macquarie Marshes Environmental Landholders Association)

“Warren has a double water capacity, so there is drilled water and river water that we use for firefighting,” said Councilor Quigley.

“We had to think a few months in advance, and that [evacuating the hospital] was certainly an opportunity that may have taken place. “

Cr Quigley said the council had completed work on its water infrastructure for the past two years to ensure Warren was never in that position again.

“We have also drought-tightened our boreholes in many ways and cross-linked them as well, so a drilled field will always work,” he said.

A large body of water in a rural landscape
Burrendong Dam near Wellington, which supplies the marsh, currently has more than 100 percent capacity.(ABC Western Plains: Olivia Ralph)

Cr Quigley said authorities had to use the times when water was flowing to consider how water could be handled during future droughts.

Tony Webber of WaterNSW said such considerations were at the forefront of authority operations.

“History tells us that unfortunately it is never far away.”

Build it and they will come

Until now, public access to the Macquarie Marshes has been largely limited, as most of the RAMSAR-listed wetlands are on privately owned land and cross a number of properties.

A wooden promenade through lush green ants and trees
The Burrima boardwalk in Macquarie Marshes was completed in 2020.(ABC Western Plains: Robyn Herron)

However, public access to the marsh has been significantly improved by a multi-million dollar promenade completed in 2020.

Cr Quigley said it was hoped that the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions would finally allow more tourists to witness the remarkable improvement in wetlands.

“There are people who will come and see from afar.”

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