Wed. Jan 26th, 2022

From the street of a new residential property in Torquay on Victoria’s Surf Coast, a wetland should be a welcome sight of the wilderness amidst the maze of shiny, new, modern homes.

Its greenery helps to bring the gray and neutral tones of the houses in The Dunes Estate to life, but on closer inspection, the wetland is not the calm, beautiful feature it might first appear.

Instead, it is a pit of muddy, stagnant water that holds fast-growing weeds and debris.

Pieces of polystyrene float near a path, which looks specially built, but which is actually a shelf made of layers and layers of silt, so thick that you can easily walk on it.

Local resident Jan Selvay has watched in horror as the wetland has turned to mud over the years.

“So you have a murky, dormant asset that doesn’t work,” she said.

A metal grate in the wet area sits under dirty water surrounded by plastic waste.
The neglected urban wetland at The Dunes has been collecting garbage and silt for months and blocking water flow. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton )

Another growing pain

Over the past decade, the Surf Coast has rapidly grown in popularity, prompting the development of large residential areas across the Torquay area.

Being stuck at home during the pandemic has only contributed to the enticement of a relaxed beach lifestyle for many, especially Melburnians who can work remotely.

As the houses appear almost from one day to the next, the estates are all required to have man-made wetlands to help mitigate the environmental impacts of developing homes on such a massive scale.

The frame of a house being built in North Torquay with a newly built house next door.
Torquay’s population is expected to increase by almost a further 9,000 people by 2036.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

“They’re really created to help filter out a lot of the rainwater that comes through from housing and urban development before it runs into our beautiful bays,” said Deakin University researcher Paul Carnell.

“There may be pollutants and things in there, and it’s a matter of filtering that water through before it gets out into our coastal areas.”

That’s exactly what a report has found that the Dunes wetland does not.

The water technology report was commissioned and paid for by a group of residents who were concerned about what happened to the local waterways.

It found that the Dunes wetland was too small, not maintained, filled with debris and invasive plant species and did not filter out all the dirt and sediment that ran away from nearby construction sites.

“Without changes to specifically address the functionality of the existing constructed wetlands and the effects of urbanization in the hinterland, the degradation of the Karaaf wetlands and downstream receiving waters will continue,” the report said.

Karaaf Wetlands, Torquay
The Karaaf wetlands of Torquay serve as feeding and resting places for migratory birds.(ABC News: Steven Schubert)

The nearby Karaaf wetland hosts a number of migratory bird species and the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot.

It also drains into the Breamlea Flora and Fauna Reserve.

Both Breamlea and Karaaf are considered Ramsar sites, which would protect them under the International Environmental Convention.

Ms Selvay said the report showed the wetland needed a complete overhaul.

“The recommendations were simply that it should all be dug out, cleaned out, starting from the rough pollution traps … get all the silt out and actually dig out the waste, remove almost all the vegetation and replant it with the correct species,” said Ms. Selvay.

Dr. Carnell said a wetland in such a built-up area was not something one could “put and forget”.

“If you get the buildup of these heavy metals, it could affect things like frogs and fish that we get in our wetlands, and we want to support that biodiversity,” he said.

Paul Carnell huddles with the sea behind him on a gray day.
Dr. Carnell says urban wetlands can mitigate the effects of development, but they need to be maintained to be effective. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Go in search of who is responsible

According to Surf Coast Shires development processes, the council signs the wetland design when approving the development application for a new property.

The wetland is then the client’s responsibility to create and maintain while construction is underway.

Once that is done, the developers – in the case of Dunes, a Melbourne-based firm called Land Development Consulting – hand it over and it becomes the council’s job to administer.

Ms Selvay said the construction is almost complete and that the company has neglected the wetlands, but the municipality has not done enough either.

“You would have to say that historically have not paid proper attention to the protection of these assets or to using the correct parameters to be designed,” she said.

Robyn Seymour stands outside on a gray day and smiles.
Surf Coast Shire CEO Robyn Seymour says the council would rather work with developers than fine them for not fulfilling obligations. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Surf Coast Shires CEO Robyn Seymour confirmed that it was up to the council to ensure that developers complied with their environmental obligations, but said it had taken no action against the company.

“Of course there’s a lot of development going on, it’s been a wet winter and it’s an ongoing job we have to do … it’s a job in progress,” she said.

“We will also continue to work with the developer on the operation of these wetlands to ensure that they are maintained and managed efficiently.”

The council can issue fines of up to $ 400 to developers for non-compliance.

Upon contact, Land Development Consulting declined to comment.

Mrs Selvay said she was pleased to see that the issue was finally addressed.

“We have been trying for more than a decade to get somewhere with the municipality to actually get someone to recognize the problem we are dealing with and to start acting,” she said.

“The water technology report seems to be working as this phase is.”


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