Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Floodwaters Replenish Australia's Drought Stricken Wetlands

Heavy seasonal rains that began late last year in Australia caused floods that devastated parts of the country. But experts say the downpours also re-invigorated parched rivers and wildlife sanctuaries, including one of Australia's most valued wetlands. The Macquarie Marshes in New South Wales, an internationally recognized breeding ground for thousands of birds, are teeming with life for the first time in years following a protracted drought.

It has been a decade since New South Wales' Macquarie Marshes were so vibrant. A long-standing drought had turned the internationally renowned wetlands, about 650 kilometers north-west of Sydney, into a dusty wilderness. However, months of heavy rain have brought a gradual revival. The region has a rich diversity of flora and fauna, from giant river red gum trees, rare frogs and reptiles to the pink Cockatoo and the turquoise parrot.

Debbie Love, a conservation officer with the New South Wales state government, says flooding has transformed the marshes.

"They do look completely different. They also sound and smell completely different. Like when it is dry out there it is sort of a dormant condition. There's not much wildlife around. You don't have a chorus of insects or frogs. The earth smells dry and dusty and the air smells dusty," she describes. "But when it's wet, it's a real change. It is never silent. There's always bird calls, frogs calling. It's fantastic actually."

It is not only drought that has affected the wetlands. Irrigation systems have increasingly diverted water from local rivers to farmlands, which has had a lasting impact on wildlife.

Richard Kingsford, a professor of environmental science at the University of New South Wales, says the rains have brought much-needed relief.

"Look, it's certainly been fantastic in terms of gaining a reprieve, I guess, for a lot of the wetland communities, the vegetation, fish, the frogs, the turtles and the water birds in the Macquarie Marshes. It's certainly never going to return to where it was before we started building dams and developing the river system," he explained.

While flooding has caused widespread misery in parts of Australia in recent months, vast amounts of that unwanted rain are now coursing into previously depleted rivers and wetlands. Environmental experts say this replenishment could provide a positive footnote to the devastating force of nature.


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