Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

Uplands Swamps in Sydney Region - Book Review

Upland Swamps in the Sydney Region*
by Ann Young
144 pages, soft cover, 59 illustrations and 12 tables
RRP $30 plus postage within Australia

Available from the Colong Shop - buy now

Book Review by Keith Muir

Upland Swamps of the Sydney Region brings together recent knowledge of these ancient ecosystems. It is founded on the author’s forty years of academic work in upland swamp research and sandstone geomorphology. It takes the reader on a journey that spans millennia from when these swamps formed in the landscape all way to Dr Young’s experience in the politics of swamp conservation and protection.

Ann is a swamp enthusiast, scientist and patriot, but a reluctant activist. Her book reveals the damage caused by longwall coal mining. Yet Ann says ‘It is only in the past five years or so that I have seen and articulated clearly their [the swamps’] role as the ‘canaries above the mines’, with their loss of water indicating dehydration of the catchment surface generally.’ Ann strikes this note while some in WaterNSW and the Office of Environment and Heritage are speaking out against this damage, and decision makers have toyed with swamp protection measures.

The book explains that swamps are canaries because they rapidly respond to any damage to the catchments they occupy. They survived from the last ice age to record climates and fire regimes that are preserved in pollen and charcoal when their sediments were accumulating. Ann writes ‘Most of the sediment now found in upland swamps accumulated during the late Pleistocene and Holocene.’ So upland swamps survived millennia across a broad range of climatic conditions and fire frequencies but now are being lost to coal mining. But will this rapidly growing collection of ‘dead canaries’ curb further damage?

The diverse forms of upland swamp on Sydney’s plateaus are all water-dependent ecosystems and Ann explains that under natural conditions the water table rises to near the surface following rain. When the rains stop, the water table gradually drops but usually a swamp does not fully dry out and the water table sits well above its sandstone base.

Due to longwall mining, swamps cease being water dependent ecosystems and will quickly dry out after rain. Dryland plants like eucalypts and weeds move in and water loving plants die back. Rare plants can be lost and endangered animals lose habitat. The immediate drop in water table after mining suggests that cracking of the bedrock base of swamps is the direct and most significant cause of swamp drainage. But it isn’t the only damage.

Upland swamps are not only endangered communities, as they ensure pure water flows during drought periods to support wildlife in pristine bushland catchments as well as slaking the thirst of millions of Sydney residents.

Longwall mining damage to Sydney's water catchments, and in particular to upland swamps, threatens the enduring benefits of fresh drinking water of the highest quality that Sydney residents have assumed as their birthright for over 100 years. WaterNSW has estimated an 830ML/year loss of water from the catchment over the Dendrobium mine equates to an annual $1.6 million loss at current water value. Environmental impacts valued by offset bonds at the Springvale mine are running at $2 million increments for swamp damage of more than predicted levels. But these valuations are not a large enough to stop the damage.

Ann Young’s book is an excellent summary of the current science and establishes a strong case for protecting upland swamps. It brings together research funded by the $1.45 enforceable undertaking imposed on Centennial Coal for damaging swamps on Newnes Plateau. Critically there is still insufficient research into water production from swamps.

My fear is that while the book enables upland swamps to be understood, decision makers will not apply the precautionary principle correctly and the lack of accurate hydrological modelling may become another excuse for inaction. What’s at stake is not just precious swamps with their up-beat message of long term climate survival, but a sacred resource, Sydney’s water, that can’t be easily replaced. Funding an alternative water supply for Sydney will cost the earth.

*The Colong Foundation assisted with the marketing and publication of this book.

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