W00t W00t for Wetlands

February 2nd is World Wetlands Day, in case that slipped your mind. In honor of the day, I’m devoting this post to a neat wetlands project I learned about during my recent visit to the farming community of Griffith, Australia.

Barren Box Swamp is a 3200-hectare site about 20 kilometers northwest of town. In its natural state, it was what’s known as an ephemeral wetland: it flooded with water after rainfalls and dried out completely during dry periods. Around about the late 1950s, the local irrigation authority permanently flooded it, creating a lake to store about 80,000 megaliters of water that would then feed into the irrigation system. In the process, the natural wetlands were destroyed.

But the lake was shallow—2 to 3 meters at its deepest—and much water was lost through evaporation. So Murrumbidgee Irrigation decided to split the site into 3 smaller areas, or cells. Two of the cells are still used to store water for irrigation, but because they’re deeper and more compact, there’s less evaporation loss. The third cell, which covers half the site, is being gradually restored to its ephemerally swampy state. The move saved the company about 20,000 megaliters of water, and the sale of that water paid for the construction of the 10 kilometers of levee banks that now divide the site. “Environmentally, it’s quite significant, and it’s left us with infrastructure that’s far better than what we previously had,” says Brett Tucker, the managing director of Murrumbidgee Irrigation.

Barren Box isn’t open to the public, but I got to visit the site with the company’s executive manager for the environment, Rob Kelly. “This project clearly demonstrates that you can have both environmental outcomes and irrigation outcomes—there was no tradeoff required,” Kelly told me.

It’s a beautiful spot. Along one stretch of water, I spotted black swans and cormorants and grebes and pelicans and ducks and ibises; Kelly says dozens of bird species now call the swamp home. A little further on, wallabees and emus bounded through the tall grass. I felt like I’d stepped into a nature documentary. (The photo of sunbathing pelicans was taken at Barren Box by local nature photographer David Kleinert.)

It took years of careful negotiation with the community to get the project approved, Kelly says, but the effort was well worth it. “When we first embarked on this, a lot of people told us, ‘It’ll never work.’ We simply took the attitude, that’s not an excuse not to try,” Kelly says. “And look what you can achieve.”

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