Out of Thin Eyre

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Words || Gabby Edwards

Kati Tanda-Lake Eyre is famous for a few things, it is Australia’s lowest natural point and is primarily known for being an empty lake. However, as if out of thin air the system is facing one of its largest flooding events in recent history and now Australia’s largest lake is now full again.

The flooding event is the result of a torrential downpour in Northern Queensland which devastated communities upstream, killing an estimated 500,000 cattle and inundating homes. The sheer volume of water has filled Lake Eyre in a record breaking two months, rather than the usual 3-10 months.

The water has arrived in a way not seen for 45 years, and the unexpected flooding event has seen locals warning against mining exploration. Residents have learnt to go with the flow, even when there is none, and have specified that when the water comes it is important to not be greedy. In their opinion, this is what happens when natural systems are allowed to operate without interference. 

What the water brings

While the floodwaters have impacted communities upstream, downstream the water is a force for good and highlights the boom and bust systems of central Australia. With the water comes an explosion of insects, fish and birdlife, as they take advantage of nature’s small window of opportunity to breed. Fish, confined in dry times to a few permanent waterholes, ride the floods across the basin, while millions of water birds fly in from the coast.

The Diamantina River at Birdsville is churning with life, as thousands of small fish try to haul themselves upstream. Speaking to the ABC, Aboriginal elder and chief ranger for the Munga Thirri National Park in the Simpson Desert, Dan Rowland notes that, “This is nothing” and that at times, “the whole river is boiling with fish.

These floodwaters have brought life to Birdsville and another is on its way, down Eyre Creek from Bedourie, courtesy of Cyclone Trevor. Rowland identified how unusual it is to have two floods in a row, believing, “that’s why we’re pretty lucky with this river and why it should stay the way it is: no interference up-stream, like dams or extraction of water, or anything at all — because we would miss this flow … big time.

A system under threat

Unlike Australia’s Murray-Darling, this system has no major irrigation, diversions or flood-plain developments. Locals fought off an attempt in 1995 to introduce large-scale irrigated cotton farming on the basin’s Cooper Creek, and they fear these new floods may put the system under threat again.

In 2014, Queensland’s Liberal National Party changed the laws protecting the rivers and floodplains in the Channel Country, which environmentalists say, potentially opens them up to shale gas mining, or fracking. It should be noted that while in opposition, Labor promised to protect these environmentally sensitive areas. However according to Fiona Maxwell from the Pew Charitable Trusts, now in government Labor continues to release land for oil and gas exploration. Tens of thousands of square kilometres of the basin are now approved for oil and gas exploration, she says.

The residents of the Lake Eyre Basin have fought before to protect the rivers which feed this globally unique ecosystem and they stand ready to do so again. Managers of the Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary for the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Mark and Tess McLaren are already fighting. The region was once home to species such as the lesser bilby and the pig-footed bandicoot, now presumed extinct.

Tess insists the rivers do all the hard work for the environment, “all we have to do is leave [them] run”. She is correct as across the entire basin, people know this flood is just a moment in a boom and bust cycle. In a few months’ time, the water will disappear. Seep into the ground and evaporate into the air. The water will be gone, but will live on in the people, plants and animals that rely on its life giving force. As well as the stories and memories these unique dessert events bring.

In an Australia filled with stories of drought, the unexpected flooding of our usually waterless lake serves as a reminder that water is life for our environment. As well as a stark reminder that when water systems are left to run, they can provide life to our land the way it was always intended to.