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Byron Shire
March 5, 2021

Belongil could be among the world’s great wetlands

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Part of the remnant wetlands at Belongil. Are council and developers going against the tide building a hard rock wall? Photo Mary Gardner

Crowds are still cheering how the sea floods 250 hectares at Steart on the mouth of the River Parrett, UK. This is the latest of five national ‘coastal realignment’ projects. The Environment Agency and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust worked with the local townspeople to undo a hundred years of hard seawalls with ‘soft engineering’. This flood protection which invests in food security and social evolution may look like a backward step. But it’s actually going sideways and re-entering great cycles of life. Cycles we can still see here in our Belongil catchment.

Back in the UK, the Trust started with wetland restoration over at Slimbridge in 1946. Its founder, Peter Scott, was the son of Antarctic explorer Captain Scott. His father’s last request of his wife was that she ‘make the boy interested in natural history.’

Whatever did Kathleen Scott do that inspired her son? He went on to become an international leader in modern conservation, founding the World Wide Fund, creating the IUCN red lists of endangered species. He made Slimbridge not only a world-renowned conservation centre, but a nature centre open to the public.

Scott’s trust partnered with wildlife clubs in Newcastle, Australia, helping create their Hunter Wetlands Centre. From 1983, residents and council worked together to restore the wetlands and manage flooding. Staff includes the Awabakal people. In 2012, 100,000 people attended activities ranging from recreation and tourism to education and research. The site is on the Ramsar list of internationally important wetlands.

Such wetland projects prove that people can understand what all the birds and fish already know. Water sustains life and also governs it. The latest paper in Nature, published on September 21, explains how water rules on the large scale of the Pacific Basin. Seventeen coastal geologists mapped the impacts on 48 beaches during the swings of climate in 1979-2012. Ever stronger cycles of El Nino/Southern Oscillations mean increasing storm surges and coastal erosion first on one side of the Pacific, then the other.

In that study, one of the erosion sites was Belongil. Here, rock walls are simultaneously being built on the Belongil shore and challenged in court. The Elements of Byron, a resort, want to counter the elements of the Belongil waterway with more walls of their own. The most vulnerable real estate towards the end of the Belongil spit is up for auction. Further inland, the Belongil heaves with tides and storm surges, running up against the downward flow of Byron stormwater and effluent.

In that flow is all the artificial drainage from the former wetlands. The lands are now part of the West Byron ‘real estate’ advertised for sale last week. Seventy three acres of what has proven to be marginal agricultural land was once a soft edge of the sea.

The recent rezoning process has revealed the whole area is still stubbornly a swamp. Flood prone, with acid soils. Where marine animals still return to spawn and grow. Wild plants and coastal forest remnants supporting koalas and other wildlife all somehow persist. Wading birds and croaking frogs outnumber the cows and people who live here.

The Belongil, like the Steart and Hunter, still moves in cycles. It would support more wildlife, marine life and fish. Remember for thousands of years, it fed Bundjalung people. In the early 20th century, it fed settlers, who shipped thousands of pounds of fish to Sydney. If, like the other wetlands, it could strengthen its cycles, it could feed people of the future.

Resident scientist Gavin Greenoak believes that, on some level, evolution is transforming us humans from caterpillars into butterflies. We can recognize disabled wetlands and see in their rehabilitation a new livelihood and a rejuvenated local economy. We can see the unruly Belongil, like the Tallow, as one of the very few waterways still free of any ‘training walls’ and ‘development’. What we called ‘lack of progress’ is now our greatest asset.

From the Hunter to the Steart, communities are renewing themselves as they learn again to respect the great cycles. And here?

Start with the Belongil, from the beaches to outer reaches.

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