There was a time when the water was clean and you could catch prawns and mud crabs in the Belongil Estuary reflected local landowner Tony Flick.
Last Thursday local landholders, councillors, council staff and Southern Cross University scientists and Marine Parks met on site at the Union Drain in the Belongil Estuary to discuss the ongoing failure of Byron Shire Council to deal with the impact the unloading of up to five megaliters a day of treated Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) water into the Union Drain and the Belongil Estuary. For over ten years local landholders have been asking council to take action on the overloading of the Union Drain by the STP.
Council refusing to talk to stakeholders
Yet it appeared that Byron Shire Council (BSC) staff had previously said that they will no longer communicate with the Belongil Catchment Drain Board (BCDB) over the management of the estuary and its impacts on the Union Drain. It took Councillor Alan Hunter (Conservative) to call the meeting, following a recent story in The Echo on the issues, and bring a range of parties together to discuss the long term issues.
‘I was informed of this meeting by a member of the drainage board; we never received an official notification, request or invite from council,’ said local landholder and board member of the BCDB Tom Vidal.
‘It is unfortunate that the meeting had to be instigated by a councillor (Alan Hunter) since BSC is not communicating with the Drainage Board (BCDB) on flooding issues. BSC’s General Manager advised the Drainage Board that council will no longer respond to the Drainage Board’s or its member’s concerns on flooding. This is astounding, considering that collaboration with the Drainage Board is an essential condition of the STP development application (DA).
The condition of consent for the EPA licence for the STP was that after 2002, any treated effluent being placed in the Belongil system would be matched by reuse and not diverted into the Belongil Estuary via the Union Drain. As part of this there was a verbal agreement between BSC and the BCDB, who manage the Union Drain, that they would continue to accept up to one megaliter a day of excess water from the STP.
‘To this day no official agreement has been reached between the BCDB and BSC; a long standing verbal agreement is not being honoured by BSC,’ said Mr Vidal.
Multiple landowners said that their land has been unusable for at least the last ten years pointing out that the Union Drain was designed to extract water from the area to facilitate agriculture not to drain the STP. They say that the current opening strategy for the mouth of the Belongil is failing as the constant input from the STP means large parts of their properties are unusable for agriculture and the standing water is killing the trees on their properties.
One landholder told The Echo that 13 big mahogany trees that had supported a koala colony had dies around ten years ago as a result of the STP water while in the last five years lage swathes of Melaleuca trees had also died.
‘With a number of recent tidal surges sediment has blocked the creeks natural flows to the
ocean, so any big seas now relentlessly fill the wetlands with salt water,’ said Mr Vidal.
‘This means the ecological health of the wetland is compromised and thousands of
melaleucas are dying, the union drain is deteriorating, and surrounding agricultural land is
becoming damaged and unuseable.’
West Byron impacts
The issue of the West Byron developments are also causing concern.
‘We are concerned with the imminent development that is about to play out around us,’ said local landowner Paul Margolin.
Concerns were raised in relation to the impact of fill of two to three meters on the site that will potentially increase flooding in the catchment; and the increase of water that will be added to the STP from the housing development that will further increase the excess water being drained through the STP into the Union Drain and the Belongil Catchment.
‘Villaworld wants to reduce it’s seven stages down to two, which removes the opportunity to consider the impacts of the development on the area between stages,’ pointed out local landowner Tim Hochgrebe.
‘It can’t be unbuilt.’
However, Tony Flick said that at least BSC had ‘for the first time admitted that there is a problem’.
‘It was positive that everyone present acknowledged that there are problems,’ said Mr Vidal.
‘I do hope that the meeting will result in some positive outcomes and that we will see some action by authorities involved.’
‘What we need is considered management of the creek’s mouth opening to the ocean for the protection of the remaining natural eco-system as well as all developments within the Area,’ said Cr Hunter.