Heavy rainfall boosts bird breeding across Lachlan River but drought 'only one failed rain event away'

Heavy rains across Australia's east coast are reinvigorating wetland bird species, but conservationists have warned the next drought is just around the corner. 

Key points:

  • Record wetland bird breeding events have been recorded across NSW's central west 
  • Government agencies say preparations for the next drought have begun to improve water security 
  • Researchers say the Lachlan River will never return to its original state despite the record rainfall

Lake Cowal Foundation's Mal Carnegie said unprecedented rainfall was recorded in the Lachlan River catchment in New South Wales' central west so far this year.

“The Lachlan River system has been in flood for quite a considerable time, much more than we have seen in the last 30 to 40 years,” Mr Carnegie said. 

He noted the weather had translated into mass breeding events for native species like pelicans and the straw-necked ibis.

“The colonial waterbirds, the ones that breed in large quantities, they are the ones that particularly benefit from these events,” he said.

“In Lake Cowal we had some 150 hectares of straw-necked ibis breeding; we still don't have a real accurate number on that but it is somewhere between 50 and 100,000 birds.” 

Colonial waterbirds are species which require substantial floods to support large breeding events in floodplain wetlands.

Heavy rainfall boosts bird breeding across Lachlan River but drought 'only one failed rain event away'

Birds such as straw-necked ibis benefit from sustained wet weather.(Supplied: Mal Carnegie)

With prime conditions being seen across the river system, government agencies are preparing for the next drought. 

“We know there is going to be another dry period coming. It is only one failed rain event away,” Commonwealth water officer Michelle Grout said. 

“We have to prepare for that and get water everywhere we can and to the assets that we really care about, get them thriving and build some resilience in.” 

It is a sentiment echoed by the University of New South Wales' Richard Kingsford, who says improved water management is vital to securing water security. 

“We are in a flood period now so to some extent the pressure has gone off because there is lots of water around,” he said.

“One thing is for certain; like death and taxes, we are going to get another drought and it is going to be a tough one.”

Heavy rainfall boosts bird breeding across Lachlan River but drought 'only one failed rain event away'

The Lachlan River is home to a number of waterbirds.(Supplied: Mal Carnegie)

Learning from mistakes 

The Lachlan River is a heavily regulated system, with dams, weirs, and locks controlling the flow of water throughout the region.

Dr Kingsford says despite the ideal conditions being seen across the central west, the regulation of the river is destroying it. 

“We have had these amazing responses of the fish and pelican colonies at Lake Brewster, ibis colonies on the Booligal system but they are not as big as they used to be,” he said. 

Wiradjuri elder Ray Woods said current infrastructure along the river, such as Wyangala Dam, allowed too much water to be removed from the system. 

Mr Woods says stakeholders involved in the management of the Lachlan must not repeat past mistakes after the opportunity provided by the weather conditions. 

“We understand that there is farming, and the infrastructure has been put in place already,” he said. 

“Let's learn from what mistakes have been made and work with what we've got.”

Heavy rainfall boosts bird breeding across Lachlan River but drought 'only one failed rain event away'

Ray Woods says management of the Lachlan River must be more balanced between environmental and farming needs. (ABC Rural: Hamish Cole)

Australian National University professor Jamie Pittock called for greater investment in the Lachlan River to support the wetland regions that were vital for native birds. 

“The Lachlan is the forgotten river,” he said.

“It is not being considered part of the Northern Basin that has got hundreds of millions of dollars with things like the Northern toolkit to upgrade river management. 

“It is not part of the Southern Basin that's got around a billion dollars with things like the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism program.”

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