National Geographic
Menu

A River Recovering: Australia’s Upper Snowy River

Kayaking at Snowy Falls

Sixty thousand tonnes an hour of environmental water released from Jindabyne Dam crashes over Snowy Falls. Photo by Sharon Roche

By Kelvin Montagu

You could hear the roar. It reverberated between the soaring ridges of the Byadbo Wilderness in Australia’s Kosciusko National Park. The sound of nature’s raw power as sixty thousand tonnes of water each hour crashed down the Snowy Falls.

It was a sound few had heard in the last forty years as our group of Willow Warriors, a volunteer conservation group, set out to help map and remove the remaining invasive willow trees along a remote section of the upper Snowy River.

Originating on the slopes of Mount Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest mainland peak, the magnificent Snowy River – immortalized in the 1890 poem “The Man From Snowy River” – flows through New South Wales and Victoria before emptying into the sea at Bass Strait.

But after the completion of the Jindabyne Dam in 1968, the upper Snowy, once so irrepressible and powerful, virtually dried up overnight. It succumbed, like many rivers during the dam-building age, to decisions that placed hydropower and irrigation development over river health. For the next forty years 1,200 million cubic meters of Snowy River water would be diverted inland.

Even in 1968 not all were prepared to sacrifice the river. For three decades locals along the Snowy were joined by a broader alliance of concerned citizens in a battle to return water to the river. Eventually, the Australian government and the states of New South Wales and Victoria agree, in 2000, to restore a fifth of the flow to the upper Snowy River. (See “A Groundbreaking Agreement to Save Australia’s Ailing Murray River.”)

Over the next decade $425 million was invested in irrigation water savings projects to return 220 million cubic meters of water back into the upper Snowy. The focus on distribution and on-farm water savings projects allowed water to be recovered without a substantial impact on the irrigation-dependent communities along the inland Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. (See photos of the Murray-Darling River.)

Over the last decade, as the Snowy’s flows began to gain strength, efforts to restore the river began as well, especially removing invasive willow trees from the river’s sediment-choked channels and banks. Restoration of the Snowy then got a huge boost, when the decade of drought ended and drenching rains produced a natural flood that aided the river’s healing.

Mapping invasive willows on the Snowy River

Even out here nature needs a hand, like these Willow Warriors mapping invasive willows on the Snowy River. Photo by Anthony Man

Paddling the river in autumn 2012, we found a system starting to recover after forty years with little water. The recent flows had started to reshape the riverbed. Below the Snowy Falls, piles of dead willows, wrenched from the main channel by the river, had been dumped high on the banks – a reminder of the regenerative power of water.

Wildlife was slowly returning. A highlight was catching a glimpse of a platypus surfacing for air and following their bubble trails as they foraged on the bottom. While promising signs, the river and its catchment will require continued help before the fish, frogs, and macro-invertebrates re-establish and the birds return.

This Snowy River is a new river – one now entirely dependent on us. As with most rivers in the world today, we humans determine when it flows and by how much.

This “new” Snowy River tells us a lot about how our relationship with nature is changing. A hundred years ago the Snowy River, and the plants and animals dependant on it, followed the natural cycles of one of Australia’s few snow-fed rivers. Now we control the water, struggle to manage our impact on the catchment, and are in the early stages of replicating the natural cycles with all their complexity.

Our challenge is to acknowledge and quickly come to terms with this new responsibility. Whether the new Snowy River becomes a functioning and healthy river system is now in our hands.

 

Dr. Kelvin Montagu runs Colo Consulting and has worked as an agricultural scientist, forest labourer, knowledge manager, and gardener. In his spare time he started ecoXchange to try new ways of connecting city and country people to share responsibility for looking after tomorrow’s landscape.