The weekly wash-up (October 23)

River and water news –  October 23rd, 2014

Queensland dams dominate agriculture green paper  Queensland dams make up 9 out of the 27 shortlisted for further feasibility funding in  the Federal government’s recent  Agricultural Competitiveness Green Paper. The dams would be paid for by a mix of private and government funds. However, some in the irrigation sector question whether farmers will be able to afford the water.

Final report warns government not to backtrack on water reform   In its final report, the National Water Commission (NWC) has found the country’s water is now being used effectively after years of reform, but is warning governments not to drop the ball on the issue. The call comes on the same day the Federal Government announced it will be considering up to 27 new water infrastructure projects around the country. The NWC chair noted with the scrapping of the commission “Water is no longer an item on the COAG agenda and that’s our major concern.”

Ancient fish were first to have sex – sideways    A team led by renowned Australian palaeontologist John Long has pinpointed the time in evolution when intercourse developed as a method of reproduction in our distant ancestors – ancient armoured fishes called antiarch placoderms. Fossils of these ancient creatures, which ruled the earth around 430 million years ago, show they were the first animals to develop specific male and female genitalia, allowing them to have internal sex.

Antiarch fish

An artist’s impression of antiarch fish mating. Photograph: Flinders University/YouTube

Plastic nanoparticles also harm freshwater organisms    Organisms can be negatively affected by plastic nanoparticles, not just in the seas and oceans but in freshwater bodies too. These particles slow the growth of algae, cause deformities in water fleas and impede communication between small organisms and fish. Nanoplastic particles are released during processes such as the thermal cutting of plastics and when small plastic particles are abraded by sand — a process that probably also takes place in nature.

Water release in iconic snowy river   A major release of more than 10,000 megalitres of water from Lake Jindabyne Dam was designed to mimic the spring snow melt. It was part of continued efforts to restore the parched river, which was reduced to just 1 % of its annual flow rates by the construction of the Snowy Hydro Scheme. Earlier this year the NSW government axed the independent Snowy Scientific Committee, angering environmentalists and community groups.

Learning lessons from the Danube    The Danube meanders its way from Germany’s Black Forest through 10 countries, to Romania where it enters the Black Sea. The most critical species in the Danube is the endangered sturgeon – the fish that produces valuable black caviar. A combination of dams, pollution and illegal fishing has driven this 200 million-year-old fish to the brink of extinction. Now, scientists and researchers believe a new pan-European research centre set to be housed at the Danube’s Delta will help scientists understand how to tackle a multitude of current and potential problems.

Over 50,000 march in Dublin to protest against water charges  After years of free water services, the centre-right coalition has decided to charge households hundreds of euros for water supply from the start of next year. The rally represents the biggest anti-austerity protest for years.

Extreme insect: the midge that survive in a vacuum  Scientists have completed the genetic analysis on a species of African midge, which can survive a wide array of extreme conditions including large variations in temperature, extreme drought and even airless vacuums such as space. The midge, Polypedilum vanderplanki, is capable of anhydrobiosis, a unique state that allows an organism to survive even after losing 97% of its body water.



Breathing life into an ancient fish

The Australian lungfish: embodiment of the transition of life from water to land; listed as a vulnerable species; icon for the Save the Mary River campaign. It is only found in south-east Queensland and its existence is threatened by the construction of dams in these rivers. Decisions we are making now will determine the future of this species.

Unlike most fishes, the Australian Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) has the unique ability to breathe air although under most conditions, they breathe exclusively using their gills. They can grow up to 1.5m in length and 40kg which is reflected in the Aboriginal names theebine  (Waka language)  or the djelleh, both meaning big fish.

The Australian lungfish or theebine. Photo by Tannin.

The Australian lungfish or theebine. Photo by Tannin.

Being able to breathe air is a good survival strategy for Australian fish. Lungfishes surface and breathe air during dry periods when streams become stagnant, or when water quality changes. The sound when they surface to empty and refill their lung reportedly sounds like that of the “blast from a small bellows“.

The Australian lungfish are only found in several rivers in south-east Queensland* including the Burnett, Mary and Brisbane and this is one of the reasons it is protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Historically, a broader family of lungfish successfully inhabited most of the central-eastern half of the Australian continent, but a number of natural and human-induced factors have led to contraction of its range.

The Mary River in  Queensland - one of the few remaining homes of the lungfish. Photo by MRCCC.

The Mary River in Queensland – one of the few remaining homes of the lungfish. Photo by MRCCC.

The spawning or reproduction of Australian lungfish involves a distinct and intricate courting routine and is highly reliant on a variable low-flow regime within riverine habitat.  This means the construction of water storages within the range of the lungfish is one of the key threatening processes listed for this species. A recent study* demonstrated the absence of flow variability through late winter and early spring and subsequent bulk release of water in early November, had significant impacts on spawning of Australian lungfish.

The Mary River community campaigned to stop Traveston Dam and thus improve the survival prospects for the lungfish. Photo by International Rivers.

The Mary River community campaigned to stop Traveston Dam and thus improve the survival prospects for the lungfish. Photo by International Rivers.

Increased knowledge about this unique species can help us manage existing water storages better. For example releases of water from storages should mimic not only the incoming flow regime but also temperature, to provide maximum opportunity for Australian lungfish to spawn.  Communities are also determining the survival of the species. The people of the Mary River catchment were vocal in expressing their value for the river and its wildlife and undoubtedly played a key role in the Traveston Dam not going ahead. One step toward making the future of the lungfish a little more secure.

*The full article on which this post is based is:

Spawning of the endangered Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) in a heavily regulated river: a pulse for life. By T. Espinoza, S.M. Marshall and A.J. McDougall. In River Research and Applications 29: 1215–1225 (2013)

The weekly wash-up (September 8th)

River and water news –  September 8th, 2014

Water resources a priority for developing northern Australia  The Federal Parliamentary Committee looking at Northern Australia has recommended giving priority to the development and funding of water resource proposals including  a number of dams and weirs for irrigation and mining.  However, the report noted local community concerns over the IFED scheme,  a $2 billion private investment project already on the books for the Gilbert catchment in north Queensland.

Archerfish use tools to target prey  Archerfish hunt by shooting jets of water at unsuspecting prey to knock them into the water. A new study has found the fish really do use water as a tool making them the first known tool-using animal to adaptively change the hydrodynamic properties of a free jet of water. They do this by modulating the dynamics of changes in the cross-section of their mouth opening.

An Archerfish hunting. Photo by Shelby Temple.

An Archerfish hunting. Photo by Shelby Temple.

Switzerland braces for alpine lake tsunami   A canton in landlocked Switzerland, are factoring the risk of a tsunami in Lake Lucerne into their hazard plans. It is the first official acknowledgement of such a threat in Europe’s Alpine region — and comes in step with findings that the risk of tsunamis in the area, which is home to around 13 million people, is much higher than previously thought.

Brazil water crisis leads to rationing and tensions   A drought, affecting Brazil’s southeast and central regions, has prompted rationing in 19 cities, undermined hydropower generation, pushed up greenhouse gas emissions and led to squabbles between states vying for dwindling water resources.

Oldest fossil of water treader found  Fossil hunters in the Rhone valley, France,  have discovered a new insect species – the ancestor of today’s water treaders (Mesoveliidae). The bug was 6 mm long and is the oldest record of the aquatic bug lineage of the Gerromorpha which comprises the water striders and the water measurers.

Life can exist in cold dark world   A massive U.S. expedition to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has shown that there’s life and an active ecosystem one-half mile below the surface. Specifically in a lake that hasn’t seen sunlight or felt a breath of wind for millions of years. The life is in the form of microorganisms that live beneath the enormous Antarctic ice sheet and convert ammonium and methane into the energy required for growth.


anatomy of a water controversy


There have been several spectacular failures in the implementation of water recycling schemes in Australia. One that resonates was in the south-eastern Queensland town of Toowoomba. After a controversy that caught up players from the local to Federal level, residents voted against recycled water as a solution to a dire water shortage. How might we understand this type of controversy?

The Toowoomba story

Toowoomba is known as ‘Queensland’s Garden City’ and has a population of   over 150,000 people. Most of the water for the gardens and the rest of the city comes from dams. By 2006, however, the total water demand in Toowoomba exceeded supply* and the population were on crippling water restrictions.

In response, the local council developed a policy document supported by State and Federal governments. It included a range of solutions, most prominently the construction of an advanced water treatment plant to provide potable (drinking) quality recycled…

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The weekly wash-up – August 19th

River and water news –  August 19th, 2014

Scientists study “talking turtles” in Amazon   Scientists working in the Brazilian Amazon have found that Giant South American river turtles use several different kinds of vocal communication to coordinate their social behaviors. Female turtles were recorded calling to their newly hatched offspring in what is the first instance of recorded parental care in turtles.

Cambodia’s LS2 dam a disaster in the making   The Lower Sesan 2 Dam (LS2) will be the first large hydropower dam built in the Mekong River Basin in Cambodia. The dam would block two of the Mekong River’s largest tributaries — the Sesan and Srepok Rivers — creating a large reservoir that would force a number of villages to relocate. However many tens of thousands of people upstream and downstream will also be affected because of the devastating impact on fish and fisheries in areas far beyond the dam’s planned reservoir.

The Nam ou RIver, Laos. Fishing communities along the Mekong are likely to be negatively impacted by a new dam. Photo: International Rivers.

The Nam ou River, Laos. Fishing communities along the Mekong are likely to be negatively impacted by a new dam. Photo: International Rivers.

Murray-Darling plan put to test     As farmers struggle to deal with drought across large parts of New South Wales, the Murray-Darling Basin water-sharing plan is set to be put to the test. While graziers near the Macquarie Marshes are concerned parts of the marshes are dying off through lack of water, irrigators around Mildura are worried  they won’t have enough water for their crops. Despite current unrest, the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s chairman said he did not believe there would be a return to the water wars seen before the plan’s implementation.

Wild Rivers legislation repealed   The 13 rivers in Cape York and in Queensland’s western Channel Country previously protected under the Wild Rivers legislation will now be protected under the new Regional Interest Planning  Act. Under the new framework, planning decisions will now be made through either local government planning schemes, or regional interest development approvals at the state level.

Rare daisy find leads to wetlands recovery project   Ecologists hope to ensure the survival of a small, highly endangered daisy by reintroducing it to a wetlands area of eastern South Australia. The spiny daisy was considered long extinct until a chance discovery of the native species near Laura in the mid-north of SA. Hundreds of cuttings now are being planted at Banrock Station wetlands in the SA Riverland, to boost the conservation effort.

Familiar fish “form friendships”   Fish form friendships and guide each other to food, a new study suggests. Scientists found that stickleback recognise other fish that they have previously been housed with and spend more time interacting with them than with unfamiliar ones.

River listening – there’s more to rivers than meets the eye

“We live in a visual world”. Not the words you’d expect from a musician and music technology lecturer like Dr Toby Gifford. Apt words, however, for how we think about rivers – images of turbulent flood or calm reflective surfaces at sunset. But what of the sounds of rivers? What can sound tell us about rivers, does sound have an intrinsic value, and how can it inspire us?

Listening to our environment is not new. Bioacoustics or the sounds produced by or affecting living organisms, has been around since the second part of the twentieth century*. Some well known examples are the identification of birds by their call and the use of whale song as a tool for their study and to be enjoyed as music. But these are merely the “charismatic megafauna” of acoustic ecology—there’s a lot more to hear in the environment.

Flinders River, Queensland at sunset. We often think of rivers in visual terms. Photo by Jon Marshall, courtesy of TRaCK.

Flinders River, Queensland at sunset. We often think of rivers in visual terms. Photo by Jon Marshall, courtesy of TRaCK.

Soundscapes encompass the entire acoustic perception of an environment, created by all the sounds generated by the elements that compose it.*Aquatic environments provide a rich opportunity for exploring soundscapes as they can reveal the hidden world beneath the water surface.Underwater microphones (hydrophones) pick up the grunts of fish (listen to the fork-taiked catfish in the soundfile below), the clicks of crustaceans, and the roar of boat engine noise.

The fork tailed catfish (Neoarius graeffi) makes an oinking sound. Photo courtesy CSIRO.

The fork tailed catfish (Neoarius graeffi) makes an oinking sound. Photo courtesy CSIRO.

So what sort of people are sticking hydrophones in rivers? Well, scientists for a start. Monitoring rivers usually involves collecting animals which can be difficult and harmful to the creatures involved. If we can identify the unique sound that a species makes, we can identify what’s living in rivers by listening to them. Some research has even suggested that more diverse soundscapes are associated with more diverse habitats.

Artists are also interested in listening to rivers. Dr Leah Barclay , a composer, sound artist and creative producer is partnering with the Australian Rivers Institute (ARI) to explore new methods for acoustically monitoring three Queensland river systems.

Leah, Toby and Dr Simon Linke (a freshwater ecologist from ARI) did a test run of live streaming river soundscapes by listening to the Thames earlier this year.  “We were a bit shocked by how intense the sonic environment is”  commented Toby and Leah,as their hydrophones near London Bridge picked up the roar of boat traffic in the busy city river. But they also heard the sounds of fish and shrimp in amongst the human-generated noise.

Leah Barclay listening to the Thames. Photo by S. Linke.

Leah Barclay listening to the Thames. Photo by S. Linke.

Artists like Leah take a compositional approach to river soundscapes, composing pieces based on environmental sounds. Her work also involves collaborating with communities who live along rivers. One of her projects took her to the Narmada River in India which has been dammed for water and electricity supply. When Leah walked across one of the dam walls with her hydrophone she said “the river was silent, I could hear my footsteps on the wall and that was quite eerie”.

Leah’s view is that creating art from river sounds is both a tool for community empowerment and cultural change. Scientists like Simon recognise perceiving rivers in different ways can help them monitor and understand them. River listening, artists working with scientists – sounds like something we should be doing more of.

Material sourced

* Pavan, B.G. and U. Pavia, (2008) Short field course on bioacoustics.

Soundscape Ecology: The Science of Sound in the Landscape. By B.C. Pijanowski, L.J. Villanueva-Rivera, S.L. Dumyahn, A. Farina, B.L. Krause, B.M. Napoletano, S.H. Gage, and N. Pieretti. BioScience 2011, 61(3) 203-216.

The weekly wash-up (July 22)

River and water news – July 22nd, 2014

Future water crisis in southern Australi Rainfall is predicted to decline by 40% in southern Australia and this could have greatest impact on Perth, a new climate change research paper warns. The findings link increases in greenhouse gases and ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere to lower rainfall. The rainfall flow into Perth reservoirs is already 75% less than 50 years ago. This means Perth will need to find alternative water sources as they won’t have enough water to supply their current population.

Sydney Water efficiency targets to be scrapped   Water conservation mandates are being abolished and there are warnings Sydney Water is being fattened for sale as the New South Wales government overhauls water competition laws. The wind-back comes as the Bureau of Meteorology warns of signs of an El Nino in the Pacific, which may bring warmer, drier weather to Australia and increase the drought risk.

Slow progress on Mary Species recovery plan   The Queensland Environment Minister says his department has only just received a $23 million draft plan to protect Mary River species, almost five years after the Traveston dam was scrapped. The decade-long plan aims to protect the endangered Mary River cod and turtle, giant barred frog, mullet and the vulnerable lungfish, which were impacted by the initial phase of the project.

Fish predation by semi-aquatic spiders. Source: Plos One, 2014-06-18.

Fish predation by semi-aquatic spiders. Source: Plos One, 2014-06-18.

Fish-eating spiders, a world-wide phenomenon  While spiders are traditionally viewed as predators of insects,  researchers have become increasingly aware that some supplement their diet by occasionally catching small fish. As many as five families have been observed predating on fish in the wild. Some of these spiders are capable of swimming, diving and walking on the water surface, and have powerful neurotoxins and enzymes that enable them to kill and digest fish that often exceed them in size and weight.

Water bonus flows from climate change measures  The equivalent of one-third of Melbourne’s water use could be saved each year through the implementation of efficiency measures that deal with climate change, according to a new study. The study found that, in particular, wind power, biogas, solar photovoltaics, energy efficiency and operational improvements to existing power sources could not only reduce greenhouse emissions but also offset the water used to cool thermal power generation.