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Time is running out for a toxic Tamar River

Thursday 11 November 2021, The Examiner

"When she was good she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid."

These words were written by 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

He of course was writing about a little girl who had a little curl, but he could easily have been writing about our Tamar River which, at 70 kilometres long, is one of the longest estuaries in Australia.

At high tide the river looks good, very good, as picturesque as anything in Tasmania, but when the tide turns and the water retreats towards Bass Strait, your view is focused on mudflats, mud, and plenty of it.

So much so that earlier this year a young school girl found herself stuck in the mud while competing in a rowing regatta.

I'm told that it took three boats to drag her waist-deep out of that mud, which she described as 'stinky, squishy and weird'.

So the question is how do you fix the problem?

Some appear to be saying that it can't be fixed and you have got to learn to love the mudflats, but the majority have the reasonable expectation that the river should be user-friendly and in better condition.

People will say that the Tamar mud has been a problem for centuries, and they are right, it has. Early European explorers in fact documented extensive mudflats and wetlands in and around Launceston and early navigation charts depicted an area dominated by extensive mudflats and wetlands with narrow water channels.

In the 1830s such was the community concern that a petition was forwarded to the Governor relating to the navigational hazards leading to the Launceston Port.

It appears that was the start of endless efforts to modify the estuary.

Wetlands around Invermay, the West Tamar, lower North Esk and Royal Park have been infilled and an extensive levee system constructed. The North Esk river channel has been straightened and confined. There has been extensive dredging of the estuary for around a century. Rice grass was introduced in an effort to trap sediment.

The Trevallyn Dam and Power Station were constructed which diverted some South Esk flows from Cataract Gorge to the Tailrace and an increase in fresh water input by flows from the Poatina Power Station.

Raking was introduced, and in 2013 during an overflow of only 600 cumecs the mud banks were raked and sediment in the Yacht Basin alone was significantly reduced, equivalent to roughly three years gradual accumulation.

Had the needle in the haystack been discovered? The future was looking promising.

The Seaport was refreshed, the restaurants were taking on a new lease of life, the Tamar Yacht Club, The Tamar Rowing Club and Tamar Cruises were again smiling.

However the new-found optimism was soon lost when raking was ceased after a review found that it had a negative and lasting effect on water quality, and little effect on reducing the rate of sedimentation. As a result of the cessation of raking, the mudflats reappeared.

Not only have the mudflats been a real problem but so too the toxicity of the river.

In 2015 independent tests found the water to be heavily polluted and unsafe for recreational use.

The Tamar's health is influenced by a multitude of factors including Launceston's combined sewerage and stormwater system comprising over 9000 homes, it's inability to flush sediment due to marine tides meeting fresh water inflows, agricultural practices in the Tamar's vast catchment which stretches as far south as Tunbridge, east to Fingal, and west to Deloraine, historical industrial practices, outflows from sewerage treatment plants throughout the estuary, floods and manmade changes to the river's flow.

So the question is how do you fix the problem?

What has filled me with hope is the release of the Tamar River Estuary Taskforce report which was established as part of the Launceston City Deal to find ways to improve the health of the Tamar.

As was stated by the Launceston Chamber of Commerce "the report has collated the science gathered over many years to outline a strategic path to a better, healthier estuary with improved utility, replacing ad hoc efforts of years past.

The release of the report (I know, yet another) continues to build on the $140.7 million River Health Action Plan which is jointly funded by the Australian and Tasmanian governments, the City of Launceston and TasWater.

The real question is whether it is possible to find a balance between aesthetics, utility, safety, flood mitigation, toxicity and ecological impact while ensuring that the community can continue to embrace and love their river.

Socrates once said, 'the secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new'.

Launceston can't wait for this build any longer, and neither can the Tamar River.


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