Public access to the reserve is restricted to the occasional open day to protect the area’s rare biological and cultural wealth including 17,000-year-old shell middens. This autumn’s planned open day was cancelled because of the coronavirus.
“It’s been fantastic this event,” he said. “There’s not a lot of stock so there’s a lot of seed head on our grasses and the budgerigars have just exploded.”
Big rains that fell hundreds of kilometres to the north in the Condomine-Balonne catchment in February began transforming the Narran Lakes weeks later. The wetlands are used by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority as one of its biodiversity barometers, and listed under the Ramsar international convention.
“Narran Lake is one of the most significant inland wetlands in Australia, and it is fantastic to see the lake full again for the first time since early 2013,” Matt Kean, Energy and Environment Minister, said.
“The drought has had a devastating impact on communities and the environment throughout inland NSW, including our wetlands,” he said.
Still, as in 2013, lake levels are not high enough for as long as is needed to trigger a breeding event of the scale that draws hundreds of thousands of colonial waterbirds such as the straw-necked or glossy ibises.
The waters are now beginning to recede but the hope is Bureau of Meteorology forecasts for a wetter than usual winter for much of eastern Australia will be realised, and the “primer” flows of recent times will be topped up in time for spring.
“You’ve got to wet the sponge before you can really fill the lake,” Dr Berney said. “When everything is wet, it doesn’t take nearly as much water to get it up. The second event might be potentially the one that you get the big breeding event.”
Wetting that sponge, though, is getting harder, not least because of the huge expansion of irrigation.
The interval between such big breeding events at Narran has almost tripled since 1970 from one every 4.2 years to one in 11.4 years, according to research published in 2018.
“The Condamine is one of the most developed catchments in the [Murray-Darling] Basin,” said Kate Brandis, a research fellow at the University of NSW’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and the lead author of that paper. “And the water clawbacks [from irrigators] weren’t that huge in any case.”
Indeed, documents derived from Senate estimates show the Federal government’s water buybacks upstream from Narran didn’t end with the controversial $80 million purchase of so-called “ghost water” of low-security licences in 2016.
Since February, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder had to resort to a $7.5 million additional tender for a “pilot project” to ensure those flows made it across private land.
Dr Brandis said she was surprised by the apparent “double dipping”. “It’s a good game if you can get into it,” she said.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.