Tuesday, December 18, 2007

River Beauty, River Threat

River of Words is an annual event that gathers poetry and art inspired by rivers from children across the globe. This year the group chose a deeply insightful poem 'Rivers' written by seven year old José Perez from Florida as the winning riverpoem for 2007.

'Rivers splatter,
hitting rocks below.
But don’t be afraid,
there is poetry
deep inside each crevice.'

River of Words (ROW) has developed curriculum to assist teachers assist children to learn about river systems in their local bioregion. They encourage the development of local knowledge, as they say, 'to help you bring your watershed’s cultural and natural history alive for your students and community.'

On the ROW website is an article by the poet and deep ecologist Gary Snyder titled 'Coming into the Watershed'. Snyder writes:

'A watershed is a marvelous thing to consider: this process of rain falling, streams flowing and oceans evaporating causes every molecule of water on earth to make the complete trip once every two million years.' Two million years!

Two million years is length of the revolving water cycle and the ongoing relationship of living river to living ocean. This dynamic interconnection over such a long timeframe is now severely threatened. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has documented the litany of threat and disaster in it report World’s Top 10 Rivers at Risk' (2007). Two of the rivers singled out are the Murray and Darling rivers, the lifeblood of this nation.

In addition to structural and flow concerns, the report outlines that another major threat to the Murray-Darling river system comes from invasive fish (e.g. carp) and plant species. For example, it mentions that in Australia, the numbers of feral fish species emanating from the aquarium trade has increased from 22 to 34 in recent years.

The Brisbane River is small fry in comparison although it too has its fair share of feral threats - some of them human. Recent media reports have raised the ire of locals through their focus on one aggressive visitor to the river, the famed Bull Shark. Locals (interviewed by the media) are decidely edgy about what is considered 'one of the most dangerous sharks in the world' (ABC Catalyst, 2003).

What is so special about the Bull Shark is its remarkable ability to live in both fresh and salt water as well as the distances it travels upstream, up to 80 kms from Moreton Bay. Fishers say they can catch 8 to 10 sharks on a good day (see Ausfish, 2004). In 2006, the Courier Mail reported a commercial fisher netting 64 Bull Sharks in the Logan River, south of Brisbane. One fisher reported: 'The sharks were so thick, it was like the water was boiling.'

Earlier this year the Daily Telegraph (UK) carried an article about the dangers of Bull Sharks and how Queensland locals are dealing with them. I wonder who is monitoring these aggressive actions against these creatures.

'There are thousands upon thousands of them ... You could catch 10 a night if you wanted to. They'll bite your boat, chew your engine. People catch them as they're cooking their snags [sausages] and prawns on the barbie....

Another local commented that he's 'caught a dozen sharks from his sixth-floor balcony in between playing video games and watching television. 'We sit in the lounge room with the rods set up and play the PlayStation, waiting for the bites.' While a third fisher sets up his fishing gear then 'retreats to his living room to watch DVDs' until he hears there's a bite on the line.

The Daily Telegraph article continued: 'Fisheries officials say they are opposed to a shark cull and people must learn to live with the potential man-eaters. 'They have as much right to be in the water as we do,' said Jeff Krause, district manager of the Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol'.

But the concern is that there is little attention paid to this living room culling of these special animals. Are there bag limits on taking Sharks? And how is it patrolled when people are fishing from their sofas?

Yesterday my friend told me she'd seen dolphins upstream in the river and her children were very excited. What a river! Sharks, dolphins, beauty and danger. In the words of a seven year old from Florida:

'But don’t be afraid,
there is poetry
deep inside each crevice.'
José Perez

Monday, December 17, 2007


Sandra Postel is a global water activist. She has developed the Global Water Policy Project aimed at promoting the care, protection and management of fresh waters. In particular, her program implores us to change the way we think about and use fresh water. Postel comments:

'Water is the basis of life and the blue arteries of the earth! Everything in the non-marine environment depends on freshwater to survive. Because we haven't managed water wisely in the past, many freshwater species are at risk of extinction. And because we've used water too profligately, a lot of rivers now run dry before they reach the sea, and a lot of groundwater sources are being depleted.'

Aquatic ecosystems are experiencing stress. Rivers run dry. Fresh water creatures are threatened. Water sources are at risk. So urgent action, research and promotion and communication's work are essential for changing the way we think about fresh water systems What can we do?

In an article entitled 'Ecologically Sustainable Water Management: Managing River Flows for Ecological Integrity', Richter et al (2003) suggest that ecological degradation is an unintentional by-product of water management practices. The reason? A lack of awareness about the impact these practices have on environmental flows and natural variabilty.

Environmental flows can be defined as water that is retained or released into a river system to manage its health and quality. Sustainable flows help sustain the productivity and diversity of aqua-systems. The question then needs to be asked - how to measure the sustainability of river-productivity and aqua-versity?

The federal government's Australia-Wide Assessment of River Health: Queensland AusRivAS Sampling and Processing Manual puts it this way:

'Water quality and, subsequently, river health has traditionally been assessed solely on the chemical analysis of water samples. In recent years there has been a realisation that the structure of plant and animal communities of the rivers can give us a far more accurate picture of the condition or health of our waterways. Of these biological communities, macroinvertebrates (i.e. animals without backbones, large enough to be seen with the naked eye, e.g. prawns, shrimps, crayfish, snails, mussels and insects such as dragonflies, damselflies and mayflies) are most widely used because they are abundant and diverse, and are sensitive to changes in water quality, flow regime and habitat conditions. Impacts on these animals are relatively long lasting and can be detected for some time after the impact occurs.'

What is missing from this assessment? Human interactions - both positive and negative. Perhaps, as well as considering the ecological, social and economic implications within integrated river management strategies, other relevant factors such as psycho-spiritual attitudes and values need be incorporated. How does the community think about and value the Brisbane River? What are people's modes of beneficial interactivities - for both person and river?

Community values' orientations, stories of interactions with 'aquacology' as well as attitudes towards the river, river health and rivercare can extend integrated water management beyond the physical into the psychological. emotional and spiritual so perspectives around gratitude, respect for nature/river systems as well as reciprocity - giving back to nature/river - are infused in the way river systems are stewarded.

In this process the heart of ecology becomes a sacred precious wisdom and insight which honours the spirit of the river and traditional ecological knowledges (TEKs). The heart of ecology then and as well, becomes an artistic endeavour as local poets, writers, storytellers, weavers, and others interconnect with environmental flows and scientific practices. The heart of ecology shares stories with science, poetry with water management, art with rivercare. These aspects are not mutually exclusive.

An holistic approach to the care of the Brisbane River could help raise community awareness about the joys of riverwalking and river-connecting, the plight of river creatures, the effect of the drought and the enflowering abundance embedded within aquacology.

Hoover R, 2002, 'Watching the Rivers' Flows: Talking with an Expert on Rivers’ Needs for Water', World Rivers Review, 6-7.
Richter BD, Mathews R, Harrison DL, Wigington R, 2003, Ecologically Sustainable Water Management: Managing River Flows for Ecological Integrity', Ecological Application, 13, 1, 206-224.