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home -> news -> archive -> environmental impact of floods
NEWS
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previous news articles...
Environmental Impact of Floods - February 2011

Dirty water reaches northern part of Moreton island.
Photo ©Healthy Waterways

While the massive-clean up is well underway in Queensland, the full environmental impact of the floods is still being assessed.
 
The recent floods have devastated much of the Queensland landscape. Only time will tell how our ecosystems will bounce back from this natural disaster. Floods are a natural part of the Queensland environment but the widespread and intense nature of the current floods affecting around 80% of the state is unprecedented. It is too early to tell the full extent of the impact; the reality is we may never know. We do know that while some species will thrive others may have been killed or forcibly relocated to higher ground. Scientists suggest that ground dwelling fauna such as small mammals and reptiles may be the worst hit.

The health of our waterways has been impacted significantly as many rivers and creeks were eroded, contaminated and littered with debris. Large numbers of fish have died left stranded as waters receded. The erosion of river banks is of particular concern for freshwater turtles such as the Mary River and Fitzroy River turtles. Exotic species such as carp, tilapia and red slider turtles may have spread with the floodwaters. Many riparian zones were damaged from rapid flowing water which striped away vegetation and exposed soils making them more prone to rapid erosion from future rains. The foolishness of clearing riverine vegetation has now been exposed.  

Soils and waterways may have been contaminated by chemicals from nearby industrial and commercial premises – this is of particular for food producers. During the floods only 15% of the states 57 coal mines were fully operational. The coal industry lobbied the Government to temporarily drop environmental regulations and allow 44 mines to pump out millions of litres of contaminated floodwater into creeks and rivers. A large number of permits were issued. One can only contemplate the impact of such a huge release of highly toxic materials on our waterways. The current approval process and assessment criteria have clearly failed to stop environmental harm from occurring. The Government must review the current regulations. The floods should be a wake-up call to the Government about its attitude to development approvals. The Government has been warned repeatedly about approving development in flood plains but still it is allowed to happen. It is the public and ordinary folk in the high-risk areas who carry the burden of these poor planning decisions. No doubt Governments will continue this practice, if so they must lift the standards of design and enforce enhanced regulation.

The flow on effects of high volumes of fresh water, sediments, nutrients, pesticides and other contaminants in waterways poses a huge threat to marine environments such as Moreton Bay, the Great Sandy and Great Barrier Reef marine parks. Mangrove habitats are particularly susceptible as they act as a net catching sediment and all sorts of debris often causing damage to their root systems. Toxic flood plumes are expected to have a significant impact on seagrass beds, corals and wetlands. Excessive silt and sediments will smother corals and seagrasses. The widespread nature of the plume will also limit the ability of species such as dugong and sea turtles to find alternative food and could cause malnutrition and death. High sediment and nutrient loads can result in algal blooms and increased disease and mortality of many marine species. Excessive scouring of riverbeds could expose acid sulphate soils which wash into the marine environment. The toxic flood plume covering much of the coast poses a threat to the Queensland seafood industry with species like prawns expected to be heavily impacted. In Moreton Bay, voluntary halts on fishing continued for weeks after the flooding event.

The Government is currently evaluating and assessing the environmental impacts of the floods. It is inevitable that the environment will suffer significant short and long term impacts. There will be numerous flow-on effects as we start to see many environmental programs cut back as dollars are directed to rebuilding the state. The Gillard Government has already proposed cuts to climate change programs in order to fund flood recovery. The flood recovery must be a green recovery and cutting greenhouse gas reduction programs to fund it is not a smart solution. While no single extreme weather event can be directly attributed to climate change, the recent floods are consistent with what climate scientists have been warning for decades. If we cut carbon pollution we can reduce the severity of extreme weather events and help protect our people and our economy.

Calling for the building of new dams is not the solution. We must look at ways to redevelop our cities smarter, greener and more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather events such as this. Reassessing design and development regulations must be part of the solution. Traditional catchment management has concentrated on preventing floods. We need to look at alternatives by focusing on minimising the damage rather than the occurrence. There is a need to identify ways of living and working in flood prone areas, while protecting high value assets. People living in flood prone areas should be helped to be ‘flood ready’, similar to people living in bushfire risk areas. If we can learn to accept that floods are a part of the natural cycle in the Australian climate, we can become better equipped to deal with them when they occur.

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