The plot thickens – the lakes sicken

Ross Scott, retired engineer with much waterways experience has been battling to draw attention to the declining condition of the Gippsland Lakes ecology for years, especially following the deeper dredging of the entrance in 2008.

He has continued to run into a bureaucratically constructed defensive brick wall. Along with many credible scientists he now fears that the lakes are at a tipping point, and that their pending demise will have a huge impact on East Gippsland economy and tourism.

After some 30 years addressing the lakes’ problems Ross has every detail in his memory (and it’s voluminous) but below he gives an overview of current events and the ‘plot’ in dot points.

  • The ecological condition of the lakes has been declining for decades as fresh water flows into the lakes from its river catchments have been increasingly diverted and used before reaching the lakes. Add to this a corresponding increase in salt water intrusion through the deeper entrance (human made for large boats).
  • The original permanent entrance was constructed in 1889, and this resulted in the ‘baseline salinity’ of the lakes increasing. The entrance was then maintained open by a succession of dredgers, and the last side-cast dredger was the April Hamer that had a maximum operating depth of 3 metres; usually 2.5 metres.
  • In 2003 E.G. Shire obtained Federal funding to investigate developing Lakes Entrance as a deep sea port, and had the aim of maintaining the entrance at 6 metres. Consultants warned that this depth would increase salinity in the lakes and that Ports would not be able to maintain an entrance deeper than 4 metres. ( A massive expensive dredging operation has managed this)
  • In 2008 Gippsland Ports were permitted to implement a “Trial”?? dredging to 4.5 metres  deep using the hopper dredger, the Pelican. There was no requirement for an Environmental Effects Statement and the Baseline salinity again increased, as demonstrated by monthly EPA monitoring. 
  •  Fringing vegetation died, sandworm and shellfish died. Five species of sharks, stingrays and  the Green European Shore Crab invaded etc…
  • Ports continued to dredge in 2009 and 2010 without a permit under the EPBC Act. Ross reported this to the Feds (SEWPAC)  and Ports immediately submitted a new dredging permit application to the Federal Government.
  • Note; that until 1st July 2010 Ports were under the management of DSE, DEPI, now DELWP, they then reported to Department of Transport. DEPI’s approach to the current situation is that increased salinity is solely the result of overharvesting of freshwater from the catchment; indeed this is a factor but not the root cause. DEPI is responsible for Water Resources, so which ever way you look the Department is responsible for the decline. 
  • In 2011 Ports were awarded a 10 year dredging permit; but this time permitted to dredge even deeper to 5.5 metres, and entrance tidal speed increased from 3 knots to 7.4 knots. (GH&D) The tidal range within the lakes has also increased .

The National Party dumped the Gippsland Lakes Task Force and formed the Gippsland Lakes Ministerial Advisory Committee. It managed to expend over $10 million in three years on a range of fragmented and untargeted projects.

It in turn was unceremoniously dumped in July 2015 after the Labor Party took office, and Minister Lisa Neville announced the formation of a new Gippsland lakes Coordinating Committee to replace it.

But we are still waiting to be advised of the Committee membership even though they have held one meeting to date (January 2016). Requests to the Minister’s office are being ignored, and the East Gippsland CMA will not divulge details. (strange)

  • Even stranger is that it now appears that EGCMA is taking the lead in lakes’ management, having shown absolutely no interest in the past and having no appropriate in-house skills or experience. 
  • On the 30th December 2015 EGCMA called tenders for a Gippsland Lakes Priority Plan; closing on the 20th Jan 2016 when most Consultants would have been on holidays. (suss)
  • Again strange is that Consultants are to produce their Priority Plan based on a series of past reports and strategies on the lakes that do not identify the current lakes’ ecological condition. So simply Consultants are to draw up a rehabilitation plan without knowing the current ecological condition of the lakes.
  • In 2015 Professor Max Finlayson Of Charles Sturt University (Member of the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel) requested that the Minister implement an Audit of the Ecological Function of the Gippsland Lakes similar to, but more comprehensive than that prepared in 1998 by the CSIRO for the the Gippsland Coastal Board. Basically Max was told by the Ministers office to ‘get stuffed’.
  • Ross has been in contact with the Ramsar Secretary General in Switzerland, and the Australian Federal Government with the same request, and at present this is work in progress. 
  • The Gippsland Coastal Board appears to be sleeping at the wheel, and has had no input into current activities.
  • Water Quality in the Gippsland Lakes is currently being totally ignored.  The EPA are grossly underfunded and do not have the resources to carry out comprehensive monitoring of streams flowing into the lakes; particularly the Latrobe river; the main drain. The EPA does however carry out very reduced and simple testing up the lake chain once a month.
  • The Department of Health has been ‘induced’ to implement the testing of fish in the Gippsland Lakes for mercury, and this is still work in progress. We urgently need advisories on fish consumption for the community.
  • Southern Rural Water carry out monitoring ( not the EPA)  for nutrients entering Lake Wellington, but the monitoring system is so structured as to miss peak loads in high flow events and loads are under reported.

So to summarize; no one has a handle on the current condition of the lakes ecology , and no one knows what pollutants are discharging into the lakes as no one is monitoring or testing.

 Yet the government/CMA are currently organizing Consultants to deliver a Priority Plan to address this unknown situation.

As Ross Scott so aptly said “The workings of Lisa Neville’s office must resemble the venue for the Mad Hatters Tea Party.  The description ‘dysfunctional management’ does not even get close.”

With thanks to Ross for this information.

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