NSW COASTAL FLOODPLAIN PRIORITISATION STUDIES
In September it was very pleasing to hear that studies undertaken by the Water Research Laboratory (WRL) and funded by the NSW Marine Estate Management Strategy (MEMS) are now available via the Marine Estate Website. According to MEMS the aim of these studies was to provide managers and stakeholders with the capacity to make evidence-based floodplain management decisions to improve water quality. These studies were conducted on a set of NSW coastal floodplains from the Tweed in the north to the Shoalhaven in the south. It has been four years since these studies were prepared in draft form for consideration by a select group of authorities but essentially withheld until now from public access. One has to wonder why it has taken such a long time for their release.
It is quite understandable why a government agency in commissioning a consultancy may wish to withhold information while it has the opportunity to review its findings. There can be matters that require ministerial and/or cabinet consideration of the findings, or there may be matters of commercial in confidence. Technical advice is now frequently supplied to governments by consultants, a matter of some concern at present as highlighted by the PWC saga. Universities are often in a good position to provide that advice; in fact under the current university funding model, it is a way to obtain resources to undertake research that may not otherwise be available. However, this can create difficulties when confidentiality agreements are entered into, and staff and especially postgraduate students become constrained as to what and when they can publish in the academic literature. As we all know, publications in high ranking journals are a key indicator in a university’s standing so the pressure is to publish. So those involved in these WRL studies have been faced with this issue.
There is also another factor at play involving the stated aim of MEMS in funding this work: “to provide managers and stakeholders with the capacity to make evidence -based decisions”. Assuming that managers and stakeholders are those who have a direct interest in what these studies reveal then you would think that would involve widespread consultation and engagement. This is required under provisions of the NSW Coastal Management Framework as driven by the NSW Coastal Management Act 2016 leading to local council producing Coastal Management Programs (CMPs).
So what is in these studies that has led to such a long delay in their public release? Here we must go back to the origin of the research that underpinned these WRL floodplain prioritisation studies. It was born from ideas of Professor Will Glamore when he was doing his PhD in the 1990s. He became interested in issues of floodplain restoration, recognising how many NSW floodplains were subject to environmental stress. Initially he worked in the Shoalhaven with willing landholders and soon realised it was the willing and engaged landholders who were not the ones creating the biggest adverse impact. It then became an exercise in determining which sites were having the biggest impact and therefore be prioritised for remedial action. This work built on decades of previous research by many who understood the pollution effects coming from acid sulfate soils and blackwater events. But a higher resolution of a landscape analysis was required down to the sub-catchment scale. His team set about generating field data sets. With colleagues at WRL including Duncan Rayner, Alice Harrison and Toby Tucker (and postgraduate students) he was in a position to work with MEMS staff in the design of a study that involved seven major NSW coastal floodplains.
The released reports give details of backswamp locations that are the worst polluters for both acid and blackwater with geomorphology playing a key role. This information is combined with an improved understanding of hydrodynamic conditions in each floodplain system. Study outputs include better floodplain mapping tools, economic analysis of sub-regions and details on drainage processes. The studies looked forward by incorporating the role of sea level rise on floodplain drainage. Hydrodynamic models were developed for each estuary and outcomes mapped against existing structures such as flood gates. Minor increases in sea level rise were shown to impact sections of floodplains. This is critical public information for landholders, and also for councils and state agencies to use in the development of CMPs given respective responsibilities for decision-making.
An important outcome of the studies has been the research produced by PhD students such as Kate Waddington. I have previously discussed a paper she wrote with others in blog No. 229 (December 2022). That this research has come out is most welcome and now we have all the background data, the maps for all areas, the modelling and the projections associated with sea level rise. We can be very thankful that MEMS has now made all this work publicly available. As a member of the NSW Coastal Council tasked with advising the Minister responsible for the coastal act, I have expressed on numerous occasions my concern that the full reports were not accessible. They constitute a sound foundation for community discussion, land use planning and management as well as future research.
Finally, I wish to recognise the leadership of Will Glamore in this research and in producing with his colleagues these important studies. For over two decades he has provided the intellectual and organising support to all involved and is to be congratulated for his great efforts.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2023. For correspondence about this blog post please email firstname.lastname@example.org