Flooding plains renew a sunburnt country

The Australian

Richard Sproull and Asa Wahlquist

February 14, 2007

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21223186-5006786,00.html

WATER is at last coursing through Queensland’s desert rivers and channels, transforming the arid outback into verdant pasture as it flows towards Lake Eyre in South Australia.

Floodwaters across the Georgina-Diamantina catchment around Bedourie and the Coopers Creek catchment near Windorah are moving through the world’s last unregulated wild river system, filling channels that now measure up to 5m deep after being dry for years.

“It’s like a network of veins – it defies logic really. It’s so spectacular,” said Steve Wilson, the regional co-ordinator for Desert Channels Queensland. “We haven’t had this sort of rain for probably several years.”

Tussocks of native pasture have burst up across large parts of the northern reaches of the Lake Eyre basin, with Queensland bluegrass, Flinders grass and spinifex among the most common species. The dune country around Windorah will soon be covered in spectacular wildflowers.

Some areas have received three times their normal annual rainfall. Birdsville first flooded when it rained in January. Now the rains that fell upstream, at Bedourie on Eyre Creek, and over Mulligan Creek along the eastern side of the Simpson Desert, have cut the roads again.

“We’ve woken up to water views,” said Nell Brook, who lives in Birdsville and runs the Adria Downs station with husband David. “It’s drought-breaking, but it’s not the end of the drought because the recovery is going to be fairly long.”

Phillip Owens, who runs cattle out of Birdsville and flies Air West Charter across the outback, said more falls were needed if the floodwaters were to make a tourism impact on Lake Eyre.

“We would need a bit more rain but people are already making inquiries about flying up here,” he said.

With the water has come pelicans and spoonbills, flocks of budgerigars and ducks.

But while the pastures are growing, and likely to be around for up to 12 months, experts say stock numbers are down an average 15 to 20 per cent as farmers and bigger cattle companies have sold off stock.

Rod Saal, the drought co-ordinator with Queensland farm group Agforce, flew from Brisbane yesterday to Boulia, in southwest Queensland.

“We didn’t see one animal,” he said. “It’s been that dry for that long out here that stock numbers are at an all-time low.”

Mr Saal was travelling with members of the National Rural Advisory Council, which is assessing the Boulia region for federal drought assistance.

The region under discussion was twice the size of Victoria, Mr Saal said. “It’s a fairly big area, and there’s a lot of it that has had no relief whatsoever. As soon as you move away from the channels, it’s dire straits.”

Native grass pastures in the area were still struggling.

“Massive areas of Mitchell and Flinders grass and spinifex has just died and it has literally blown away,” Mr Saal said.

The water is travelling towards Lake Eyre, which is 15m below sea level and is the lowest point on the continent. It is the fifth largest largest lake in the world, at more than 9500sqkm. It contains little or no water and at this time of year is bright white.

Mr Wilson was optimistic about the water reaching the lake.

“Lake Eyre might get something because it tends to fill more from the Georgina and Diamantina side,” he said.

“The Cooper has got some substantial holes that have been dry for a while.”