PARK WATCH Article March 2023 |

Lara Bickford, VNPA Vice President, reveals the beauty of Wyperfeld National Park, and the stress it is under from lack of flooding

It was during the depths of Melbourne’s third COVID lockdown in 2020 that Wyperfeld National Park came into my awareness. After enduring months of venturing no more than 5 km, the contrast of camping in the vast peaceful mallee of north-western Victoria could not have been a more welcome antidote to the months of confinement in Fitzroy.

After a five-hour drive from Melbourne through the mostly treeless landscape of broadacre crop farms, the surrounds change to mallee wilderness. Something about the tenacity and uncomplaining, modest nature of the bushes, trees, grasses, fungi and creatures that live here inspire confidence that life can not only survive, but thrive in some of the harshest conditions in Australia.

We spent the days walking, observing and discovering the many treasures that carve out a niche for themselves in this vast park (Victorias third largest national park). Walking and observing is how one appreciates this region. The slender pines, Buloke and River Red Gums, and Mallee and Kangaroo Grass feature, but it is so much more. The landscape may not be dramatic like its southern neighbour Gariwerd, but there is beauty, subtleness and complexity everywhere. It was July so there was a huge number of different fungi. My 12-year-old Harold never got tired of spotting new and increasingly bizarre examples.

Delving into history

To find out more about the park, I referred to Geoff Durham’s wonderful book Wyperfeld (1995). After describing the ancient formation of the park, Durham writes of the Wotjobaluk people who lived on this land for thousands of years. The abundance and variety of food, materials and culture that thrived there indicates the rich diversity of this region. After European settlement, as land clearing marched north, it was the incredibly high number and variety of birds that we can thank for being the inspiration to create and preserve this region in the first place.

Back in 1908, Archie Campbell visited and observed ’42 birds’ and breakfasted on ‘scrambled mallee hen eggs’ while staying at Pine Plains Station. He soon returned with ornithologist Arthur Mattingley who wrote of the area ‘Nature wild and primaeval reigned supreme … the whole place is a paradise for nature lovers … replete with animal life … this area should be preserved’.

And here we are, on the back of the foresight and work of these visionary Victorians, we have this rare, wonderful part of Victoria with the amazing Mallee vegetation and all the wonder it contains.

A high value ecosystem

The defining unique feature of the Eastern Park are the flood plains that surround the creek linking Lake Albacutya in the south and Wirrengren Plain in the north. When the Wimmera River leaves Hindmarsh, it is referred to as Outlet Creek, the final ephemeral part of this water system (it is one of a small number of rivers that flows away from the sea).

Pre-European records indicate that water would reach the park roughly every 20 years. This requires the Wimmera River to fill Lake Hindmarsh (a massive ephemeral freshwater lake), then overflow to flood into Lake Albacutya, and finally overflow to Outlet Creek and Wirrengren Plain at the top of the park. The distance between Lake Albacutya and Wirrengren Plain is 30 km, but the Outlet Creek meanders over 80 km as it winds and feeds a series of 17 smaller lakes which terminate in the park. The last flood into Wyperfeld was 1975.

The value of this region is undisputed. Lake Hindmarsh and the Lower Wimmera River System is listed on the National Heritage List by the Australian Heritage Commission, and the terminal reaches of the river to Wirrengren Plain are protected as a Heritage River Area under Victoria’s Heritage Rivers Act 1992.

Caption: Image from the Wyperfeld Visitor Centre clearly indicating the reduction in flood events to the point of disappearance over the last 120 years.

Water entitlements

Lake Albacutya notably has Ramsar listing, an international convention protecting ‘Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat’. However, the lake’s high conservation value flood plains and the vegetation and animals they support, the ones who rely on flooding times to breed, can only be sustained with periodic flooding. Gradual diversion and storage of waters from the Wimmera River for agricultural and domestic use has resulted in insufficient water reaching the park.

Locals, nature lovers and environmentalists had great hope in the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline Project, completed in 2012. Massive water savings were predicted with the abolition of wasteful open canal systems to enclosed pipes. The Commonwealth bought a yearly environmental water entitlement of 28,000 megalitres specifically for Lake Albacutya and the terminal reaches of the river. However, water allocations to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) are rarely honoured due to the high water storage level required in reservoirs before water can be allocated for use.

These rules are being examined by VNPA with the aim of amending to increase the chance of honouring the CEWH allocation, especially when the rainfall is high, as it is now. It is only during consecutive wet years that environmental water releases to the Wimmera’s large terminal lakes are expected to be of benefit. The current wet conditions have filled the Wimmera system and water is flowing into Lake Hindmarsh. Of course, this region is not exempt from the effects of climate change. It has been observed that successive high-rainfall years have seen a significant reduction in rainfall compared to 50 to 100 years ago. This makes the challenge even greater and must be taken into account when looking for solutions.

Dedicated Wyperfeld enthusiasts, including numerous VNPA members, have spent many years tackling risks to the park, including control of rabbits and multiple noxious weeds. Much success has been had. These threats continue and also need resources, but right now it is the lack of periodic flooding that is the park’s largest existential threat. It is precisely this flooding that makes this park the rich, diverse and important area it is.

Now is the time for enthusiasts to act in support of returning water to Wyperfeld to allow the flourishing of this magnificent national park.

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