Attention is not new to kanamaluka/Tamar River. With a catchment covering about 15 per cent of Tasmania's North, many interact with it directly or indirectly each day - and have done so for thousands of years.
Across the catchment, land uses from agriculture to forestry sit alongside urban and natural conservation areas. Technically a tidal estuary (not a river) an upper portion of the 70 kilometre system is also an important wetland habitat for birds, including the pied oystercatcher and chestnut teal.
Historically, a sandy beach at Royal Park had been a popular recreation place. But in more recent years, the Tamar has faced concerns around its ecological and public health, the reasons for which are as varied as the land uses within its catchment.
Dual concerns which a raft of current and future actions are seeking to address.
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In 2018, Natural Resource Management North published its Tamar Estuary Report Card for the 12 months from December 2016, assigning grades based on pathogen, pollution, pH and oxygen levels across five zones, on a scale of A to F.
The score was less than ideal.
Health scores for much of the waterway had remained stable or improved from 2011 to 2018, but record flooding in June 2016 - the largest such event in almost 50 years - flushed loads of nutrients, sediments, pathogens and metals into the estuary. The pollutants coming both from further out in the catchment and overflows from Launceston's combined sewerage and storm water system.
The upper estuary in particular, stretching from the waters of the North and South Esk rivers at Launceston out to Legana, felt the impact of this event, recording a "poor" score of D - tides work to keep much trapped within this segment.
The health of the estuary has not ebbed from the minds of those who live, work and play around it in the time since.
A recent survey, conducted by The Examiner to gauge the priorities of voters ahead of this month's federal election, found many respondents considered it one of the region's top issues.
Asked to rank the importance of 14 projects across the state, cleaning up the Tamar River scored a weighted rank of 3.76 out of 14 - the highest - where one is the top priority. Out of 653 respondents, 407 placed it as their third priority or higher.
(Solutions to the state's housing pressures, by comparison, was placed in that position by 183; support for the health system by 340.)
[Related: Tamar River health plans flowing on course]
"Cleaning Tamar River, people use the river, creatures live in it, and it is beautiful, we need to keep it as good as possible. The water quality has had issues for many years, let's improve it," wrote one. And another: "Our biggest Asset is the Tamar. Clean it up."
Responses also noted the importance to Launceston's tourism. Further still lamented a perceived glut of studies and research conducted. Others pointed to flagged sewerage upgrades and proposed sediment issue fixes - such as increased releases from Trevallyn Dam.
"If this was the Derwent then the money would flow."
More on the health of the kanamaluka/Tamar Estuary:
- March, 2017: Alderman Emma Williams to ask City of Launceston to support a broader Tamar River solution
- March, 2017: Launceston's combined sewerage system could be part of City Deal
- July, 2017: Tamar River could soon be faeces free
- July, 2017: TasWater not a member of Tamar Estuary Management Taskforce
- October, 2017: Is this the fix to the Tamar River's poor health?
- January, 2018: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not rule out extra funding during his trip to Launceston
- February, 2018: Tamar Estuary Management Taskforce report on river actions should be released soon
- February, 2018: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to announce funding to clean up Tamar River
But there is money flowing.
In February last year, $94.6 million in state and federal government funding rushed in - $10 million of which would go towards catchment actions across dairy, grazing and urban areas, the other $84.6 million assigned to priority infrastructure projects within the combined system. Then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull even made the announcement.
The funding package was in response to an estuary health plan published that same week by the Tamar Estuary Management Taskforce - a body established under the Launceston City Deal including representatives from both local and state government - which suggested "significant benefits" could be delivered for the health of the waterway for under $100 million.
Building from the extensive work of a 2015 NRM North water quality plan, this new plan cited influences ranging from Launceston's combined system to human changes of the estuary's flow and channel, along with upper-catchment agricultural and historical industrial practices and flooding, as reasons for the Tamar "not meeting modern expectations of health and amenity".
It also lay out recommendations, arranged in two main categories: management of the wider catchment to stem the intrusion of stock intrusion on grazing land, along with sewage intrusion in the more urban Launceston; and upgrades to the sewerage and storm water system.
Other recommendations under the plan included an investigation into regulatory arrangements, monitoring and analysis of pathogen levels within the waterway, and ongoing governance.
"Water does tie communities together," says Andrew Baldwin, a 13-year employee of NRM North with years more experience in land care groups on the mainland - now their strategic programs manager.
Sitting in the group's Launceston office, he tells me about 47 per cent of the catchment is grazing land. And though dairies and urban areas comprise a smaller percentage, they are no less significant. (The Tamar health plan highlights grazing and dairy as the largest contributors of enterococci bacteria.)
Under the health plan, NRM North has been tasked with actions under the $10 million catchment umbrella: excluding stock from streams, rehabilitating vegetation buffers on grazing properties, ensuring better dairy effluent management and addressing sewerage intrusion from outside the system.
With more than 700 kilometres of fencing required, the agricultural side of the task is not a small one, and is expected to be carried out over about five years. Grants opened earlier in the year have already seen a lot of interest, Baldwin says. Information sessions held in April were well attended and coordinators are out on the ground, helping with applications.
"We have the funding and the time for people to do this in their own time," Baldwin adds.
While Launceston's combined sewerage and storm water system may be a quirk in Tasmania, the structure is common in a number of other cities across the globe, and mostly constrained to older parts of the city.
A number of storage and diversion upgrades are flagged under the plan, along with increased nutrient removal facilities at the Ti Tree Bend plant. As some works had previously been flagged as part of the Launceston Sewerage Improvement Program, the goals of both have required streamlining.
Planning for this has been necessary across local, state, and federal governments, and is expected to be finished by May, according to TasWater's asset planning and design department manager Andrew Truscott. Design and approvals for the projects are expected to start in the 2019-20 financial year.
While focusing initially on public health measures, the taskforce also conducted a public consultation process to draw out the level of service expected from the estuary - a "key priority for the community".
It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.Andrew Baldwin, NRM North
In August 2018 the taskforce released a further report on the proposals it received. Among the suggestions were returning higher flows from Trevallyn Dam to the South Esk, moving the Tailrace discharge to Yacht Basin, establishing a barrage and implementing speed limits on boats.
Back at the office, Baldwin's passion for the NRM project shows. "This is the largest opportunity for water improvement in the history of NRM North," he says.
"It is a once in a lifetime opportunity."
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