In 2019, The Examiner polled readers about their priorities ahead of the federal election. The health of kanamaluka/ Tamar River was overwhelmingly the number one concern.
Now 12 months and one government report card later it is still a hotly debated topic. The latest Health of the Tamar Report Card revealed marked improvements across the board for the tidal estuary but some sections were still considered to be in poor health.
In particular, the section of the upper catchment between Legana and Launceston was given a D grading up from an F in 2018. The report cards are produced by NRM North, a collective of local government, community groups and institutions working to improve the health of the estuary.
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Their work is funded by the state and federal governments as part of the Launceston City Deal and ongoing commitments.
Although every section of the estuary received improved grades compared to the 2018 reports, for some the progress is too slow.
The estuary plays an important role throughout Northern Tasmania in industries such as agriculture and forestry but also provides a lifestyle which has become synonymous with the greater Launceston area.
In the past, beaches along the banks of the Tamar would be overrun with locals and tourists. They provided great picnic locations and people could swim in the water worry-free.
However, in 2015, independent testsfound the water was heavily polluted and unsafe for recreational use.
Problems with mud build up have also interfered with the recreational activities of rowers and yatchers in the area. Sometimes the situation is so bad that rowers are unable to use the river.
How did the estuary become polluted?
The health problems within the river are complex but can be boiled down to four main sources; inadequate sewerage and wastewater infrastructure, sediment and agricultural run off, and the invasion of rice grass.
Launceston's sewerage infrastructure is designed in such a way that during heavy rainfall events storm water is used to dilute sewerage. This heightens the amount of faecal matter flowing into the river.
A report released in 2018 found that 4 per cent of enterococci loads - an indicator of faecal matter in the river - found in the water could be contributed to treatment plants.
Overflows from treatment plants accounted for 26 per cent of the enterococci loads, while run off from farmland, forests and other land forms accounted for the remaining 70 per cent.
Run off from farmland up stream results in pollutants throughout the catchment. Whether that is faecal matter, chemicals or other foreign materials.
There is also run off from old mines, which leads to metal contamination of the water.
Due to the flows of the river system pollutants can be carried up stream and may become lodged along the way.
The other major problem with the river for recreational and commercial users is the build up of mudflats.
In the past, sediment washed down the river had been dredged but that practice was abandoned after large vessels were no longer required to travel that far upstream.
The build up, which is often seen at low-tide, can prevent commercial and recreational users of the river from going about their business normally. But, over the years environmental scientists have said the river was not behaving abnormally.
They argue that the mudflats have been around since the '50s and are formed as part of the natural processes of the estuary.
Encroaching rice grass along some parts of the estuary have also added to difficulties in recreational use of public beaches. At Gravelly Beach, up stream from Launceston, the problem is so bad that the beach has become widely unusable.
There is a $2 million foreshore redevelopment plan, funded by the federal government, which would involve the removal of some of the rice grass in the area. But, the invasive species continues to grow to the north of the proposed plan and at other points along the Tamar.
Addressing the issue will take a considered approach to avoid causing harmful or toxic algae blooms throughout the river.
What is being done?
In 2017, the Tamar Estuary Management Taskforce was established as part of the Launceston City Deal to find ways to improve the health of the Tamar.
Of those funds, $10 million was allocated for fixing catchment issues across dairy, grazing and urban areas while the remaining money was to be spent on infrastructure projects.
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The funding was announced after TEMT released an estuary health plan, which said the health of the river could be significantly improved for less than $100 million.
TEMT's plan built on a 2015 water quality plan from NRM North and listed a number of reasons why water quality in the Tamar was "not meeting modern expectations of health and amenity".
Among the reasons was Launceston's combined sewerage system, human impacts on the natural flow of the river, past industrial practices and flooding.
In July this year, the state government announced it would extend funding for the Tamar Estuary and Esk Rivers Program for 12 months. The government had previously contributed $185,000 over three years to the program.
Bi-annual report cards detailing the health of the estuary are produced through that program.
In this year's state budget, Premier and Treasurer Peter Gutwein set aside $42 million to fix issues with Launceston's sewerage system. That $42 million will be matched with $42 million from the federal government and $42 million from TasWater and the Launceston council.
He said he was happy with how the water quality had been improving over the last few years.
Work on the Launceston City Deal and Tamar River Estuary Management Plan is due to be completed by 2024.
What happens next?
Over the coming weeks The Examiner will explore how the plan to improve the health of the Tamar is progressing, what can be done to speed up the process and whether a fix for the river is still a priority for the people of Northern Tasmania.
Throughout this series will speak to key stakeholders throughout the region and explore the viability of a wide range of solutions.
We also want to hear from our readers. Is improving the health of the Tamar still something of a priority or could potential investment be better spent else where?
What do you think? Send us a letter to the editor: