The Australian Alps cover some 1.64 million hectares, 0.3% of the Australian continent.
Included on the National Heritage register, they are of major environmental significance and home to rare and endangered flora and fauna. Some species, such as the Mountain Pygmy Possum and the Northern and Southern Corroboree Frogs, are found nowhere else in the world.
An area of great beauty, the Alps are a travel destination for many visitors, especially in winter when local snowfields attract skiers from around the country and overseas.
The Alps’ rich Aboriginal, European and Chinese histories embrace exploration, pastoralism, mining, forestry, hydro-electric power, tourism, and science.
Of greatest environmental and economic value is water. The average annual yield from the Alps’ catchments is 13,100 gigalitres (1 GL = 1 billion litres). Of this, 9,600 GL is in the Murray-Darling Basin – 29% of the Basin’s water from 1% of its area.
This high quality and reliable water is of critical local, regional and national importance. It supplies Adelaide and many towns along the rivers and provides the major input to the Basin’s agriculture, tourism, recreation, and hydro-electric power industries.
Studies undertaken for the Victorian Government indicate that, if available for sale, the water would have a value of over $9.6 billion. This is clearly a gross underestimate of its worth.
Immensely valuable, still threatened
Sadly, the Australian Alps have been under threat for many years. A 1957 study by the Australian Academy of Science highlighted serious deterioration of the vegetation cover, widespread erosion, and decline of catchment efficiency.
More than 50 years later, a new Federal Government study, Caring for our Australian Alps catchments, paints a similar picture, but in much more detail.
The 235 sub-catchments were assessed on the basis of “condition” (good, moderate, poor) and “trend in condition” (improving, no-trend change, declining). The qualitative assessment found that only 38% were in “good” condition and 23% “improving”.
So why aren’t things better? In brief, because of damage to and destruction of the natural vegetation cover and the consequent soil erosion from three main causes:
Infestations of exotic weeds are increasing rapidly, especially broom, hawkweed, blackberries, and water-guzzling willows.
Wild fires destroy the vegetation cover, opening up the land to erosion. In the cold alpine environment, revegetation takes time.
Agricultural livestock have been removed, but grazing and trampling continue by feral animals – especially horses and deer – causing erosion over 17% of the total area.
Their numbers are increasing significantly and so is the damage they are creating, especially to wetlands, with consequent impacts on the quality and quantity of run-off.
What about climate change?
All of the above are serious issues now; climate change will only exacerbate them. Few locations will be more seriously affected than the Alps, especially the high-alpine and sub-alpine catchments, where some plant communities may disappear.
With too few sub-catchments currently assessed as “good” and “improving”, in an environment of climate change, the potential for poorer quality water and reduced yields has major economic implications.
Temperatures have risen by 0.2°C per decade over the past 35 years. By 2050, they will have risen between 0.6 and 2.9°C.
Snow cover has decreased significantly over the past 50 years; by 2050 there could be no snow cover lasting more than 60 days. This would seriously affect skiing and other winter sports.
It will also be life-threatening to some rare fauna that depend on it for hibernation, such as the Pygmy Possum and Broad-toothed Rat. The spring thaw will occur earlier, changing river flow regimes.
Precipitation is predicted to decrease by 24% by 2050. It will increasingly fall as rain (as opposed to snow), with more severe storms and high-intensity falls, resulting in further damage to vegetation and soils.
Higher temperatures and reduced precipitation will mean more droughts, impacting on vegetation growth and increasing the frequency and severity of fires. The drier conditions will also slow regeneration.
Spend $7 million; save $9.6 billion
The minimal overall improvement in the assessment of the catchments from 1957 to 2010 could suggest that little or nothing had been done, that the parks’ staff have not done their jobs. Nothing would be further from the truth.
No public servants are more committed to their work and, were it not for their endeavours, Alpine catchments would be in even worse condition than they are.
Unfortunately, their resources are small, in every respect. In 2009-10, only $52.69 million was spent on the management of the Alps’ protected areas.
The Australian Alps Liaison Committee and its activities operate largely on the goodwill of the parks’ staff and minimal agency funding. (In 2000, the Commonwealth withdrew its $120,000 contribution!)
The new Federal Government report, Caring for our Australian Alps Catchments, proposes a number of priority actions and other measures to respond to the current situation and adapt to predicted climate change.
The focus is on maintaining and re-establishing all forms of vegetation cover in the Alps which, in turn, would halt active catchment degradation – an issue so critical to the environment and its water yield. The cost is estimated at $7 million a year over 15 years.
The agencies and co-operative arrangements are already in place to do the work. What is needed is a much higher level of funding to employ the staff and provide the materials to do the work.
The Australian Alps are of enormous importance. If nothing else, by placing a dollar value on the water sourced from the Alps, and placing it in the context of the Murray-Darling Basin, this new report will hopefully encourage politicians and senior bureaucrats to appreciate the severity of the situation.
Hopefully these bureaucrats – at a local, state and federal level – will then provide the resources to undertake the needed action.
After all, the initial costs are minuscule compared to the value of the water and other services provided by protected areas and catchments in the Alps.
- Caring for our Australian Alps: Summary report for policy makers by the Australian Government’s Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency