Environmental and socio-economic linkages in Eppalock watershed, Australia

Eppalock watershed extends northwards from the watershed of the Great Dividing Range in Victoria, Australia. It covers 2 000 km2 of land that slopes gently from about 1 000 m to 200 m above sea level at Lake Eppalock. The climate is Mediterranean, with cool moist winters and hot dry summers. Precipitation shows marked annual variation, ranging from 100 to 50 mm.

By the 1950s, the entire watershed had degraded because of inappropriate management, including overgrazing, the impacts of a gold mining boom in the 1850s (which attracted 40 000 people to the area), the accidental introduction of rabbits, overcultivation of land not suitable for crops, and clearing of forests for fuelwood and timber.

Construction of a dam at Eppalock has been discussed throughout the twentieth century, as a way of providing irrigation water downstream. Several attempts failed, partly because of costs and partly because it was realized that soil erosion would lead to severe siltation. There has also been the challenge of obtaining landholders’ cooperation.

In the 1960s, the Soil Conservation Authority started to extend soil conservation practices to the northern part of Eppalock watershed, where there had been no pasture improvement or soil conservation. Farm productivity was poor, and many landholders - especially in badly eroded areas - did not live on their properties, but farmed part time, depending also on the fuelwood industry, contract work, sheep shearing and casual labour.

The government decided that soil and water conservation projects should accompany construction of the dam, so as to prevent siltation in the reservoir. Funds were provided for soil conservation works, and success depended on careful planning and good working relationships with landholders. These were facilitated by creation of the Eppalock Catchment Committee.

The construction of small dams on farms to ensure water supplies for cattle encouraged cooperation in all aspects of land management. Fortunately, several technical problems associated with pasture improvement in this difficult hillside environment had already been solved, and locally adapted soil and grazing land management, and rodent control practices had been successfully tested.

Extension of these technologies had a cumulative effect on the watershed. Teams of local farmers were trained and recruited for erosion control works, and became skilled in constructing small gulley-control structures, protective fencing and earthworks, and planting trees and other vegetative works.

Eppalock watershed management plan made landholders responsible for maintaining the protective fencing as soon as it was erected, and for all the other works installed by the authority within three years of their completion. If a landholder could not comply, the authority deferred its work on that property.

By 1985, the degraded landscape of Eppalock watershed had been transformed. Thanks to massive erosion control, bare hills had been converted into productive pastures, and gully erosion was largely checked. The amounts of silt reaching Lake Eppalock had also decreased by more than 80 percent.

Land productivity increased threefold, and resilience to shocks improved. In 1982/1983, a major drought affected the area. Soil losses of up to 10 mm occurred in the worst affected areas, but the perennial grass species Phalaris, which had been introduced, performed well under the extreme conditions. A sense of stability and security had been achieved.

Livelihoods also changed significantly. Income sources, which depended totally on wool, now include the raising of lambs and cattle. Landscapes are now not only much more productive, but also more aesthetically pleasing, and non-farming pursuits have been introduced, as well as hobby farms, which have helped to regenerate trees and shrubs. The increasing popularity of Lake Eppalock as a tourist destination is especially important, and there is now overnight accommodation for about 7 000 people, with up to 18 000 visiting the lake during peak holiday seasons.

One of the most important achievements of the Eppalock watershed project is its demonstration of the farming community’s willingness to collaborate with public environmental conservation authorities. The combination of a peaceful rural location, enhanced landscape aesthetics, recreational opportunities, proximity to the lake, and ready access to major towns has encouraged the building of new settlements. In economic terms, the project had a benefit to cost ratio of 2:1 within 32 years.

The basic question raised at the outset of this project was: Why should a public agency, such as the Soil Conservation Authority, be involved in an undertaking that represents a good investment for private landholders? The following four points help to answer this question:

  • The Soil Conservation Authority had experience, funds, expertise and legal backing, and was able to accept the risk of failure.
  • The landholders would not have been able to organize and finance such a venture on their own.
  • The increased community tax base proved to be considerably in excess of the public costs.
  • The project demonstrated a concept that has great value for further application.

For Australia, the Eppalock project is a successful example of extensive and comprehensive interventions involving environmental and socio-economic linkages in watershed management. When considering its feasibility for overseas implementation, however, public sector funding capacity should be carefully considered. For example, international funds would be necessary to introduce such an approach in most Asian, African or South American watershed situations.

Adapted from J. Ives. 2001. Highland-lowland interactive systems.

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last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007