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So much water so close to home: lessons from the Lismore floods


Media and content team
30 August 2022
Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett at the Richmond River at Lismore

Amid the devastation and loss that struck Lismore in early 2022, Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett once again found herself lamenting human impact on the natural environment.

As the floodwaters receded, the future of the Richmond River Catchment was top of mind, aligning with Professor Reichelt-Brushett's firm focus on finding solutions that deliver sustainability, rehabilitation and restoration.

Southern Cross University has grown up in the catchment of Lismore and the Richmond river catchment.

We have had enormous numbers of students come through using the river as a case study, using the river as a reference point, using the river as a comparative assessment.

There's an enormous amount of information that Southern Cross science and other discipline areas can contribute to understanding the river.

Looking at a river visually can tell us a lot.

The Richmond River catchment has been modified considerably in the last 150 odd years. We have major siltation downstream and the fact that we've cleared so much vegetation upstream the consequence of that is that we've had major infilling in the downstream areas. We can see we've had large banks being eroded and slumped into the river. We can see that the water clarity isn't very good. We're out of balance and its really important that we work towards bringing the system back into balance.

Everybody has a river story. There's stories in the past that you could see the bottom of the river at Lismore. We used to have wide banks of oysters down in the lower Richmond River catchment and oysters are natural filters of our waters.

If we reduce the sedimentation and run-off into the river we're actually going to help farmers retain really high-quality soil.

We're still grappling with the issues of catchment management and Richmond River. We need to work with landholder, people who've lived and worked in these areas for many years and also connect with our Indigenous community and our local Indigenous land councils to understand where we want to get to in improvement. The recovery of Lismore really gives us an opportunity to state where we want to be in the future.

The Richmond River requires all three which is why, in looking to the future, Professor Reichelt-Brushett is now consulting the past, namely two centuries of change wrought by the introduction of fisheries, agriculture, industry, urbanisation and other factors. The human versus nature effect is clear.

It also says much for her commitment that on a freezing morning in Lismore, she is knee-deep in the river. Though battling to remain upright in the thick mud of the riverbed, she calmly provides an overview of the catchment that is both hopeful and cautionary.

“The 2022 floods have opened a channel for new ideas,” she said. “Investigating historical impacts on current river health in the catchment is an important part of that process, especially if it culminates in policy and practice that supports the natural environment rather than depletes and degrades it.

“The implementation of some practices over many years has not helped the catchment. Furthermore, we have a large floodplain for our catchment size and it has been modified over decades in association with mitigation works. This too has created unfortunate effects.

“For example, the land is intimately connected to the water and the Richmond River has for many years had quite poor water quality. To ensure water for industry, human recreation and aquatic organisms, there is a need for improved practices on, and for, the water and the land.”

Macadamias are a case in point. With around 500 growers and more than three million trees, the Northern Rivers region is the Australian macadamia industry’s proudly beating heart. However, its success has not come without cost, including loss of topsoil, soil moisture and previously rich organic content. The industry is now working hard to retain soil and associated organic carbon on farms and this has benefits for water quality downstream.

“Innovative and more informed approaches to land use and management can help alleviate issues with degraded water and soil,” said Professor Reichelt-Brushett, who lists options including a community-engaged approaches to stream bank stability, better choices around type, purpose and location of infrastructure; and hardening of infrastructure to help withstand extreme events like floods and fires. 

With a degree in Applied Science (Coastal Management), a Master of Science (Marine Chemistry) and a PhD in Marine Ecotoxicology, Professor Reichelt-Brushett brings more than twenty years’ experience to Southern Cross University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering. From our reefs and rivers to land management and industrial practices, her research is widely respected and relevant.
The Richmond River research is close to her heart, and she is active from scientific and community perspectives, as demonstrated by her recent appointment as President of the newly formed Richmond Riverkeepers Association, part of the Waterkeeper Alliance global network that is focused on protecting and improving local watersheds.

Professor Reichelt-Brushett said that when talking to people about the Richmond River, everyone has a story. Through such reflections, with history as reference and guide, comes a vision for the future.

“Indigenous testimony speaks of being able to see the bottom of the river in Lismore,” she says. “Imagine if that could happen again. Imagine if we could rejuvenate an oyster industry. A good start would be to tackle diffuse sources of waste entering the water. The same applies if we are to have healthy aquaculture in the river again.”

Professor Reichelt-Brushett's “re-visioning” of the health of the Richmond River coincides with the release of a textbook – Marine Pollution: Monitoring, Management & Mitigation – in which she explores reasons, lessons and strategies arising from degraded environments. She has also taken a senior role in an international research partnership that is tackling marine plastic pollution.

“Different solutions can be effective in their own way. While one idea is unlikely to solve 100 per cent of a problem, a multi-pronged approach can contribute to a greater positive gain. The Richmond River can be a showcase for catchment restoration by demonstrating how we can live and thrive with our river.”