As Victorians stare down the barrel of stage one water
restrictions, a new report from environmental group The Central Highlands
Alliance Inc. has revealed that the state could be saving a Maroondah dam full
of water – 20,000 ML – every year if logging was stopped in the Thomson
catchment. If it continues, however, the water loss will double to 40,000 ML annually by

The state government yesterday postponed implementing the
new water restrictions for another month, in the hope that average rain in
August would push reserves back over the trigger, having recently plummeted
to 47.2% of capacity.

But water minister John Thwaites conceded it
was still “highly likely” Victoria
would need to go on stage one restrictions from 1 September, under which gardens may only be watered every second day.

But could the government be doing more? According to Vanessa
Bleyer from Lawyers for Forests, “the increased water from ending logging in
the Thomson could buffer up to 25% of the decreased yields,” and contribute a
substantial buffer against drought.

The Thomson Reservoir, situated along the eastern
escarpments of Mount Baw Baw, carries roughly 60% of Melbourne’s
water storage capacity and yet, according to TCHA, its Mountain Ash, Alpine Ash
and Shining Gum forests – which cover one third of the area – have been legislated
to feed pulp into Paperlinx’s Maryvale Mill.

Not only has this been detrimental to the forests’
ecology but also, in regenerating after logging, these tree species can double their
use of water. And with the Ash forests occurring in the high rainfall zones of
the catchment, this has been shown to affect water levels in the dam, currently
languishing at 37%.

“Our catchments are so obliterated that ‘canaries in the
coal mine’ such as the Baw Baw frog, Barred Galaxias fish and old-growth
dependant Leadbeaters Possum (Victorian’s faunal emblem) are locally extinct as
a direct result of logging,” says TCHA’s Sarah Rees.

One solution, suggests TCHA, is for the Bracks government to
move damaging woodchip industries out of the water catchment area and into
available alternatives – such as wood plantations.

And while this is not considered a viable solution by local
government leaders wary of alienating voters by jeopardising jobs in
the region – the seat of Narracan, for instance, is held marginally by
Labor MP Ian Maxfield, whose election opponent is logging
boss Gary Blackwood – it
seems Paperlinx is not entirely opposed to the idea.

Rumours inside state government say Paperlinx is interested in
looking for an alternative source to the Thomson catchment, because its
classification as a high conservation value forest has prevented the
company from gaining the Forest Steward Certification (FSC) standard
its paper products. It needs the
government to assist in the transition.

But this might not be in state government’s interests. Current
statistics reveal that logging the Thomson is earning royalties of
$1.8 million annually (2002-2003 DSE). Although when you consider the
market value of water at the moment, logging Victoria’s catchments
doesn’t make economic sense either, says Rees.

We called Thwaites’s office to ask if the water minister was aware of
the impact of logging at the Thomson catchment and
whether the government had considered putting a stop to it at a time
when the state’s water levels are plummeting.

“We’re doing a study into the impact of logging on the Thomson
catchment,” a spokesman for Thwaites told Crikey this morning, “but we’re always mindful that any small increase in long term
water yield needs to be weighed up against the livelihood of regional towns and
regional jobs.” The government is doing also doing a hydrological study to
determine how much water is used by regrowing trees.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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