Bellingen Riverwatch was born from the need to collect continuous water quality data to assist scientists involved in the recovery of the BRST and inform management decisions.
The Bellinger River catchment is recognised as being one of the largest ‘biodiversity hotspots’ outside of the Daintree Rainforest World Heritage area with exceptionally high levels of endemism and one of the last remaining strongholds for a number of endangered species dependent on aquatic health, including the Giant Barred Frog (Mixophyes iteratus), Stuttering Frog (Mixophyes balbus), Green-thighed Frog (Litoria brevipalmata), Pouched Frog (Assia darlingtoni) and the critically endangered Bellinger River Snapping Turtle (Myuchelys georgesi). In addition to this, the catchment supports a number of listed Endangered Ecological Communities, including Lowland Rainforest.
There have long been identified problems in this catchment. Bellinger and Kalang River Eco Health Report Card (2011), Bellinger River Health Plan (2010) and Bellingen Riverwatch all point to elevated levels of available Phosphate and low Dissolved Oxygen levels, at several points in the catchment. Catchment health drives river health and marine health. Local rivers are the mainstay to the community; environmentally, socially and economically.
Bellingen Riverwatch is an innovative citizen science program. Through meaningful engagement of the community, volunteers collect long-term, scientifically rigorous data that is accessed by our eleven scientist partners to support recovery actions for the Critically Endangered Bellinger River Snapping Turtle and other threatened species.
Bellingen Riverwatch engages 44 local community volunteers and 5 schools to collect monthly water quality data at 25 sites every month across the Bellinger, Never Never, and Kalang Rivers. Scientists from the NSW Department of Planning, Industry & Environment (DPIE) carry out a comprehensive bi-annual water quality and macroinvertebrate survey, and assist with data analysis and interpretation.
Why Collect Water Quality Data?
River health and water quality can change due to a wide range of factors, such as geology, rainfall, vegetation cover, gradient/steepness and size of the catchment, human impacts through land use, natural disasters, climate, and much more.
To help build a picture of a catchments’ health, ongoing and regular monitoring of water quality is required to build what’s called ‘baseline data’ - a long-term picture of what’s considered normal conditions for that particular waterway. This baseline information is important for river health and the future of the turtles, as the more we know about the river the better informed we are regarding what to do next.
The waterways of the Bellingen Shire are highly valued by the local community as they they support many activities, such as recreation and supplementary drinking water. There is therefore a strong community interest in monitoring and improving the water quality and riparian health.
Ongoing water quality data is important for monitoring the rivers’ health, identifying priority areas for management actions and educating the community on how to reduce the impact they may be having on their environment.
Bellingen Riverwatch communicates its’ data with key stakeholders to help build a picture of the aquatic and riverine health of the Bellinger and Kalang River catchments, help identify issues and impacts, aid decision making, guide research, inform policy and river health priorities. We also communicate our data with the community to raise awareness, improve community understanding about the environment and threatened species, and promote positive river health choices for community members, landholders, and tourists.
In addition to water quality testing, other long-term citizen science activities include monitoring riparian vegetation, reporting turtle sightings and evidence of turtle nests as well as water bug surveys (turtles rely on macroinvertebrates as their primary food source). Scientists from OEH carry out a comprehensive bi-annual water quality and macroinvertebrate survey, and assist with data analysis and interpretation.
Bellingen Riverwatch Volunteers conduct site assessments, take site photos and test water samples for Temperature (air and water), pH, Electrical Conductivity (Salinity), Turbidity, Available Phosphate, and Dissolved Oxygen. This is complemented by Faecal Coliform testing by OzGREEN and bi-annual water quality testing by scientists from the NSW Department of Planning, Industry & Environment.
2015 Turtle Mortality Event
In 2015, Bellingen River Snapping Turtle (BRST) suffered a significant mortality event. Since the event, investigation has identified a virus (Bellinger River Virus or BRV), previously not known to science, as the agent most likely to be responsible for the mortality event.
An estimated 90% of the BRST population is believed to have died as a result of the virus in an approximate 6-week period. Infected turtles suffered blindness, internal organ necrosis and developed sudden inflammatory lesions.
Prior to this event, the population size for the species was estimated at 1600 – 4500 individuals. The current Bellinger River Turtle population is estimated to be less than 200 individuals and predominantly juveniles.
Preliminary testing by EPA did not detect any water pollution issues. However, a need to collect continuous, scientifically robust water quality data has been identified as a priority need by the scientists involved in the recovery of the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle, to help inform management decisions.
Now Critically Endangered
The BRST is currently listed as Critically Endangered under the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 and the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
The BRST is endemic to the Bellinger catchment, occupying approximately 55km of the Bellinger River. Main threats to this species are past disease associated with the Bellinger River Virus, predation by foxes, and poor water quality.
How it all Began
In late 2016, following a request from OzGREEN, the Office of Environment & Heritage (OEH) in association with Saving our Species program, started the motion to design a community driven citizen science project. It was quickly apparent that long-term monitoring was required, using a model that could sustain itself beyond individual funding cycles. To achieve this, it was important to work together collaboratively with the groups and agencies in the area and, leverage expertise and available resources.
In May 2017, OEH, in partnership with OzGREEN and assistance from NSW Waterwatch, set-up a citizen science project to facilitate the water quality testing process with the intention to maintain and/or improve the river’s health. Eleven project partner organisations have come together to design and develop the program. All project partners contribute significantly to the success of Bellingen Riverwatch. There is a need for ongoing monitoring of river condition to support virus research and potential disease triggers.
Data from Bellingen Riverwatch gives us an indication of overall river health. It can track trends over time, assist in prioritising sites for more intensive sampling or riparian revegetation, contribute to research related to the BRST, or refine or inform other vital management actions to improve water quality.
Prior to Bellingen Riverwatch, there was a lack of consistent water quality data for the rivers in the Bellingen Shire NSW. The community is passionate about their rivers, but lacked the overall awareness about the threats impacting the rivers' health. Bellingen Riverwatch inspires community stewardship by directly involving them in collecting water quality data for their river. A sense of community ownership and concern for their river is important for ongoing river health.
Part of a Bigger Picture
During the mortality event, thirty-five healthy BRST were removed from the river by DPIE and are now part of a captive breeding program at Taronga Zoo and Symbio Wildlife Park. It is hoped that the offspring from this program will be released back into the Bellinger River in future years.
The data we collect through Bellingen Riverwatch is available for use by our partners to inform management decisions towards the survival of this species. This water monitoring program is an important part of a much bigger picture of river restoration and species recovery currently underway.
Bellingen Riverwatch is working with Bellingen Shire Council and DPIE to provide data on the health of the river to inform management of the river down the track.
The DPIE Saving our Species (SoS) program is undertaking a series of actions to conserve the BRST. Actions funded by SoS includes:
- Research into the Bellinger River Virus by the Department of Primary Industries.
- Captive breeding and assurance populations housed at Taronga Zoo Sydney and Symbio Wildlife Park, Helensburgh.
- Biannual surveys to estimate population size, health of turtles and population dynamics.
- A trial release program to test release of captive-bred BRST into the Bellinger River to supplement the population.
- Genetics research .
- Riparian restoration program in the Upper Bellinger River to benefit the turtles through improving river health.
- Contributes to coordination and scientific validation of the Bellinger Riverwatch program
PhD student, Kristen Petrov, from Western Sydney University is also currently undertaking studies on BRST.
Bellingen Riverwatch is an initiative of OzGREEN and The Department of Planning Industry & Environment in partnership with Bellingen Shire Council, NSW Waterwatch, Western Sydney University, Taronga Zoo Sydney, Bellinger Landcare, Earthwatch Institute, Eco Logical Australia, North Coast Local Land Services and Jaliigirr Biodiversity Alliance. Learn more
We are currently seeking sponsors to support this wonderful project into the future. Read more