Australia Torquay is having a property boom, but the Karaaf Wetlands on Victoria's Surf Coast is under threat

23:05  04 april  2021
23:05  04 april  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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To the untrained eye, the Karaaf Wetlands on Victoria's Surf Coast looks like an untouched oasis.

It's home to kangaroos, wallabies, and birds that make the journey from as far away as Japan and China.

But it is under threat as the town of Torquay grapples with a population boom and seemingly endless hunger for development.

As porous dirt has given way to roof tiles and concrete, urban stormwater is flooding into the once-pristine wetland, which needs salt water to survive.

And the one dam nearby that could offer some protection is at risk of being decommissioned within a week.

Fighting for survival

For the past three years, Andrew McCauley, the president of the owner's corporation at The Sands housing estate in Torquay has been fighting for the wetlands to be properly protected.

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But it's a battle he says he's losing to the unwavering demand for more housing on the coast.

"The Karaaf is a saline environment, so fresh water is not what it wants," he said.

Between 2001 and 2020, the population of the Surf Coast grew by almost 70 per cent, transforming the once sleepy farming village of Torquay into a rapidly expanding town with skyrocketing property prices.

It's not hard to see why.

The proximity to world-class coastline and the Great Ocean Road, a growing number of jobs in nearby Geelong, and the lack of congestion and crime are big incentives to those who have been priced out of Melbourne.

Mr McCauley can sympathise with those wanting a sea change; he moved to The Sands estate a few years ago.

But he is one of many locals who say the push for more housing is happening too fast for infrastructure to keep up.

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"The estates in North Torquay are only partially developed, so the stormwater from them is increasing each year as dirt becomes roofs and roads," Mr McCauley said.

One development nearby is only 10 per cent completed and another is 70 per cent completed, meaning the amount of stormwater in the town is set to dramatically increase unless proper infrastructure is built to capture it.

Here's where the nearby dam comes into play.

The privately owned dam lies less than a kilometre from the Karaaf Wetland and collects 180 megalitres of water a year, including at least 60 megalitres of stormwater.

It's enough to fill 24 Olympic-size swimming pools that would otherwise end up in the saline wetlands.

Last year, a faulty pipe at the dam burst, flooding hundreds of homes and leading to mass evacuations.

Authorities later found the dam to be unlicensed and ordered the owner to reduce capacity to 120 megalitres.

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They have set a deadline of April 9 for the owner to apply for a licence to safely operate the dam or decommission it, something locals say will be a death sentence for the wetlands.

If the stormwater can't go into the dam, they say, it will have nowhere to flow but straight into the Karaaf.

And the Karaaf is already struggling.

A series of environmental reports commissioned by The Sands estate found the amount of stormwater going into the wetlands in 2016 was double what was originally predicted.

"It's still increasing, so something's gone awfully wrong, and it is still going wrong and it's getting worse," Mr McCauley said.

Adding to the strain on the ecosystem are poorly maintained man-made wetlands within other Torquay housing estates that flow into the Karaaf.

Local councillor Heather Wellington says Torquay's smaller wetlands are in an "extremely poor condition" and "clearly would not be removing pollutants, particularly phosphorus, nitrogen and suspended solids, from the stormwater" before it flows into the Karaaf.

The controversial policy up for debate

Recognising the threat of over-development to towns like Torquay, the state government declared parts of the Surf Coast a "distinctive area and landscape" in 2019 and introduced a draft planning policy to balance population growth and the protection of the environment.

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The policy would cement the future of development in the Surf Coast next door by drawing a solid town boundary.

Depending on where that line is drawn, it would either limit or expand housing development in the town.

Locals and developers have lodged more than 3,000 submissions on the draft policy to a panel that will write recommendations for the Victorian Planning Minister, who will then ultimately decide the region's fate.

While land next door to the Karaaf Wetland is on the table for development, the other, arguably more controversial part of the draft planning policy, is the plan for the Spring Creek valley.

The Spring Creek valley is a 245-hectare piece of land that's been fiercely fought over for decades.

It lies between Torquay and Jan Juc and is argued by the Greater Torquay Alliance to be crucial to filtering stormwater.

They say it also acts as a fire break and is home to koalas, kangaroos, and some argue even emus.

Two options for the valley are outlined in the draft planning policy: use it for "low-density ecologically sustainable development", or set the town boundary right before the valley so it can remain a green break.

While Spring Creek lies about 5 kilometres from the wetlands, the lack of infrastructure has locals worried the Karaaf will be overrun with even more polluted stormwater if it is developed.

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Greater Torquay Alliance secretary Darren Noyes-Brown says the term "low-density ecologically sustainable development" is a loose one.

"How can you do that? There's no definition of low-density in the planning scheme and the [new planning policy] documents haven't defined it either," he said.

"One of the definitions in one of the old council documents is that you need to develop such that all life can continue to live and its chances of living can be enhanced.

"Well, no matter what you do, when you develop, you're going to affect something, whether it's stormwater runoff or removing vegetation, loss of habitat for endangered species, which we have a lot of in here."

Mr Noyes-Brown can list 12 endangered species off the top of his head that live in the valley.

He says a better use of the land would be for the state government to buy it, gift it to a trust, and repopulate the valley with the endangered Bellarine Yellow Gum trees.

Volunteers at the Greater Torquay Alliance have gone through all 3,161 panel submissions and found all but 40 mention Spring Creek. And of the overwhelming majority that did, 94 per cent voted to leave the valley as it is.

While the fight for Spring Creek in the town is a loud one — with locals creating signs, bumper stickers and information sheets for around town — it's not the only area slated for more housing.

Mr McCauley says any future development needs to include a solid strategy for the control of stormwater.

"The issue that we're showing is what stormwater does, it's a damaging commodity in a natural environment," he said.

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"If we're an example of what can happen with stormwater I'd hate to think what [development in] Spring Creek can produce."

An independent ecology report submitted to the state government panel says an excess of stormwater from nearby development has "changed the ecological character" of the Karaaf Wetlands, with freshwater flora taking over and saltwater species experiencing "dieback".

A separate government paper also found that "until a comprehensive solution is found to address the stormwater and floodwater discharge from the farming and residential areas that is harming the Karaaf Wetlands, the future development [of North Torquay] should not proceed, to ensure development does not exacerbate the existing situation."

Yet another submission, from urban ecohydrology professor Tim Fletcher, said the development of North Torquay "would be very difficult to achieve" without "further degradation of the Breamlea Reserve's habitat quality, increasing the risk to the critically endangered Orange-bellied Parrot."

'We don't want to become a city'

It's a balancing act for authorities as demand for homes in the area continues apace.

Honi Travers wants to buy a house in Torquay, but understands that if development is limited to maintain the cozy community feel she may never afford it.

The 38-year-old always knew she wanted to live at the beach and bought a house in Jan Juc six years ago with her then-husband and three kids.

"I grew up at the beach and feel like it's a beautiful lifestyle," she said.

"It's our happy place. It's a community with like-minded people and I've made some deep heart connections."

Ms Travers said over the past few years the growth in the town had been "exponential".

"It's enormous, enormous growth. I'm surprised there's no train here," she said.

"You look at old Torquay with the big blocks and different types of houses, modern and old and beach shack and more established trees, but when you drive around those [new] parts, the blocks are all the same size and smaller and brand new and colour coded and barren.

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"It's definitely very different, but clearly a lot more affordable.

"But that's life, people want to live near the beach, it's beautiful."

Ms Travers has been renting in Jan Juc since she split from her husband a few years ago and wants to buy when she finishes her studies.

But she admits she's likely been priced out of the "old Torquay" market.

"In Jan Juc, even a beach shack that you would mow over and rebuild is really, really expensive," she said.

Despite her desire to live on the coast, Ms Travers is one of thousands of locals against the development in Spring Creek that would open up a huge area of land close to the town centre and the beach to housing developments.

"Development is going to happen and is part of life, but at the same time we need to maintain as many green belts as possible and look after our natural creek that we have there to keep this a seaside town."

Mr Noyes-Brown from the Greater Torquay Alliance agrees people will always want to move to the Surf Coast, but says development cannot continue unabated forever.

"If you keep providing for everyone that wants to come here, where does it stop?

"We're not anti-development, we're about good development, but also trying to retain the character of our coastal town.

"It's a town, we don't want it to become a city."

Mr McCauley says the impacts are already being felt in the Karaaf Wetlands.

The beginning of blue-green algae blooms have become more common and typha, a woody invasive weed, has begun to root itself in the waters.

"The whole of Torquay is changing dramatically," Mr McCauley said.

"My experience is our stormwater is not managed, we are destroying the wetlands, we are in crisis and we are still trying to put more development here."

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