Mapping the Land

Mapping the Land - Sharon Bowen

Most city dwellers don’t know they exist, let alone give them much thought, but for Science doctoral candidate Sharon Bowen the inland wetland floodplains of NSW occupy most of her very crowded waking moments. Combining a full-time job as a Senior Environmental Scientist with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), with a PhD candidature involving remote location field work, a family and house renovations might seem like an impossible workload, but Bowen has no doubt that this research can’t wait.

Despite very recent drenching rains causing an explosion in vegetation and birdlife, unique wetlands like the Macquarie Marshes have been in decline for decades. Considering the predicted impacts of climate change, many scientists believe a tipping point has been reached.

“It’s a critical time for Science to inform policy for the sustainable allocation of water resources. My research aims to test the effectiveness of targets. We want to be able to tell stakeholders that if you put so much water back into the environment then this is what you’ll get out,” says Bowen.

Ecologists refer to wetlands as “biodiversity hotspots”, genetic stores that provide whole ecosystems with services that support life. They are critical for groundwater recharge and thus for agriculture and grazing.

The conflict between land and water use, compounded by decades of drought has resulted in the destruction of 95% of wetland marsh rushes in the Gwydir wetlands. Situated in the north-west of NSW, the area is home to half a million nesting birds.

“The signs of ecological stress are plain to see.” Using high-resolution aerial digital photography and comparing this to images from the 1990s, Bowen has been able to show the immense decline in native vegetation. Some areas have just 5% of wetlands in “good condition”.

However, Bowen’s research is already helping instigate change. “The vegetation mapping has resulted in the listing of an endangered species which has led to a review of the Native Vegetation Conservation Act.”

Bowen also hopes change will come by working with a new generation of landholders, especially graziers who have a vested interest in preserving wetlands for the benefit of their animals.

“If we want to restore the floodplain habitat we have to look at the whole mosaic and have landholders, OEH and the water authorities working together. By making an investment in water and by quantifying the impact of that investment we can help restore the wetlands and increase farming productivity.”

Sharon Bowen is a PhD candidate within C3, the Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster. Formed in 2008, C3 harnesses more than a decade of research by UTS Environmental Scientists on some of the most fragile and vulnerable ecosystems on earth and is a key research strength at the University.

Words: Marea Martlew