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Turning point for Lake Wollumboola? 

Frances Bray
NPA supporter and 
Convenor of the Lake Wollumboola Support Group

This has been an extraordinary year for coastal protection generally, and for Lake Wollumboola in particular. The Premier, the Hon Bob Carr, outlined new policy directions1. The NSW Government announced in April that the catchments of five South Coast lakes would be protected as national parks. It then requested the Healthy Rivers Commission to conduct an inquiry into the protection and management of coastal lakes. The Coastal Lakes Inquiry issues paper brought further good news, with its proposals for Lake Wollumboola and eight other South Coast lakes to be protected as reserves and considered for World Heritage listing.

Then on 2 June the Deputy Premier and Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning, Dr Andrew Refshauge, announced his decision to refuse the Long Bow Point subdivision application, at Culburra Beach near Nowra on the South Coast. The proposal involved development of 837 housing lots, stage 1 of a 3,000 lot development, mainly in the catchment of Lake Wollumboola (see also June NPJ). He said, "The evidence is overwhelming – our primary concern must be the long-term protection of the Lake."3

Members of the Lake Wollumboola Support Group are overjoyed by the Minister’s adoption of our case. The group has been campaigning, since 1993, to stop the development because of its likely destructive impacts on the unique ecology of this most fragile of coastal lakes and its catchment.

Our group was formed in response to Shoalhaven City Council seeking comment at the commencement of the Estuary Management Study for Lake Wollumboola. Soon after, we learned of plans by Realty Realisations, a landowner and developer, for a massive development primarily in the catchment of the lake. We decided to work to protect the lake, and to inform the Culburra Beach community on related issues.

A unique ecology

Lake Wollumboola is located just north of Jervis Bay. Maps and records from 1805, when the first Europeans came to the area, confirm that Lake Wollumboola was much the same then as it is today and that the area provided a rich environment for Aboriginal people. The Jerringa people maintain today their traditional cultural ties with Lake Wollumboola and the Beecroft Peninsula.

Lake Wollumboola is an intermittently closing and opening lake. It is particularly vulnerable to urban pollution and disturbance because it is shallow, above mean sea level and is infrequently open to the sea, causing high nutrient levels to build up in the sediments. Additional pollution is likely to maintain permanently eutrophic conditions, with algal blooms, death of seagrass and ultimately decline of the lake’s extraordinarily rich ecology.

Inter-glacial wave-cut reefs and rock platforms form much of the lake bed. The lake’s catchment is coastal bushland, wetland and heath of significant biodiversity, with at least 300 species each of flora and fauna at Long Bow Point, and at least 33 threatened species in the immediate catchment. Green and golden bell frogs are reasonably abundant around its shore, as well as the extremely rare wetland plant Wilsonia rotundifolia.

Photo: Keith Campbell

The lake is listed on the Register of the National Estate, in the Directory of Wetlands of national significance, and meets the criteria for listing under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international significance for water birds.

Lake Wollumboola is recognised and protected under migratory bird agreements with China and Japan as internationally significant habitat. At least 43 species of migratory birds, including little terns, have been identified, as well as large populations of local species such as black swan, teal and royal spoonbill. In the summer of 1999 a spectacular bird event occurred, with populations in excess of 20,000 and high bird populations are continuing.

Long-standing conflict

Conflict between protection of the natural environment of the Jervis Bay region and inappropriate development is long-standing. Since the early 1900s, Realty Realisations (the principal landowner in the region) has floated various plans to develop paper subdivisions in environmentally sensitive areas. There is equally a long history of efforts to protect this unique area. Myles Dunphy in the 1940s and NPA in 1974 put forward proposals to Government to protect the lake and the Beecroft Peninsula to its south.

The NPA case for national park status, as quoted by Alan Catford in the National Parks Journal, August 1974, says, "The club-shaped Beecroft Peninsula, which backs Point Perpendicular, the northern part of Jervis Bay, combined with the magnificent lagoon of Lake Wollumboola and the connecting lowland, is an ideal national park. Variety is surely its keynote."

Realty Realisations and Shoalhaven City Council had other ideas. In 1992 the north-west area of the catchment was rezoned to residential as the Culburra Urban Expansion Area, by agreement between Realty Realisations, the Council and the NSW Government.

In 1995, Shoalhaven City Council was poised to approve the Long Bow Point Subdivision application, despite our protests and the reservations of several government agencies. Following the election of the Labor Government, the then Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning, Craig Knowles, in August 1995 called in the Long Bow Point subdivision and subsequently agreed to establish a Commission of Inquiry (COI).

In October 1996, Commissioner Carleton convened the first session of the Long Bow Point Subdivision COI. The Lake Wollumboola Support Group, the Culburra Beach Progress Association and, finally, the government agencies, opposed the subdivision. The NPWS reversed its previous position and advised that a Fauna Impact Statement (FIS) would be required. At the resumption of the Inquiry in November 1996, the Commissioner adjourned it indefinitely at the request of the developer, to allow for completion of a FIS.

The following three years of waiting were very stressful. In March 1998 we suffered a major setback with the release of the NPWS’ Assessment of the Natural Heritage Values of the Culburra Urban Expansion Area and Environs. While this report recommended consideration of national park or marine park status for Lake Wollumboola and recognised the high conservation values of much of the proposed development site, it recommended to the Minister for the Environment that the Government not purchase Long Bow Point. The Minister, Pam Allen, accepted this recommendation, to our great disappointment. Nevertheless, the Government purchased a large area of land between Jervis Bay and the southern shore of the lake, which is now part of Jervis Bay NP.

In November 1999, the COI reconvened, with the final hearing in January this year. In April, the COI report was released, recommending refusal of the subdivision because of its likely impact on Lake Wollumboola and its catchment. On 2 June, Dr Refshauge announced his decision to refuse the subdivision and to establish a review of planning controls and environmental management for the catchment.

Techniques for success

The success of our part in this landmark decision was due to several factors.

We studied and recorded the behaviour of Lake Wollumboola, analysed and interpreted research and expert advice. With the assistance of a Legal Aid Commission grant, we obtained advice from a highly professional group of experts who supported us in our submissions and presentations. Their original data and research covered water quality; evaluation of water-pollution control measures; ecology of the lake and its catchment, particularly its extraordinary birdlife; environmental law; and social and economic impacts of the proposed development.

We also worked closely with environment groups who gave us expert and strategic support, in particular Total Environment Centre, NPA, Nature Conservation Council, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and our local coalition of environment and community groups, the Jervis Bay Regional Alliance.

On World Environment Day, a few days after Minister Refshauge’s announcement, ACF recognised our efforts by awarding Frances Bray and Keith Campbell the Peter Rawlinson Conservation Award. This prestigious award focuses national attention on the lake and will assist us greatly in our ongoing campaign: to have Lake Wollumboola and its catchment protected from urban development for all time.

We are delighted also that the Lake Wollumboola Support Group has received local recognition. Narelle Wright, Frances Bray and Keith Campbell were honoured with Shoalhaven Healthy Cities awards, for their efforts to protect the lake.

Whilst the refusal of the Long Bow Point subdivision provides breathing space, the future of protection of Lake Wollumboola is not yet guaranteed. We hope this year represents the turning point, with the Healthy Rivers Commission Coastal Lakes Inquiry issues paper adding further weight to the Lake Wollumboola cause.

We hope other local environment groups will take heart from our success so far and join us in supporting these significant proposals.


1 The Hon Bob Carr. Speech to the Brisbane Institute, A Matter of National Importance - Protection of the Australian Coastline. April 2000

2 Healthy Rivers Commission. Independent Inquiry into Coastal Lakes - Issues Paper. October 2000

3 Ministerial media release, 2 June 2000

* Frances Bray is an NPA supporter and Convenor of the Lake Wollumboola Support Group.

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