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into the cup as a whole. When the stirring
agents are weak, as in the Swan-Canning
Estuary, the waters barely mix and the
bottom waters become isolated from the
free water surface.
This has many consequences, the
most important being that the waters
become oxygen depleted. Fig 1c shows
that from Point Walter to the Reid Bridge,
life has been suffocated below about 2-4
meters and once dead all creatures can
only return by migration. This appears
the reason for people no longer finding
prawns and crabs in the river, a common
enjoyment 20 years ago. There seems to
be a tendency, by government and from
some members of the general public, to
deny the severity of this situation with
comments such as “this is a temporary
situation”. This is a well known psycho-
logical first response to death, but there
is no such thing as “temporary death”.
We are only just fully understanding
the functioning of the estuary, but it
appears that with lower rainfall, the river
inflows have decreased and the freshwater
inflows are now arrested around Point
Walter. The time the water takes to travel
from the upper reaches of the estuary to
Point Walter is about one month, the time
necessary for photosynthesis to drain
the nutrients, originally introduced by
fertiliser application in the catchment,
out of the water column into the phyto-
plankton biomass in the surface waters.
These algae then settle to the bottom
where they decompose and, in the
process, deplete the oxygen in the
underlying water body.
This model would suggest that, year
after year, nutrients that enter the estuary
with the inflows are sequestered into
the mud on the estuary bottom, where
they are available for recycling into the
water column whenever a mixing event
takes place following a few months of
low oxygen. Analysis has shown nutrient
levels in the bottom water about three
times higher than in the surface waters,
ready to fuel a summer algal bloom.
In simple language, the Swan-Canning
Estuary has been suffocated by a surplus of
food – death by obesity!
The only reason we are not seeing
huge algal blooms throughout the estuary
is that the tannins in the water – the
brown colour – are robbing the algae of
light so they cannot thrive continuously.
But recent results indicate that certain
types of algae do grow at deeper levels
in very low light conditions. In moderate
concentrations, they produce oxygen to
breathe life back into the deeper waters
by out competing the loss of oxygen due
to microbial action breaking down the
organic material in the water.
continued next page
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