Ella Maesepp: Lake Ewylamartup

Narrator: Welcome to Heartland Journeys, and to Lake Ewlyamartup, a formerly freshwater lake just to the east of Katanning.

Ella Maesepp from Katanning Landcare is a passionate advocate for the lake, and she played a crucial role in the combined community effort that brought this lake back from the brink.

So settle in and listen to Ella tell this remarkable story of community landcare.

So Lake Ewlyamartup is one of our naturally occurring lakes here in Katanning, it’s about 18k’s east of the town. It was a freshwater lake. It was an incredibly important site for Aboriginal people. It was a freshwater source, it was a major food source. When European settlement came to this area, it continued to be an important place, there was a small settlement that actually started there, the railway siding and there was a little school, a little village there of just a handful of houses. And the water from the lake, of course, was really, really essential. It was on this stock travelling routes for stopping and resting and watering stock. And so it was really important and really loved as well, there’s a lot of accounts and I’ve spoken to some older people who remember big picnic days out there as a child. And it was a really important place for so many reasons, you know, culturally, as a water supply, recreationally, environmentally as well, we had huge diversity of birds and species that live there. It does occasionally dry up so it never had fish species.

And it’s also a very, very interesting lake in terms of its shape because it has an inlet, but it has no outlet. So at the start of the season, the water flows in off the Ewlyamartup Creek, once the lake is full, no further water goes into the lake, it actually bypasses and goes into the Coblinine River. And then over the summer, the lake levels drop through evaporation because there’s no outflow. When we changed the landscape, particularly around agriculture, this feature of the way the lake works with an inlet but no outlet was kind of its death knell. Because over time, we obviously had increased sedimentation running off from the cleared farmland, we had nutrient rich water coming in from sheep poo and fertiliser runoff from farms, causing eutrophication in the lake and of course, salinity. So we had increasing amounts of salt and they would be washed down the creek and into the lake. And because the water comes into the lake, but the only way the water leaves is by evaporation, the water would evaporate off leaving behind the salt, the sediment and the nutrients they can’t evaporate So over time, this just built up year after year after year and the quality of the water in Lake Ewlyamartup just got worse and worse and worse and worse.

And it really hit a tipping point. going through into the 1990s, the lake was still really beautiful, it was salty. But it was still a very popular recreation place. People were waterskiing and picnicking and sailing and everything on it. But then we obviously hit that point with a buildup of nutrients and salt and sediment was just too much for the natural system and the water quality collapsed, is the best way to put it. The water turned yellow, a lot of the life around it seemed to diminish. It became abandoned as a recreation place. It stank, we had this horrible black build-up of like sludge at the bottom of the lake. And the salinity had actually risen from what had originally been a freshwater lake, by late summer, it was getting to triple the salinity of the ocean. It was really sad. And it was really disgusting.

So in about 2010 we had a really, really motivated group of community members come to us at landcare and say, ‘we need to do something about this. We’ve had really a decade where we haven’t had our local water ski lake, where we haven’t had a nice picnic spot. We need to do something about it. Can we do something about this lake?’ and so we said, Sure. Okay. How?

We realised fixing the lake was never going to be a quick fix overnight. There was so many different facets to the lake that we needed to tackle concurrently. We knew we needed to get out the build-up of that sludge and that nutrient that had built up out of the lake. It was never going to flush out on its own. We had to find a strategy to do that. We knew we had to then stop more sludge and nutrient and salt coming into the lake. So we had to be working in the catchment above the lake, so that we could reduce the amount of runoff. We knew we had to understand the cultural significance of Lake Ewlyamartup, and understand how we could capture that, and preserve that and acknowledge that going through into the future. And we also knew we had to find a way to restore Lake Ewlyamartup to being a recreation, a modern recreational place: back to picnicking, and boating and water skiing, and kayaking, and all those fabulous things. And then, of course, we had to understand what bird species were using it particularly. It’s a really, really important wetland for migratory species as well as local species. And so they could also flourish under a healthy wetland, we needed to create a system that was going to meet all those needs.

We also knew this was not going to be something that just the landcare group could go out and do it. This had to be the whole community. And we actually started off in 2010 with a community information night, which we held in the Town Hall And we hoped some people might turn up and come the night, the Town Hall was packed, we had standing room only, we ran out of chairs. And it was unanimous support from the community – they wanted to see Lake Ewlyamartup back to its former glory.

And what we also found was, those people didn’t turn up for one night say yes, and walk away. The amount of engagement we’ve had in the community pitching in has been, it’s been incredible.

So one of the big things we did in early 2011. We were lucky / unlucky, it didn’t rain in 2010, barely. So the lake basically dried out over the summer of 2010/ 2011. So it was an excellent opportunity to tackle that first thing which was to get that buildup of sludge and nutrients and salt out of the lake. And that was going to take manual work. We held what became known as the Great Ewlyamartup sludge clean out. It was a week, a solid week where the call went out for volunteers. We had $1,000 of funding. And in that week, we turned $250,000 worth of work out. And we put the call out to everyone who had a grader, a loader, an excavator, a bulldozer – anything that could scoop up sludge, and anyone who had a truck that could transport sludge to come down and help and it was like tonka toys in the biggest sandpit you have ever seen. Farmers came from right across the district. The Shire sent some of their trucks. We had private contractors turn up with their bulldozers. And for a solid week, we had people digging out that sludge and transporting it away. And we had three sites where we were storing the sludge, they were safe places for that sludge to be stored until such time as the salt has leached out of that, that dirt and it can be used back onto paddocks which is the plan for it because it’s extremely nutrient rich.

We had people volunteer with catering to provide food from literally sunrise to sunset for all these guys that were volunteering. Cakes and sandwiches were being sent out from town. And over the course of the week, we had 1400 volunteer hours put in by local community and 1100 machine hours. We had a local fuel contractor who actually donated fuel to keep the machines running, so that we could keep doing this work. One of the local machinery dealers sent out their field mechanics each morning to service and keep the machines running. It was a phenomenal community effort.

We managed to get 10s of 1000s of cubic metres of sludge out of that lake which was the first step to restoring that lake. It also brought people together.

We also knew we really had to tackle making sure that that sludge never got back in there again. So, we had done a number of projects over the years where we have in one project alone, we planted 200,000 trees in the catchment upstream of Lake Ewlyamartup to try and stabilise banks and stop sedimentation running off and to strip nutrients before it comes down to the lake. We did a project with local school kids, talking about stormwater drains and stencilling all the stormwater drains about town because the stormwater drains from town actually end up in the Ewlyamartup Creek which end up in Lake Ewlyamartup. So to make the townsfolk aware of everything from the fertiliser runoff from people’s front lawns or, or the soapsuds from washing the car on the driveway all end up in Lake Ewlyamartup and for us to bring our lake back to health, we had to look after our stormwater drains in town. We did a project with a fertiliser trial on pastures so we could try and better understand how to reduce nutrient runoff on farmland which goes through into Lake Ewlyamartup as well.

In terms of the bird life, we were extremely lucky that we’ve got some amazing bird watchers who live here in Katanning, who had been collecting data just in their own notebooks, for a number of years. We were able to access that data and understand we’ve got 95 species of birds that actively use Lake Ewlyamartup.

We have hooded plovers, which are shorebird nesters. So we were able to put up signage to try and protect their nesting areas. For people to understand species were there, we’ve been able to talk about it more as a bird watching destination.

Culturally, in terms of the Indigenous history of Lake Ewlyamartup, we took on a project working with the local Aboriginal community to bring people together and to capture the stories and what was significant about Lake Ewlamartup I was really privileged to be part of that journey, and to sit out on the side of the lake with local Aboriginal people and listen to their stories and the stories of their ancestors and talk about  that lake – it was amazing.

And that project actually went through to an art project. The elders were very, very keen to see young people involved as well. So we actually worked with a professional sculpture artist, and we worked with teenage Aboriginal boys from the Clontarf Academy at their high school, to design a sculpture that would be installed at Lake Ewlyamartup. One of the things the Aboriginal elders also said is they wanted the farmers involved in the sculpture, because they wanted to acknowledge that although this is a long history of Aboriginal value, Lake Ewlyamartup, there is a European story in there as well. And so we actually used old pieces of farm machinery and broken pieces of old farm metal as the material for the sculpture. And that was the way of integrating the agricultural story, and the Aboriginal story. And the sculpture is actually of a family. There’s a man and a woman and a small child and a baby. And that was chosen because so much of what everyone speaks of Lake Ewlyamartup about was a place of family, whether it’d be traditionally as a hunting ground and a camping ground or it’d be more modern times as a place for picnicking and skiing. It is a family place. And so the professional sculpture and the teenage boys built this sculpture which is now in place at Lake Ewlyamartup, with the family looking over the lake, which has been done by families for 1000s of years. And that’s a really special thing that we’ve got there.  

So over a course of about six years, we did all this work, we removed all that sludge, we did so much work in the catchment, we captured the Aboriginal history, we understood our environment so much better. One of the things that we kept coming back to was the fact this lake still only has an inlet, and it has no outlet. And it’s not realistic to think that the catchment water that’s running into the lake that we’re going to get it back to pristine, there’s going to be some salt still coming in, there’s going to be some nutrients, there’s going to be some salinity, and we’re going to see that build-up happen again, it may take longer this time, because the catchment is in better health, but it’s still going to happen. And that’s not good enough. And the only way to do that was actually to create an outlet for the lake an artificial outlet.

So we did a lot of the preliminary work here in Katanning. we were very lucky when the state government developed the Living Lakes programme, to try and restore the health of a number of wheatbelt lakes and Lake Ewlyamartup was one of the ones that was chosen. So what we now have is an artificial channel that exits the lake from the northeast corner of the lake and it follows down to the Coblinine River, which is the natural overflow point where the lake goes anyway. under normal circumstances, the early flow of water at the start of winter goes into the lake, the mid and late winter flows go past into the Coblinine River. But now we have this gated flushing channel. So what we can do is when those early, which are often the poorest quality water flows come into Lake Ewlyamartup, we actually open that channel, so the water goes actually out and it continues down to the Coblinine River, which is where the water from this lake goes anyway. But we were able to flush through, then come mid winter, we can close those gates and let the lake fill naturally, but with the better quality water because the first flush of the season has gone past, then over the summer, the lake goes through its normal process of evaporating, the water level drops in the following year, we’ll repeat that process again.

So we now have that channel in place. This is the first winter 2020 where we have actually been able to operate that channel, which is incredibly exciting. It means that going forward, we are going to be able to control not just the buildup of the nutrients, but also the quality of the water in the lake. So it’s a major tool in managing the environment of the lake, but also bringing those recreational values back into the lake. And that channel being in place is it’s a dream come true. It’s something we talked about for 10 years. And now having that means that we can really see the future Lake Ewlyamartup is something that that we can keep healthy and we can keep us a real valuable jewel for community of Katanning and beyond.

It’s almost unrecognisable what’s happened in 10 years, 10 years ago, no one went there, or hardly anyone went there and it stank like it, it really wasn’t a pleasant place to be, and the water was yellow. And as this work has improved, we have seen so many changes, the community has really come back to the lake. It’s a popular place to take the kids or go for a barbecue or a picnic or take the dog for a walk. So the community has really, really, really embraced it.

Narrator: This has been a Gondwana Link production with story development and narration by Nicole Hodgson, and music by Rod Vervest. Our warm thanks to Ella Maesepp and to audio editor and producer Kim Lofts of Blue Manna Studio.