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Former Manager, Banrock Station, 1999 — 2009. 

9th July 2012.

A brief history of Banrock Station

The original Banrock Station homestead just downstream of Kingston-on-Murray was built overlooking the Banrock Lagoon in the early 1900’s (c 1907) around the same time Jeff Drogemuller’s great grandfather was building his first home on Yatco Lagoon upstream at Moorook.

The first farming systems at Banrock Station included sheep and cattle grazing and floodplain cropping followed by cereal cropping on the cleared Mallee sands above the floodplain. In the 1980s and early 1990’s the cereals were replaced with carrot and onion crops irrigated by centre pivots and in 1994 the Hardy Wine Company purchased the property and developed drip irrigated vineyards.

Banrock Station is similar to the Yatco properties in that the homestead overlooks a large lagoon fed by the River Murray that became permanently full after the construction of Lock 3 in 1925. Like Yatco Lagoon, Banrock Lagoon had been a prime duck hunting and yabbying spot for decades and it was considered a privilege to have been invited or given permission to camp and hunt on Banrock.

Banrock Lagoon had also become degraded as the raised permanent water levels above Lock 3 had drowned the fringing red gums and low lying lignum communities. Large areas of the floodplain were salt affected and in the late 1960’s the introduced European Carp further impacted the lagoon ecology. 

A link between Banrock and Yatco

In 1992, the wetland conservation group Ducks Unlimited Australia commenced its first Australian wetland restoration project at Banrock Station, working with former owners Bruce and Teri Engel who were familiar with Ducks Unlimited’s impressive wetland conservation program in Canada.

In fact, the catalyst for Ducks Unlimited becoming established in Australia was due to a chance meeting of like-minded locals, the late Peter Schramm OAM, Mike Harper and Peter Arnold, who met with Canadian Frank Baldwin, a close friend of Maria and Philip Martin who was staying with them at their Yatco home in 1988. Frank shared his stories of the Ducks Unlimited track record in raising funds for wetland conservation in Canada, and how those funds were applied to practical water management and habitat restoration projects in collaboration with local landowners.

Peter, Mike and Peter set about establishing Ducks Unlimited in Australia and helped to raise the funds for the first water management project in collaboration with the owners of Banrock Station. In 1992, flow control structures were built to create a periodic dry phase and screens were installed in the culverts to prevent European carp from re-entering the lagoon after a dry phase.

Ironically, if you consider Frank Baldwin’s visit to Yatco Lagoon in 1988, Yatco Lagoon played a role in the restoration of Banrock Lagoon, and history now shows that the favour was returned.

Banrock Station wetland management

I became a director of Ducks Unlimited Australia in 1993 and in 1998 BRL Hardy Wines (the new owners of Banrock Station) approached me to manage their magnificent architecturally designed Wine and Wetland Centre overlooking Banrock Lagoon. I jumped at the opportunity.

My first recollection of the Yatco irrigators was in 2006 when a group of Kingston to Pyap Land and Water Management Plan stakeholders visited Banrock Station Wine and Wetland Centre to learn about our water management systems. Banrock Station vineyards were drip irrigated and water use was 4 megalitres per hectare. They were highly efficient compared to vineyard water use in the 1990’s as high as 10 megalitres per hectare.

The wetland too had been transformed into a restored and highly diverse ecosystem supporting rejuvenated red gum forests and many plant and animal species. The Yatco group was particularly interested in the wetland and the water savings that could be achieved through drying the lagoon, which could potentially attract investment that could offset the costs of moving irrigation pumps to the river.

Since the Ducks Unlimited water control structures were constructed in 1993, a slightly variable water regime had helped to restore riparian vegetation around the margins of Banrock Lagoon, however, it was impossible to dry the lagoon out completely because the vineyard pumps were placed in the wetland, and so the lagoons were kept full in spring, summer and autumn when a drying phase would have been ideal to aerate the bed and kill all the carp.

Nevertheless, the restoration work up until 2000 was so significant that an 8 kilometre interpretive boardwalk trail was developed and opened in 2002, attracting more than 20,000 walkers per year. Following advice from Dr Bill Phillips, a former Deputy Secretary General of the Ramsar Bureau in Gland, Switzerland, we pursued Ramsar site listing and were successful later in 2002. Becoming a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance was no easy feat, and the new wetland status placed us in an elite crowd with Kakadu wetlands, the Coorong and Lower Lakes, and the Everglades in Florida to mention just a few.

In 2007, the Banrock Station vineyard’s irrigation pumps were relocated from the wetland to the river, with funding assistance from the State Government in return for water savings achieved by drying the wetland. Pump relocation enabled the first complete drying of the lagoon since 1925. In late 2008, following almost two complete dry years the wetland was refilled and was transformed as new plants germinated and new food and nutrients were released from the wetland bed, creating a feeding smorgasbord for waterbirds, fish, reptiles and frogs. Stressed vegetation responded immediately, and a new layer of submerged aquatic vegetation developed.

The future of Yatco Lagoon

There are many parallels between the history and recovery of Yatco Lagoon and Banrock Lagoon, and while Banrock Station started 15 years earlier, Yatco Lagoon is well on its way. The learning from Banrock Lagoon indicates a bright recovery for the wetland ecosystems at Yatco Lagoon.

The professionalism of the Yatco Wetland Landcare Group led Banrock Station to support them when the Government announced in 2007 that Yatco Lagoon would be dried out to help save water during the drought. Banrock Station assisted with some funding to develop a management plan for the wetland and the newly formed Yatco Landcare Wetland Group engaged Dr Bill Phillips (as Banrock had 5 years earlier) to develop their Wetland Management Plan.

There are many natural leaders in the Yatco community who care about the future of their community. I can see many benefits of the Plan adopted by the Yatco Wetland Landcare Group including its capacity to support the group to:

- secure a fresh water supply for irrigators;

- continue to restore the wetland;

- adapt the management of the wetland to circumstances as they arise;

- create economic opportunities for the community; and

- provide a new approach that will unite generations, neighbours, communities and governments.