Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Possible link between clear-felling of forests in water catchment areas and decline in water quality

YVONNE WALTERS: I've heard the health officer for the Shire of Otway say that one of the water catchments, if you put your hands in, you'd come out with E. coli gloves. So I'd say everyone knows what's happening, they just don't want to say so.

PETER HUNT: Yvonne Walters, a resident of Apollo Bay, a small village on the west coast of Victoria, reflecting there on the quality of the water that the residents and tourists in the district, sometimes put up with. Hello again, I'm Peter Hunt and this week's Earthworm is a special report on the possible link between the clear-felling of forests and the decline of water quality. Clear-felling of native forests is now widespread in Australia. It was introduced in a big way in the early '70s, around the time the export woodchip industry began, and it's been dogged by controversy ever since.

One of the less visible impacts of this type of practice, is the effect it has on the rivers and streams that flow through our forests. Research in Victoria for instance, has demonstrated that the quantity of water can be reduced substantially in catchments covered with regrowth forest. Clear-felling has also been linked with increased erosion and sediment transport in rivers. And in Western Australia, rising levels of stream salinity are yet another impact that's now being seen in some areas.

But bacterial pollution and the potential threat to public health is something that until now, has been largely ignored. Well, Bob McDonald is about to remedy the situation, at least as far as one water catchment in Victoria is concerned. Bob of course is the producer of Melbourne's 3CR environment show called The Eclectic Parrot.

BOB McDONALD: The effect of clear-felling timber on public health is perhaps set to become the biggest issue in forestry since woodchipping began. For a long time, biologists and naturalists and indeed anybody who knew the bush, have been disturbed about the destructive techniques of forestry. Biological arguments have often foundered on the lack of base line data, that's what the forest was like before clear-felling. Then it was forestry employed biologists versus the rest, in a continuous and for the most part, unresolvable war of words.

One of the areas logged in the middle of this war of words, was the water catchment of Apollo Bay, a small coastal village on the west coast of Victoria. Now the local water board and the Rural Water Supply Commission monitored the levels of coliform and E. coli bacteria, throughout the period of this logging. The amounts of these bacteria in the water, are used as indicators of other more serious pathogens throughout the world, and Victoria's standards are meant to comply to those of the World Health Organisation.

This story has been repeated many times in the past, but Apollo Bay is unique in that there has been no other activity other than logging in the catchment, and the water had been of such high quality as to not require any treatment - well, that was till now. Yvonne Walters was one of the residents to first notice that something was wrong.

YVONNE WALTERS: I think it was way back at the beginning of the 1980s, when people started really screaming about what the hell's going on with our water. It was in the main media that coastal town's water supply was ratshit.

BOB McDONALD: How did they find out? Was it through ..

YVONNE WALTERS: Oh well, there are two ways. You look, and if you're like me - a shopkeeper, and you've got an urn full of hot water, you go to fill it up one morning and there's all this ghastly green fluff floating round on the top. You think - what the hell's going on here, boiled algaes, I suppose. And the other way is, people are just getting sick. A lot of people I know have had diarrhoea, which they've never had before, and they just can't understand it.

BOB McDONALD: You've been here what, since the early 60s. Do you remember the water being better, or has it always been sort of - in and out of this kind of condition?

YVONNE WALTERS: Well, I believe the hospital has never taken a risk with water, they've been giving people tank water since the 70s or so. And I really don't know when people started to notice it, or did anything about, because the whole thing has been kept hushed up.

BOB McDONALD: Apollo Bay's water comes from the small weir in the 1,000 hectare catchment of the West Baron River. Botanist Geoff Carr, visited the area in the early 1980s.

GEOFF CARR: It's typical tall open wet .. forest of mountain ash, eucalyptus regnans. The understorey contains things like mulberry, soft tree fern, musk, hazel, wire grass, there are lots of different fern species. There are several age classes of mountain ash there, but the lower, wetter, moister sites - the trees there are several hundred years old, and very large, amongst the largest mountain ash that now exists in the state.

BOB McDONALD: Is it the kind of vegetation that you'd want in a water catchment?

GEOFF CARR: Most certainly. The only other catchment that's substantially untouched, as that was, is the O'Shannessy catchment.

BOB McDONALD: And that's the one for the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works water reserve.

GEOFF CARR: That's right, which has got mountain ash forest of world significance there, just fantastic resource, and this vegetation in the Otways was very similar to that.

YVONNE WALTERS: I think it was in 1984, when from my shop I was taking little bush walks around the place and gradually the tourists and things got really amazed at what was going on. They didn't want to see just the pretty bush, they wanted to see these logging coups. What the hell's going on. When I took people down and they saw these logging coups, they got really angry, and then some local people joined what was becoming quite a huge protest, and we all went down together.

BOB McDONALD: At that stage, was it aimed at drawing attention to, or actually stopping the logging? What were you after then?

YVONNE WALTERS: I think we just wanted the public to know what was happening. I knew logging was going on, but I didn't realise it was in our water catchment until I sat down and thought about it. I didn't know where our water catchment was. No one ever asked me if I wanted logging in my water catchment, and logging had been traditionally accepted in the Otways because it was the way people earned their money, just going out there, getting a log and working quietly away on the mills. Logging, as it's known today, is quite different from what was accepted in the old days.

BOB McDONALD: Despite protests, meetings and letters in 1984, the forest division were keen to continue logging. At this stage, over 10 percent of the catchment had been logged, not including the area cleared for roads. E. coli and coliform bacteria counts from the drinking water show that it was consistently over 500 times above the acceptable limit.

YVONNE WALTERS: I think we were all kept in wraps about it. Maybe people were getting diarrhoea and not knowing why and stuff like that, but in the 80s it really hit the papers. And especially the tourists that come into this town in summer time, when our population blows out to about 15,000, and all of a sudden everyone's trotting of to the doctor, people started complaining.

BOB McDONALD: Just recently, there's been more reports of people becoming crook, and of high E. coli levels in the water of Apollo Bay. Is there much relationship made between this, in the eyes of most locals in Apollo Bay and previous logging, or some other ..

YVONNE WALTERS: Well, I suppose the pain of all the division in the communities, screaming and yelling, the defacement of my shop and stuff like that, are things people want to forget. And no one wants to bring up that conflict again, they don't want to be labelled as greenies for some reason or other. And I think people are frightened, who've done it all before, they don't want to get labelled again, they don't want to get into trouble again. And people in the town want to keep it peaceful and quiet, they just don't want to make the connection - even though it's quite obvious, I think. I mean, I've heard the health officer for the shire of Otway say that one of the water catchments, if you put your hands in, you'd come out with E. coli gloves. So I'd say everyone knows what is happening, they just don't want to say so.

BOB McDONALD: With division in the community, few people spoke out when logging recommenced in 1985. But for those who did, the reception they got took them by surprise. Mick Price and Jackie Fewster, were among them.

MICK PRICE: Suddenly there was a call for us to meet this Bob Smith, who was flying down from Melbourne in a helicopter, and it did seem quite out of the blue. And anyway we met him at the top of the water catchment and he had all of the heads of the CF and L in the area with him and we had a bit of a round the tree stump discussion. It was difficult to know what it was about really, at the time. It felt like a bit of a fishing expedition.

BOB McDONALD: They were coming down to see what you knew, sort of thing?

MICK PRICE: At the time, we thought it was more like they wanted to see whether we were going to be standing in front of the bulldozers in the forthcoming season. But whether that was an accurate sort of perception of the meeting, I don't know.

BOB McDONALD: As a result of the meetings, one of the things that they told you was perhaps, or one of the impressions they gave you was that you didn't have your facts straight.

MICK PRICE: Yes, I remember that one of party was accused quite strongly of being very emotional, speaking from emotion rather than fact. So that was one of their main defences to our argument - that we had very little knowledge of logging practice, or effects on water, and probably quite right too - we were speaking mainly from a gut feeling at the time. Like we felt that maybe, you know, you have logging, therefore it's just got to affect the water quality, but at that present time, we didn't really have any data that we could back our opinion with.

JACKIE FEWSTER: That meeting, I think one of the main pushes from us was that water quality is so important that even if there are doubts, at the very least, they should have a moratorium on logging, so that they too can pursue the issue. The only issue for us, for those of us who met Bob Smith at that time, was the issue of water quality, and we didn't have our facts and figures, and we never pretended to have them. It was just having some basic understanding of the forest and its relationship to water and how it works, and so yeah, we felt we ought to get it together and go and do something about it.

BOB McDONALD: Mick's group did their research and found a report authored by Horsford and Clinnick, which was prepared for the Soil Conservation Authority and published in 1981. The report in chapter four states: `An increase in intensity of land use in the catchment will inevitably result in the reduction of water quality'. Further it goes on to say: `With existing data, it is not possible to identify the specific source of water pollution. Nevertheless, the land use activities producing the greatest hazards to the water supply at present, appear to be roading and forest management operations'. We spoke to Bob Smith, the Director of the Forest Division of Conservation, Forests and Lands.

BOB SMITH: That early study has since been superseded by other studies. There was a lot of problems with the study, particularly in terms of taking measurement and the data they used has since been updated, and particularly the forms of measurement of E. coli and the other contaminants. So that study has been superseded and their conclusions - we've certainly got a lot of doubts about. And it's not a published report, in the sense of having departmental or old Soil Conservation Authority approval. It was an internal report, that was never actually vetted.

BOB McDONALD: Unpublished? Well, perhaps it would have been, if the forest division was part of the same department. But this neatly bound report was indeed proudly published and distributed by the Soil Conservation Authority. A later study was commissioned by the Forest Division, but despite the question about the origin of bacteriological contamination of the water supply, it did not even look at the sources of bacteria in the forest. Again we asked Bob Smith why.

UNIDENTIFIED: Your Department did a subsequent study by Farrel and Novotny in 1985, now that study doesn't actually look at coliform and E. coli. Why would that have been?

BOB SMITH: I don't know, and I think it was one of the experiments they decided they would concentrate on other characteristics, which they've done. The only water quality measurements undertaken are by the Rural Water Commission, as part of monitoring Apollo Bay's water supply. And as you are probably aware we are now currently preparing a detailed forest management plan for the Otways, where all these issues are being addressed and people are putting in comments to us and they will be taken into account.

BOB McDONALD: Though some of the coliform and bacteria data were published in Hosrford and Clinnick in 1981, the rest of the figures were only gained after a Freedom of Information request in 1985.

YVONNE WALTERS: I think the first thing we noticed was that the really, really extraordinary high readings, were 1,000 times what's acceptable sort of readings, only occurred after 1974. But there's such an irregular pattern of when the tests were taken, it's very hard to say exactly what causes it.

BOB McDONALD: All drinking water throughout Victoria is monitored by local water boards that carry out quarterly testing. When contamination becomes a problem, the testing is increased to monthly. Samples are collected from several points, including the tap water, and sent to the Rural Water Supply Commission for analysis. Mick Price went on to collate this information.

MICK PRICE: I sat down and made a graph of those readings and from .. also information from the forestry, in regards to areas they logged. That was the first thing that sort of backed our gut feeling was that - a. once the logging process went off the ridges and started crossing water courses, or roading, basically for the logging, once they started crossing the water courses within the catchment, that the readings just jumped through the roof and it was very hard to get a scale for them to actually fit into a holistic graph. And that continued for three or four years until there was a settling basin built close to the township. This had the effect of dropping the readings to a degree.

BOB McDONALD: The settling basin was also built close to the local tip and attracted the usual mob of seagulls. The Water Board have organised to have them shot on a couple of occasions, blaming them for the contamination, which by the way, continues today some four years after the logging ceased. Since 1979, the bacteria counts for Apollo Bay's water supply have been many times, even 2,000 times the recommended safe level for drinking water. A year after the logging, in a report sent to the Apollo Bay Water Board from the Rural Water Supply Commission, it was stated:

Coliform bacteria have been carried through to the reticulation and the water is therefore potentially harmful to health if consumed. This is of particular concern at this time of year, given the large tourist population.

Well, none of the locals can recall any action being taken at the time, and indeed, it was only in early 1989 that the Apollo Bay Water Board had a small ad placed in the local paper, advising residents to boil their drinking water. Over more than seven years, there were notes in the Rural Water Supply Commission telling the Water Board that the water failed to meet World Health Organisation guidelines. Well, who should act? When we contacted the Rural Water Supply Commission, they said that the copies of the water testing results were sent to the Health Department, and it was up to them to act. Well, they appear to have done nothing.

One resident, Paul Hill, carried out extensive research to try to find out how E. coli and coliform bacteria got into the water supply from logging.

PAUL HILL: There are numerous reports of people coming into the town and having - especially bouts of diarrhoea, yeah.

BOB McDONALD: The E. coli seems to be in something that's increased from sort of the mid 70s to now. Why do you think the E. coli bacteria would turn up in the weir and in the holding pond and in the tap water of Apollo Bay now, whereas it didn't turn up before?

PAUL HILL: I believe that, as far as that's concerned, it's the destruction of the soil - clear-felling especially, ripping the soil apart with machinery and bringing the clay and rock to the surface. And then compacting the soil as well, so that the antagonists of the bacteria, the streptomycis, the soil funguses that produce antibiotics that normally maintain micro organisms at certain levels, or keep them under control, they've been destroyed. There habitat has been destroyed so that the bacteria can build up on the surface of the soil and then wash into the stream when there's a heavy downpour of rain, especially after a few days of hot weather. So that the temperature of the bacteria, which seems to be about 37 degrees Centigrade, is optimised for the proliferation of the bacteria.

BOB McDONALD: We visited the West Baron catchment earlier this year, more than four years after the logging had finished. Still, much of the original coups had not regrown and the top soil and unsalvaged logs were piled along their edges. Large areas had been reduced to bare clay. Despite the hiding it got from forestry, the West Baron was still home to thousands of birds and animals, and their faeces would be falling like a quite continuous rain. It is easy now to see the source of contamination. Some months after this visit, we spoke to Dr John Hayman, a pathologist who coincidentally, had been working for many years on forest bacteria.

JOHN HAYMAN: Coliform bacteria, as far as I understand, is simply a measure of the amount of contamination of the water, the contamination that has occurred. The coliform bacteria usually are of animal origin, not necessarily human origin, other animals - kangaroos, wallabies and so forth, they have coliform bacteria in their gut, the same as we do, so it's a measure of the faecal contamination of the water supply. Coliform bacteria may not be harmful in themselves, but where you find coliform bacteria, you very often find other organisms such as salmonella, which may indeed be harmful.

BOB McDONALD: Right, now when we looked at the water supply, there was a whole period of time where there was very little coliform bacteria in the water, many results showing none in the drinking water. If there is a continuous rain of faecal matter into the forest, why is it that these bacteria don't make it into the water at some times? What inhibited them?

JOHN HAYMAN: Well, normally the forest is really a closed system, and it's so built that the bacteria on the surface break down in turn, and they feed the bacteria underneath, and the bacteria underneath that, feed on them. So that the net result is that even though there may be myriads and myriads of bacteria present in the forest, they filter one another out. And at the end of the process, the water that comes out of the forest is virtually sterile.

BOB McDONALD: Right, now if you disturb this leaf litter layer, or you remove it completely, and you are just left with a clay layer, but you've still got the inputs of coliform bacteria from the animals that live in the forest, the birds and the animals, is that a likely source of coliform bacteria in water?

JOHN HAYMAN: Well, that certainly would. I mean, normally the coliform bacteria would be incorporated in this ecosystem, and they in turn would be broken down. And normally, no coliform bacteria would escape from that system and get into the water supply. But once you disturb the whole mechanism, then there's nothing to stop those coliform bacteria, or any other bacteria that might be present in the faeces, from directly entering the water supply.

BOB McDONALD: And that's how they find their way eventually into drinking water, or onto the bays and beaches. How long do coliform bacteria live in water, before, have you any idea how long they can persist?

JOHN HAYMAN: Well, individual bacteria doesn't last very long. And I think that if you have one straight contamination, it wouldn't last very long at all. But once you disturb this ecosystem, it will take a long time for the ecosystem to recover, and as long as you have continuing faecal pollution from animals or birds or whatever, then you'll continue to have continuing faecal pollution of the water until the whole system can build itself up again. And that could take years, tens, twenties maybe even hundreds of years in some cases.

BOB McDONALD: Right, and so when you say build the system back up, those leaf litter layers, that originally stored the bacteria - till they're restored, with their original bacterial communities.

JOHN HAYMAN: That's right. Until that leaf litter and then the bacteria community that feeds on it, until all that's restored, then harmful bacteria can just pass right through the system, straight into the water supply.

BOB McDONALD: The Rural Water Supply Commission are adamant that their results cannot be used to show the effects of logging on water quality. Perhaps not, though it would appear to be negligent for them to not to at least seek an appropriate study long before this. They also informed us that they had changed their method of testing for bacteria in the late 70s, and that this would make comparison of the results, both before and after this time invalid. Well all the more reason for them to get off their backsides and at least recommend some decent research.

Their solution is to chlorinate the water supply. Well, it still hasn't happened and many of the locals are pretty toey about once natural drinking water with chemicals, not to mention footing a bill of up to $1.2 million for water treatment. And what about the Health Department? If they've had this information and failed to act, they are simply grossly negligent, with such a clear threat to public health. In a video taped interview with residents in 1985, the Director of the Forest Division, Bob Smith, admitted he knew nothing about bacteria. Well, apparently not much has changed, except that timer is a more scarce and valuable resource, making that in water catchments even more likely to be logged.

UNIDENTIFIED: If it is proven that there is a link between clear-felling and increased bacteriological counts, will you change the logging practices in catchments?

BOB SMITH: Yes, we certainly will. Where that impacts on public health, we certainly will.

BOB McDONALD: All forested water catchments will have bacterial communities in them, rendering harmless the normal rain of faeces falling into their forest, while they remain intact. And now many are threatened with logging. In Victoria, logging is proposed for the Colac Water Board catchment, and has already commenced in the catchment of Geelong's water supply. And across the border, in the south east New South Wales forest, logging is proposed for the Tantawangalo, the water catchment for the south east tourist towns.

If research confirms that logging is indeed the cause of bacterial contamination of water, then the solution would lie in revegetation of catchments. You can't chlorinate the streams that people swim in, and the tourist beaches that these streams empty onto. As Apollo Bay resident, Jackie Fewster, said way back in 1985, `There should be an immediate moratorium on logging in water catchments, until its effects can be fully assessed.'

PETER HUNT: Bob McDonald, reporting from Apollo Bay in Western Victoria.