'Chocolate milkshake' appearance gives signs of troubled Fitzroy River

22 March 2023

Slowing the flow of the Fitzroy River system should bring huge benefits to the reef and the region’s coastal ecosystems.

However, it will need a collaborative approach regionally to make it happen.

That’s according to CQUniversity water expert, Dr Adam Rose.

Unlike many other river systems, the Fitzroy River is “more like a chocolate milkshake” with large amounts of sediment washing through its catchments out into the ocean.

“The Fitzroy River is the second largest catchment in Australia behind the Murray-Darling and it is the largest system to discharge into the Great Barrier Reef,” explained Dr Rose.

“One good thing is that unlike up north where the reef is much closer to the catchments, here the Swains and the reef is 180 kilometres out.

“And so the Fitzroy River impacts more of that coastal marine ecosystem, the seagrass beds and the corals around the Keppels.”

Dr Rose said one of the biggest problems was a lack of understanding about the importance of the Fitzroy catchment within the general public.

He said the health of the reef was often a focus of news, but he believes the Fitzroy River is in much more of a "precarious position” than the reef.

“Because we live close to our rivers and creeks, we have more impact on them, but it is not necessarily as sexy as the reef.”

He believes a shift in focus to the health of our river systems could ensure the wellbeing of other ecosystems both upstream and downstream.

Capricorn Conservation Council Coordinator Sophie George said the most recent report cards showed that the Fitzroy River ecosystem is currently degraded and the catchment health is suffering.

“If anything, we have made the flow go faster, so we need to consider this and restore our riverbank systems.

“We are also concerned about mining releases. So, when there is huge rainfall, they will be allowed to release their water into the system releasing toxins and high salinity into the catchment.”

Dr Rose said if we were to leave the Fitzroy system to itself, it would get worse.

“It will get deeper in sections as floods scour them out and more sediment leaves the system.”

He said there needs to be more structures built to reduce the velocity of water - and holding water upstream in the catchment was vitally important.

“We should also be encouraging farmers to clean out their old dams to make sure their carrying capacity is increased and look at contouring the land to slow the velocity of the water.

“This will allow animals and plants to do what they’ve always done – reproduce. As an ecologist my job is to get that environment in a situation where the animals and plants are reproducing, and if they’re reproducing we know we are winning.”

Dr Rose said it was important for locals, not southern authorities, to make decisions about the catchment.

“The decisions need to be made by Darumbal People, scientists and farmers.”