Fogg Dam and a Foggy Vision of the Future

Photo Randy Serraglio

Fogg Dam Conservation Park has an international reputation among biologists and bird watchers. It is located in the Adelaide River Floodplain Important Bird Area. Limilngan-Wulna people jointly manage the Reserve with the Parks & Wildlife Department of the Northern Territory Government. Given current climate changes in the Northern territory, and the Australian Goverment’s renewed vigor for “developing the North” the site provides quite a lesson in the importance of climate and weather to human endeavors.

photo Randy Serraglio

Fogg Dam was built in 1957 by the Humpty Doo Rice Project with the intention of creating vast rice paddies and, of course, making lots of money. Although the annual average rainfall (1300 mm) seems ample to support rice production, an average doesn’t tell the full story of when and how rain will fall throughout the year. The timing and amount produced in a single rain event matters a lot when you’re trying to germinate seed and harvest crops on a large scale. It turned out that frequency and depth of floodplain inundation during the wet season were inconsistent at best, as was the time between rain events, and the time it took floodplains to dry after rains stopped. And, who could have guessed that man’s attempt to control somewhat unpredictable monsoon floods might fail. The first decade of “rice reports” reveals a series of weather events that read rather like climate change impact projections for the Top End: crops lost due to a late dry season fire, lack of rain following seed germination, cyclone destroys crop (twice!), record floods, so wet at Christmas all tractors bogged, late start of monsoon, poor early rain, and water shortages. Weather variability combined with human mismanagement of resources killed the rice venture,  but it all worked out pretty nice for the birds.

Our bird viewing experience at Fogg Dam was spectacular, starting right out of the gate with another croc! We practically stepped on this fat little freshie (“little” being 6 feet long) that was basking next to the dam road when we rocked up to take a look from a bird watching platform.

Photo Randy Serraglio
photo Randy Serraglio

The dam wall and one path through the wetlands are no longer open to birdwatching on foot due to a large female saltwater crocodile that is happily making her home here and has so much food to eat that she has not taken the bait put in traps by Park managers who hope to relocate her. Even from the car, we still managed to see heaps of birds.

Forest Kingfisher, photo Randy Serraglio

We had started our day in the tall eucalypt open forest near Mary River, crisscrossed riverine and billabong habitat and rolled up to Fogg dam close to sunset.  We saw dozens of bird species throughout the day. Highlights include two different species of kingfisher, brolgas, lemon-bellied flycatchers (reminiscent of the southwest willow flycatcher), white-necked herons, white-bellied cuckoo shrike,  red-tailed black cockatoo, white-bellied sea eagle, spoonbills working hard combing the water, a mess of geese and other long-legged shore birds, and my new favorite, the comb-crested jacana hidden among the lilies on which it builds nests.


Comb-creseted Jacana Fogg Dam
Spot the comb-crested Jacana, if you can. (photo Randy Serraglio)

The  Conservation Park was designated as a Heritage Site in 2009 owing in part to the rice bungle. But governments and people driven by greed are slow to learn from the failures of their mates. In  June the Australian Government had a big to-do releasing a white paper by the Northern Australian Land and Water Task Force outlining its somewhat less than realistic vision for development of the Northern Territory: unlock the great potential and opportunities of the north. It focuses on building priority roads, developing water resources, removing red tape, building a sustainable workforce and ensuring effective governance arrangements.

The Forward from the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and others describes how:

we will….build the dams and deliver the certainty that landholders and water users need.

and goes on to state:

This White Paper has been developed to stand the test of time — it should be the first, and last, White Paper for the north.

I guess the government didn’t get the climate change memo.  The white paper barely even acknowledges the existence of climate change, let alone the extensive body of scientific work on potential impacts. It mentions climate change a mere three times in the 197 page paper. A June article in The Conversation, Climate: the elephant in the room for developing northern Australia, hammers the strategy for “ignoring basic science,” developed by the government’ own CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology. The author Steve Turton, Professor of Environmental Geography at James Cook University points out:

Climate projections for the north this century paint a dire future and bring into question the feasibility and affordability of many of the development policies, plans and projects outlined in the white paper…it is very likely the intensity of extreme rainfall events will increase.

Darwin currently has an average of 56 days a year where maximum temperatures exceed 35C. Under a high emission scenario Darwin may expect over 230 days a year above 35C by 2090. In fact, there is no currently existing place on Earth that represents what Darwin’s climate might look like in 2090. How can you plan for a future with no contemporary comparison?

It’s all too predictable, as a mate at Darwin’s Mindil Beach markets described well: “Australia and the United States are the two greatest countries in the world that have never learned from their mistakes.”

Up next: Mindil Beach Markets, local springs, a night out bush, creation stories, more 4WD tracks


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