Lake Eyre Basin Rivers 64 Recent proposals and legislative changes by Australian and Queensland state governments could effect great changes to the environment (see Chapters 20 and 22). For example, the Australian Government has proposed that by 2030 much of northern Australia (areas north of the Tropic of Capricorn) would be transformed into a ‘food bowl’ that would double the nation’s agricultural output (Australian Government 2014). Achieving such a great increase in agricultural productivity, assuming this is even possible, would drastically alter current drainage patterns and floodplain dynamics, and require the development of areas for irrigation. Because the extraction of water from rivers, lakes or groundwater changes an ecosystem well beyond the extraction or irrigation zones, the proposed developments would predictably have serious deleterious impacts on the environment and its organisms (Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce 2009). Mining, similarly, has more extensive impacts on the environment than is evident at mine sites, owing to the expansive regional development and infrastructure that is needed to support mining activity (Andersen et al. 2014). In Queensland, the Wild Rivers Act 2005 was repealed in 2014, with river (and land) protection placed under the new Regional Planning Interests Act 2014 (see Chapters 17, 20 and 21). Although claiming to ‘identify areas of Queensland that are of regional interest because they contribute, or are likely to contribute, to Queensland’s economic, social and environmental prosperity’, there is much concern that the new Act will lead to increased mining, irrigation and other developments that compromise environmental values (see Chapters 19 and 22). Concern is particularly acute in the desert channels environment of south-western Queensland where rivers are currently unregulated their flood waters cover extensive areas that connect waterholes, lakes and wetlands after heavy rainfall (Kerezsy et al. 2013), and the ephemeral pulses of productivity that they generate support livestock grazing (see chapters 10 and 11) and highly diverse native plants, animals and other organisms (Robin et al. 2010 see Chapter 1). A coalition of groups fought successfully against plans to introduce irrigated cotton farming to the region in the mid-1990s because of the probable impacts on production and biodiversity values (Kingsford et al. 1998). Proposals to increase water extraction for mining and irrigation have continued (see Chapters 19 and 20), with the region potentially less able to resist powerful corporate interests that are well served by the Regional Planning Interests Act 2014. The Queensland Government changed in early 2015 but does not have a majority government, making changes to environmental or natural resource legislation difficult. We consider the potential effects of broad-scale irrigation and mining activity on ecological function in the desert channels environment (Fig. 6.1). We focus particularly on how native mammals and other vertebrates might respond to such developments, as their role as consumers also depends on plants in the food chain. We begin with a description of the boom and bust nature of the desert channels environment as this drives the ebbs and flows of many of our native mammals. We then draw upon a long-term dataset on small native mammals to show how species respond to large rainfall events and to the intervening dry periods, before finally considering how these species might respond to irrigation and mining. Because the magnitude of future development activities is not known, we consider different scenarios.
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