A framework and toolbox for assessing and monitoring swamp condition and ecosystem health

Key words: Upland swamp, stygofauna, sedimentology, ecosystem processes, biological indicators, geomorphology

Introduction. Upland swamps are under increasing pressure from anthropogenic activities, including catchment urbanization, longwall mining, and recreational activities, all under the omnipresent influence of global climate change. The effective management of upland swamps, and the prioritisation of swamps for conservation and restoration requires a robust means of assessing ecosystem health. In this project we are developing a range of ecological and geomorphic indicators and benchmarks of condition specifically for THPSS. Based on a multi-metric approach to ecosystem health assessment, these multiple indicators and benchmarks will be integrated into an ultimate index that reflects the health of the swamp.

In this project we have adopted (and modified) the definition of ecosystem health applied to groundwater ecosystems by Korbel & Hose (2011). We define ecosystem health of a swamp as, i.e., “an expression of a swamp’s ability to sustain its ecological functioning (vigour and resilience) in accordance with its organisation while maintaining the provision of ecosystem goods and services”.

Design. Our approach to develop indicators of swamp health followed those used to develop multimetric indices of river and groundwater ecosystem health (e.g. Korbel & Hose 2011). We used the ‘reference condition’ approach in which a number of un- or minimally disturbed swamps were sampled and the variation in the metric or index then represents the range of acceptable conditions (Bailey et al. 1998; Brierley & Fryirs 2005).

We focused initially on swamps in the Blue Mountains area. Reference (nominally unimpacted) and test sites with various degrees and types of impacts were identified using the database developed by the concurrent THPSS mapping project (Fryirs and Hose, this volume).

Following our definition of ecosystem health, we selected a broad suite of indicators that reflect the ecosystem structure (biotic composition and geomorphic structure) and function, including those relating to ecosystem services such as microbially-mediated biogeochemical functions, geomorphic processes and hydrological function, as well as the presence of stressors, such as catchment changes. Piezometers and dataloggers have been installed in a number of swamps to provide continuous data on groundwater level fluctuations and sediment cores taken at the time of piezometer installation have provided detailed information on the sedimentary structure, function and condition of the swamps.

Results. Intact and channelised swamps represent two geomorphic condition states for THPSS. Not surprisingly, variables reflecting the degree of catchment disturbance (such as urbanization) were strongly correlated with degraded swamp condition. Variables related to the intrinsic properties of swamps had little relationship to their geomorphic condition (Fryirs et al. 2016). Intact and channelized swamps present with typically different sediment structures. There were significant differences in the texture and thickness of sedimentary layers, C: N ratios and gravimetric moisture content between intact swamps and channelised swamps (Friedman & Fryirs 2015). The presence and thickness of a layer of contemporary sand in almost all channelised swamps and its absence in almost all intact swamps is a distinctive structural difference.

Disturbed swamps have poorer water quality at their downstream end, and associated with this, lower rates of organic matter processing occurring within the streams (Hardwick unpublished PhD Data). Similarly, the richness and abundance of aquatic invertebrates living within swamp sediments (stygofauna) is poorer in heavily disturbed swamps than in undisturbed or minimally disturbed areas (Hose unpublished data).

Within the swamp sediments, important biogeochemical processes, such as denitrification and methanogenesis, are undertaken by bacteria. In this study we are measuring the abundance of the functional genes such as a surrogate for functional activity within the swamp sediments. There is large spatial variation in the abundance of functional genes even within a swamp, which complicates comparisons between swamps. Within our focus swamp, the location closest to large stormwater outlets had different functional gene abundances, in particular more methanogens, than in less disturbed areas of the swamp. There were greater abundances of denitrification genes, nirS and nosZ, in shallower depths despite denitrification being an anoxic process, which may reflect changes in the surficial sediments due to disturbance. Overall however, the abundance of functional genes seem to vary more with depth than with location, which means that comparisons between swamps must ensure consistency of depth when sampling sediments (Christiansen, unpublished PhD data).

The list of indicators currently being tested in this project and by others in this program (Table 1) will be refined and incorporated into the final assessment framework. Thresholds for these indicators will be determined based on the range of conditions observed at the reference sites. The overall site health metric will reflect the proportion of indicators which pass with respect to the defined threshold criteria. At this stage, the final metrics will be treated equally, but appropriate weightings of specific metrics within the final assessment will be explored through further stakeholder consultation.

Stakeholders and Funding bodies. This research has been undertaken as PhD research projects of Kirsten Cowley, Lorraine Hardwick and Nicole Christiansen at Macquarie University. The research was funded through the Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSS Research Program). This Program was funded through an enforceable undertaking as per section 486A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 between the Minister for the Environment, Springvale Coal Pty Ltd and Centennial Angus Place Pty Ltd.  Further information on the enforceable undertaking and the terms of the THPSS Research Program can be found at www.environment.gov.au/news/2011/10/21/centennial-coal-fund-145-million-research-program. This project was also partly funded by an ARC Linkage Grant (LP130100120) and a Macquarie University Research and Development Grant (MQRDG) awarded to A/Prof. Kirstie Fryirs and A/Prof. Grant Hose at Macquarie University. We also thank David Keith, Alan Lane, Michael Hensen, Marcus Schnell, Trevor Delves and Tim Green.

Contact information. A/Prof. Grant Hose, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University (North Ryde, NSW 2109; +61298508367; grant.hose@mq.edu.au); and A/Prof. Kirstie Fryirs, Department of Environmental Sciences, Macquarie University (North Ryde, NSW 2109; +61298508367; kirstie.fryirs@mq.edu.au).

Table 1. List of indicators of swamp condition that are being trialled for inclusion in the swamp health assesment toolbox.

Functional indicators table

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