The Role of Swamps in Drought: Popes Glen Creek, Blackheath

Alan Lane


The important role of swamps in water storage and as regulators of stream flow has been well documented (10.1016/j.geomorph.2018.03.004). Previous EMR project summary reports on Popes Glen Creek, Blackheath, have described the establishment of a swamp on the former highly degraded and weed-infested silt plug at the headwaters of the creek.  (See links at end of this summary.)  That 18-year long project has been documented in “The Full Story”, and an 8-minute summary video can be viewed at

The recent severe drought in New South Wales provided the opportunity to monitor the water table in this swamp in the absence of rain and compare the impact on the swamp vegetation with that on more elevated and drier slopes nearby.

How we measured the water table. Six piezometers were installed at the start of this rehabilitation project, located about 50 m apart and midway between the edges of the long, rectangular silt plug. These went down to the bedrock, at depths of between 113 and 152 cm and were used to monitor water table depth and also for sampling water quality and stygofauna.

What we found. During periods of normal or above average rainfall (e.g. September 2019), the water table at each of these bore holes was typically at the depth below soil surface shown in Table 1.

Levels fell almost to bedrock during the drought (Oct 2019 – Dec 2019), before recovering after rains in January and February 2020 (Tables 1, 2). 

Table 1. Water table depths during normal and below-average rainfall periods.

Bore hole number
Depth below surface (cm) 1 2 3 4 5 6
Normal rainfall period (Sept 2019) 31 2 7 11 23 9
After drought period (Dec 2019) 103 106 121 103 123
After recovering rainfall (Feb 2020) 29 0 12 21 13

Table 2.  Rainfall, October 2019 – February 2020.

Month Rainfall (mm)1 5-year average (mm)2 % of average
September 2019 81.4 53.6 151.6
October 2019 23.8 76.7 31.0
November 2019 26.4 82.2 32.1
December 2019 0.4 69.5 0.6
January 2020 99.2 127.9 77.6
February 2020 560.4 183.6 305
  1. From Bureau of Meteorology, Mount Boyce, NSW
  2. From, Mount Boyce, NSW

During this period of extreme drought, the vegetation on the slopes above the Popes Glen swamp manifested extreme water stress in a way never before seen (Figs. 1, 2). Many of these extensive expanses of Coral Fern (Glycaenia dicarpa), stands of Fishbone Water Fern (Blechnum nudum) and individual Black Tree Fern (Cyathea australis) plants have not recovered and now appear unlikely to do so.

Figure 1. Expanses of severely water-stressed Glycaenia dicarpa on slopes above the Popes Glen swamp.

Figure 2. Many of the Blechnum nudum and Cyathea australis on slopes above the swamp have failed to recover.

In marked contrast, the vegetation in the swamp area (Fen Sedge (Carex gaudichaudiana), Tassel Sedge (Carex fascicularis), Tall Spikerush (Eleocharis sphacelata) and Juncus sp.) remained lush and vigorous (Fig. 3), suggesting it was sustained by the supply of water retained in the substrate.

This supply was progressively depleted during the drought and the water table had fallen almost to bedrock before the rains in January (Tables 1, 2).

Figure 3. Vegetation in the Popes Glen swamp remained lush throughout the drought.

Implications. It seems inevitable that this water supply would have been completely exhausted had the 2019-2020 drought lasted longer. Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone (THPSS), including the Popes Glen swamp, appear threatened by the even more prolonged droughts anticipated as climate disruptions due to global heating become more marked.

Acknowledgements. This work was supported by Blue Mountains City Council and funding from the Environmental Trust of NSW.

Contact. Alan Lane

See also EMR Project Summaries:


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