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"Smart" water tanks to support better waterways for platypuses

With platypus numbers in Victoria declining, the development of a new smart water tank network project is set to improve natural habitats for the rare mammal in Monbulk Creek in the Yarra Ranges. 

The University of Melbourne’s Waterways Ecosystem Research Group, in collaboration with Melbourne Water, South East Water and the Yarra Ranges Council, has created a system of "smart" rainwater tanks and urban lakes to support platypus habitats.

Platypuses in Victoria have disappeared from many urban areas due to habitat loss and modification, but the novel approach aims to deliver more water to habitats ahead of breeding season.

Beginning in 2022, households in catchment areas managed by Yarra Ranges Council and Melbourne Water will be offered a smart rainwater tank that helps manage stormwater flows.

Using "Tank Talk" flow control technology developed by South East Water, the smart tank can be remotely controlled to release water and help improve broader stream health.

More water, less pollution

University of Melbourne Professor Tim Fletcher said the approach aims to ensure enough water in a stream to provide sufficient nourishment for platypuses before breeding commences, but also reduce pollution from runoff.

“There’s often not enough water in streams for platypus,” Fletcher said.

“The loss of summer and autumn base flow has major consequences for the platypus distribution and reproductive success, decreasing their habitat and their primary food source right at the time when female platypus need abundant nourishment to prepare them for breeding.

“On the other hand, when it rains in urban areas, runoff from hard surfaces like roofs and roads causes erosion, pollution and loss of habitat. Between these two extremes, the platypus is caught between a rock and a hard place.”

South East Water’s Dr David Bergmann said the Tank Talk technology helps to regulate flows.

“These tanks can be programmed to release water to the stormwater network before rain events — giving the tank capacity to absorb peak flow rates during rain, reducing the risk of flooding,” he said.

“But [they] also release a steady trickle of water to the creek during dry periods, to sustain flows for the platypus.”

Benefiting wildlife with urban waterway management

Melbourne Water Waterways and Wetlands Research Manager Dr Rhys Coleman said the network will also include two large water storages, Belgrave Lake and Monbulk Creek Retarding Basin at Birdsland Reserve.

“These storages will give us greater ability to regulate the flows provided to the creek. This is an exciting collaboration where research, technology and the community all have a significant part to play,” he said.

“It has the potential to demonstrate a new way of managing urban waterways that could have far reaching benefits for not only streams and aquatic life here, but globally.”

Yarra Ranges Council Water Management Officer Dr Beth Wallis said the project is “an opportunity for Council to demonstrate more sustainable ways of managing our water, and of protecting the beautiful waterways for which the Yarra Ranges are so well-known”.

Yarra Ranges Council will be constructing demonstration sites featuring the new technology.

The study is funded by the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Program, Melbourne Water, South East Water and Yarra Ranges Council.