Boat users jostle for a spot along the river at Noosaville.
Boat users jostle for a spot along the river at Noosaville.

The river we love too much

By DAVID BENTLEY

You can't please all the people all of the time. Still, it's fair to say that Noosa Council's decision to limit river access for boaties has been widely applauded by locals.

In characteristic Noosa style, people power has carried the day. The council has jettisoned earlier plans to increase boat ramp facilities and to establish an area for car/trailer parking in Chaplin Park.

There has even been talk of a cap on boat ownership, akin to the shire's controversial population cap ? even though, thus far, no-one appears clear as to how such a cap might be enforced.

Presumably boat ownership limits would be pegged to ratepayer registrations. Problem is, most of the weekend warriors blamed for aquatic ineptitude on the Noosa River tend to be from less blessed shires.

Collectively, these visitors add an element of unpredictability to an already volatile cocktail of powerboats, sailing craft, kayaks, jet skis, scuba divers, water skiers and swimmers.

What to do? Short of declaring Noosa a republic and seceding from the rest of Australia, it's hard to see how people might be discouraged from exercising their constitutional right to mess around in boats.

The Noosa Parks Association has countered with a strategy of diabolical simplicity. Put crudely, it amounts to this: Forget about boat ramps. Rather, make the joyful act of launching a boat more difficult.

"It's like the roads," explains Noosa Parks Association project officer Shirley Williamson.

"The more roads you build, the more traffic uses them. "Essentially what we'd like to do is not make it easy or very pleasant for them to launch their boats so that perhaps they'll go somewhere else."

On the evidence of this year's holiday season, the association's master plan may take a little time to kick in. Far from feeling unwelcome, recreational skippers descended on the estuary in plague proportions.

"At Munna Point you could hardly see the sand for the tinnies," notes Paul Grossman, manager of the Noosa Ferry Service.

"The beach area in front of Los Rios at Culgoa Point is the same: that area was covered with small craft."

Still, he remains philosophical about seasonal peaks.

"It's only for a short time," he said.

"To change everything for those three weeks of the year when everything's busy ? to me it's pointless.

"I like to go water skiing on the river but there's no way I'd go on Boxing Day and there's no way I'd go on Easter Sunday. I just know that for those two days of the year, it's a nightmare."

So it goes. And the line between pleasure and pain for small boat owners on the Noosa River is likely to become even finer as environmentalists point out the downside of aquatic traffic jams.

"The river can't handle a great deal more traffic, especially during the non-holiday season when a speed limit of 20 knots applies," says Ms Williamson.

"The river banks are visibly eroding and, while that may be the combination of a number of factors, boat wash definitely contributes to the degradation."

One problem concerning the association is the disturbance caused to exhausted migratory birds arriving at the estuary at the end of their long flights.

"At this time of the year people alight on the sandbanks from their boats. They bring their dogs with them ? and there's just no rest for the birds."

Boat ramp users, for their part, tend to be more interested in practical concerns. Parking, for instance.

Having queued to release his boat into the water, and possibly having engaged in an unsettling episode of ramp rage, the intending tinny skipper may find himself cruising suburban streets in search of a parking space.

It's a dilemma. The community takes a dim view of proposals to give over prime riverside parkland to boat trailers.

Boaties, for their part, would prefer to park their trailers as close as possible to the launching ramp.

Committee member of council's implementation and co-ordination group, Noosa River Working Group, Peter McGregor recognises the problem but remains stumped for a solution.

"Limited boat ramp facilities may be one way of keeping boat numbers down, but if you don't provide enough facilities, boaties may be forced to park in side streets," he said.

"This creates traffic problems ? and, unfortunately, some people park their trailers in residential driveways which causes inconvenience to landowners."

Noosa Council's strategic planning officer Rebecca Leysham says boating numbers are increasing exponentially.

"According to the last statistics I heard, numbers double every year," she said.

"With more and more people owning boats, there is the issue of overcrowding and conflict of uses. You have jet skis and swimmers and kayakers trying to compete for the same space, particularly between the river mouth and Tewantin.

"I guess the only thing really that's preventing people coming onto the river is ease of access via the boat ramps."

Given the scarcity of sites for boat trailer parking lots on the river itself, boaties may have to come to terms with the notion of dedicated parking areas some distance removed from boat ramps.

Mr Grossman believes that boaties will eventually adjust to the inevitable: "It's human nature to want to take two steps, and there's the car parked next to the boat ramp," he says.

"But we shouldn't be losing parkland just to satisfy the launching of boats. Everything is already so congested along the foreshore. How can you develop car parks when there is no space?"

In any event, he says, it is unrealistic to compare the boisterous concentration of small recreational craft during high season with the serenity that cloaks the Noosa River at other times.

"It's the same when people talk about hours of waiting to cross the river by cable ferry. We're only talking about three weeks a year. I say: 'Stop whinging about it. It's a fact of life'."

From council's perspective, the issue is complicated by its municipal responsibility to maintain high safety standards for boat users, be they on boat ramps or in the water.

There's a concern that, as pressure builds on boat ramps at Noosaville and Tewantin, boaties may increase the roster of informal boat access points now found at Moorindl Street, Hilton Esplanade, Lake Weyba Drive and Munna Point.

"Noosa River is one of busiest waterways in Queensland and we have to protect it," Mr McGregor said.

"There's been erosion in particular areas plus we're looking at the safety and wellbeing of boaties and recreational users.

"If you don't do anything, you'll have major dramas. We've got to look at safety aspects and also the environment ? fish habitat, river banks. We're trying to ensure everything that can be done is done.

"Basically, we're waiting on a report by Works Department engineers to see what their proposals are in relation to improving or maintaining existing boat ramps."

Strength of community feedback has left little doubt as to the general feeling over any scheme based on sacrificing river parkland ? especially Chaplin Park ? to the convenience of boat ramp users.

As council's manager of works design, Ross Sanderson, notes: "It's been a very interesting process. Normally when you do consultation you get 50% 'yes' and 50% 'no'.

"In this case, the response was an overwhelming 99%."

To enjoy a drink aboard a boat at dusk in the estuary is to understand why Noosa resident feel so protective of their river. Like so much in Noosa, it is beautiful, unique and fragile.

Indeed, few communities can lay claim to the heightened sense of place that Noosa people enjoy ? an awareness that stems from the early 1960s when the Noosa Parks Association first challenged the right of developers to do as they pleased.

By the mid-1990s, the quiet persistence of the association had amalgamated 35% of the shire's 875sqm into a girdle of national park, state forest, fauna reserve and vacant government land.

The campaign to preserve Noosa's natural environment has seen many skirmishes since the days when Hastings Street amounted to little more than a couple of shops and a gravel road.

Right now, the battle is to save the river and its estuary. As before, Noosa's defenders are faced with a cruel irony: the more beautiful Noosa becomes, the more people will come.

"People can love it to death, you know," Ms Williamson said.

"We have to draw the line before that happens. Otherwise there'll be nothing left worth having."


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