Australia’s fluctuating extreme weather makes achieving a stable water supply an ongoing problem for many rural farming communities and has raised much debate on current land and water uses, management and unsuitable farming techniques.

In an effort to address these issues, the Aussie Farm Dam Make-Over is a collaborative project involving the Gwydir Shire Council, passionate community members, assisted by designers and university students. It forms part of an innovative project called the Living Classroom which explores the future of sustainable agriculture in Australia. Located in northern New South Wales, the Living Classroom is a large permaculture inspired community based farm and interpretive garden in the small township of Bingara.

Landscape Architect for the Living Classroom, John Mongard, and the Gwydir Shire Council invited third-year landscape architecture students from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to produce a variety of farming concepts that promoted sustainable and affordable solutions. One of the aims of the semester long project led by Dr. Debra Cushing from QUT and John Mongard, was to explore aquaculture and use the main water body on site to create a sustainable version of a farm dam.

The Aussie Dam Make-over design was originally envisioned by Emily Colling and combined with the work of Debbie Turner. The two students were then selected to receive an honorarium and undertake further research and design development, supervised by John Mongard. The designs were then documented and constructed through a collaborative process involving the designers, students, council and the community.

Design brief

The design brief for QUT students was to address some of the barriers to achieving sustainable agriculture in Australia such as:

  • Poor water management.
  • Land degradation.
  • Drought.
  • Dire predictions of climate chaos.
  • Monoculture and the current methods of aquaculture.

It also addresses the need for regeneration in rural farming communities.

The student’s research found that the traditional dam has long been an eye-sore on Australian farms, often under-utilised and predominantly unproductive. Critical problems associated with these dams include high levels of evaporation, poor water quality, algae blooms, instability of water supply, erosion and the traditional mind-set of what a dam is used for.

Trialling the Aussie Farm Dam Make-over project is a body of water which holds approximately six mega litres of water. The Great Lake, as it is called, was previously a minor gully which ran into the edge of residential lots. It was designed to become an ecological system, rather than a dam, and includes an irregular shape with internal meandering topography. The Great Lake is part of a system of renewed waterways, which includes a necklace of five lakes to provide water for food production and to re-instate ecologies. It was designed by John Mongard Landscape Architects and constructed by Soilcon, with funding received from Federal Government. The Aussie Farm Dam project received funding from the State Government.

A portion of the water body consists of a constructed embankment, with an island positioned to disperse flow from the gully resulting after intense rain events. The water overflow passes through adjoining property before entering the Gwydir River. Some existing design features incorporated into the final design include chinampas – inspired by the Mesoamerican agricultural practices – to form part of the productive farming area, a central island and some additional vegetation. To ensure the constant water level of the Great Lake, the council has redirected recycled and river waters from the treatment plant to aid in stabilising supply levels. This is connected to a series of vegetated swales formed on surrounding contours to filter the water prior to contact with the dam.

Student collaboration

Both Emily and Debbie chose the re-design of the dam as a project topic due to their farming backgrounds and their interest in water management and the current issues pertaining to Australian farming. Working on the design development with John Mongard Landscape Architects, both students envisioned a balanced productive ecological system, whilst maintaining water storage capacity. The resulting design includes:

  • Edible vegetation.
  • Fish production.
  • A variety of animal habitats.
  • Tree canopies.
  • Rockeries to enrich micro-climates, improve temperature stability and reduce evaporation and erosion.

With this approach, the dam’s purpose increases and its natural beauty unfolds.

The students explored existing research on Indigenous ecological knowledge and permaculture methods to uncover new or alternative methods and interventions. This research was further combined with best practice aquaculture techniques and technology suitable to the local area. The outcome is to create an adaptable and evolving form that can achieve self-sustenance. Interviews with local land managers who visited the students during a site visit provided local insight on the current state of the environment, aquaculture and Australian farming.

A key feature of the design was altering one of the lake’s side embankments to achieve a crenelated form, which enabled the construction of "Crop Cove". This area provides a range of edible aquatic plant species, stepping stones and a connection to the water’s edge. The design features a bamboo structure to provide shade for tender plants and add visual interest. It also provides protection for small fish species, and will produce a micro-climate for healthy plant growth. Edge space and submerged ledges were increased and the steep grade of the banks was lessened in sections to accommodate a rice paddy.

The edges surrounding the lake are designed with a range of species to provide bank stability, aeration, closed cycle fish/animal food (through blossoms and debris dropping), fauna protection, and decrease evaporation while increasing shade cover for temperature stability. The council will use aquaculture techniques, introducing Golden Perch due to its resilience, size and ability to adapt in this environment. The popularity of this fish adds to the economic value of the dam, especially from the Chinese market. In addition, a natural feeding system has been designed, including a nursery for small feeding fish, specific planting species for leaf and fruits litter, lighting to attract moths, and other dietary requirements for optimum health and growth of the Perch.

Other design features proposed include:

  • The dam floor – designed to mimic a natural setting with snags, rocks and uneven surfaces, which create safe havens for aquatic life.
  • The re-establishment of native endemic vegetation for shade and habitat.
  • A bird sanctuary on the existing island to provide specific vegetation, edges for ducks, and to encourage native birds back into the area and help connect the wildlife corridor.
  • A series of rockeries combined with native reed planting for erosion control and habitat.
  • A bamboo grove to provide future construction materials.

The Aussie Farm Dam Make-over creates a beautiful, picturesque scene which has been a missing characteristic of the Aussie dam. It also provides an attractive area for people to enjoy, allows connection to the water and encourages care and ownership of the water supply.

The new design is under construction (see photos), and has received favourable attention from the community. Rick Hutton, Bingara & District Vision 2020 representative said: "The Aussie Farm Dam Makeover (AFDM) has slotted nicely into The Living Classroom (TLC) project here in Bingara. As Debbie and Emily have identified, the Aussie farm dam has been an iconic ‘under achiever’ on most Australian properties. They are dirty, salty, slimy, shallow and seasonally dry. They struggle just to provide for their traditional purpose, stock water. With the AFDM the students’ work has identified many additional options for these dams.

"Now, at TLC, we are building on their vision and creating a series of lakes, ponds and dams, with a large number of additional functions, economic, environmental and aesthetic. It is exciting, timely and liberating to see this design work become reality."

Exciting addition

The Australian farm dam re-envisioned as a productive and attractive water body can be an exciting addition to the landscape when applying creative and holistic solutions that combat traditional agricultural problems and mindsets. It can become a vibrant ecosystem for everyone to enjoy, and provide habitat for native fauna. With careful planting, endemic native species can be nurtured and biodiversity promoted.

The intention of the Aussie Dam Make-over was to ignite conversations within the rural and farming community towards utilising healthy and sustainable agricultural and landscape practises for a healthier world and brighter future.

The article was written by Emily Colling and Debbie Turner with assistance from Dr Debra Cushing and John Mongard.