For landowners battling bushfires, runoff is the last thing on their minds. But after the fires have died, damage to the water system is every bit as serious as damage to the land.

Sonia Sharkey, who lives in Victoria’s south-west Goulburn area, has seen the problem first-hand. “With the loss of ground-cover, the soil is bared, and as soon as we get heavy rain it just scours everything away,” she explained. “You’re on the edge of two catchments: one goes straight back into Port Phillip, and the other goes into the Murray River.”

This loss of ground-cover means that ash, and chemicals from fire retardants or pesticides flow straight into dams and rivers, which has long-lasting ramifications for both farmers and the environment. Not only does it kill aquatic life in nearby streams, it will also make dam water undrinkable for cows, sheep and horses. Thankfully, there’s a highly effective – and surprisingly simple – solution.

South West Goulburn Landcare Network has been distributing bales of rice straw, which not only prevents runoff from reaching the river system, it also promotes regrowth of native grasses. Sonia, who has been coordinating the program for South West Goulburn Landcare Network, explained that this low-cost, low-tech initiative helps stop soil erosion and stems runoff by absorbing water back into the soil. “It just acts to take the speed out of the water,” she said. “All you need to do is slow the water by 15 per cent, and the fire material will drop out. Fifteen per cent isn’t much – then the water going into the dams is pretty clean.”

A by-product of rice farming, rice straw is perfect for this kind of application. Essentially sterile and containing no weeds, it’s also inedible. “Even kangaroos or wombats find it very unpalatable,” said Sonia. “Nothing will eat it, so you can get it down on the ground.”

As part of its global commitment to improving water quality, the Coca-Cola Foundation working with environmental not for profit, Landcare Australia, offered to help fund and support the distribution of rice straw to those affected by bushfire. Sonia admitted she was a little surprised by the show of support which came from Landcare Australia and backed by Coca Cola Foundation.

“It was a bit of a shock phone call – at first I was wondering if it was a bit of a joke,” she laughed. “But I’ve since learned that yeah, they’re interested in water quality. They’re keen to assist the environment. Landcare Australia with the support of Coca Cola Foundation,  were one of the first lot who jumped up and said ‘how can we help?’”

While the program helped protect rivers in the region, Sonia discovered it also had an unexpected effect: it brought the community together. “On the day of the pickup, people got chatting to one another,” she recalled. “Most of them are on their own, and they were all a bit lost. There was just this social network happening before my eyes. It was fantastic.”