07 April, 2012

Tragedy of the Barwon!

And so to 1949, by which time, European settlement was over 100 years old and much of the Barwon River environment had changed almost beyond recognition. Many of these changes were unfortunately, for the worst - a fact which was recognised by those who came into contact with the river and who sought to find solutions to the problem.
However with the benefit of modern scientific method and the clarity of hindsight,the suggestions as to what should be done to address the problems of 1949 seem somewhat at odds with today's conservation and management methods. Without giving too much away, the prospect of what a freshwater Lake Connewarre would have meant for the local wildlife is alarming. I also note that a recent study aimed at determining the flood risk and stormwater requirements of the new Armstrong Creek development, points to increased flooding due to the loss of ephemeral streams draining into the Barwon. The loss of these streams has resulted from past farming practises in the area aimed at clearing and draining the land.
The following article therefore is an interesting example of the attitude of the time. For interest's sake and to illustrate conditions along the river at various times, I have included some historical photos. These were not part of the original article but will hopefully provide some extra interest.
And so to the article:
The Argus, Saturday, 14th May, 1949

Tragedy of the Barwon
Time was, before the precise balance and the impeccable mechanism of Nature were disturbed, when the Barwon River was a stream of rare beauty and high value, both real and potential. Now as it flows sluggishly around Geelong to find its loggy, turgid way to the sea, it has relatively little attraction, sharply limited use, and a murkily doubtful future.
The Barwon Bridge (Moorabool Street), 1861 looking West. Image held
by the State Library of Victoria
Barwon Bridge rebuilt in 1926 looking east (1925-1954). Image held
by the State Library of Victoria

Barwon Bridge 7th April, 2012
Around and above its mouth, where there are lands, it could be stimulating and for cattle it should be refreshing; it is – or was when I saw it recently – a rather dispirited stream, somewhat conscious of its own stagnation and futility… Now and then, however, it revolts against its man-made condition, swirls into flood, and sweeps across wide plains in revolt, and where it goes it leaves the scars of its passing.

Between Geelong, second city of a great State, and its point of union with the sea I saw a river ripped by snags, choking with weed, and so confined and contained as to be (in parts, at least) noisome.
Barwon River near Geelong c1900. Image held by the Victorian
State Library
Yet, there was a time… As Mr E.F. Guye, of Winchelsea, told the Parliamentary Public Works Committee about three years ago, the story of the Barwon is the story of every river in Victoria. Settlement and the clearing of forest lands he said, had upset Nature’s balance, and the result was the creation of problems.
Speaking of the higher reaches of the river, he told of the effect of scour, and of severe creek erosion; he drew a depressing picture of a stream choked with trees and logs, part-strangled by silt.
Around Winchelsea and Biregurra, the river in summer fell to a desultory trickle, most of that flow being provided by highly mineralised springs which “make the water useless when it is most needed;” higher up the river still, in the Gherangamate(sic) and Barwon Downs areas, blocking by refuse rendered useless thousands of acres of rich river flats. There the farmers have too much water. Lower down there is not enough…
Appeals Disregarded
The Committee heard a distressing story of development retarded, even arrested. Up and down the river, from mouth to source, there was a cry for improvement.
Broadly, those in whose lives the river plays its vital part asked for:
  • Snagging of the east and west Barwon Tributaries of willows and logs which were ruining, by causing the flooding of, large areas of river flats in that area.
  • Provision of a storage basin at The Fork paddock to allow release of water during the summer.
  • The arrest of further creek or other erosion.
  • The snagging of the midreaches, and the provision of weirs with flood gates to raise the summer level of the river flow.
It was emphasised that purification of the river, by the release of freshing and flood waters, was of necessity a first priority work.
At first glance, this seems a formidable list of requests. Compared with the importance of their object – the repair of the stream, and its establishment as a supporter of local and State economies – it is, however, relatively small.
But the Committee issued no report; made no recommendation. At the time both the committee and the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission were faced with greater jobs – the new Eildon project among them; the Barwon had inevitably , a low priority. Moreover, the Commission, harassed then and even more harassed since, by a shortage of expert staff, was incapable of tackling all the work it wished to do…
Both authorities, one can well imagine, sighed sadly, marked up a new frustration.
The Barwon preserved its status quo… Its promise remained only a promise. Its disabilities, and its power of destruction continued.
The river and all its tributaries rise in the OtwaysWhittlesea(sic) to Inverleigh, and lack of water there in summer.
Wool scours on the Barwon at Breakwater, 1937. Image held by the Victorian
State Library
Wool scour on the Barwon at Breakwater 7th April, 2012
Around the mouth, and upward from it to Geelong, there is almost tragic evidence of the main stream’s deterioration.
Downstream, there are two breakwaters across the Barwon, designed to prevent the sea from carrying its salt upward. The first is about 14 miles from the mouth, on the south-eastern fringe of Geelong; the second is about five miles farther down.
Once there was at the first “break,” about 20 ft of water. Yet a week or so ago, after the heaviest February-March rains in 20 years, only about 6 inches of water was passing over the barrier!

Dirty Waters
This insignificant flow means that the stream between the two breakwaters is almost completely stagnant, and stagnant streams close to cities have a way of becoming unpleasant – and dangerous to all living things.
“Rubbish of all sorts finds its way down here,” I was told by residents. “The breakwaters just hold the stream up, just prevent flow. We see dead cats, dogs, even bullocks, floating and milling about.
“The top breakwater should be removed immediately – both of them could go; another to prevent salinity could be built at say, Ocean Grove. It should have sluice gates through which a flow of water can pass to cleanse the stream, and relieve low-lying land from the menace of flooding every four or five months. The existing breaks are just walls; we’ll never get the stream clear or our land protected while they are there.”
This view is expressed generally, and the works involved seem trifling in view of the benefits to be obtained – trifling, even in present circumstances.
I saw plenty of evidence of what a stagnant, or near-stagnant, river can do. Swelling, it spreads, finding its level here and there in great and small patches. The water is often polluted; many paddocks bear its brand, great brown patches that seem to have been seared by fire.
“Twenty years ago this country grew some of the State’s best oaten hay. Now great spreads of it are dead under your boots. Even those indefatigable workers, the Chinese, could not make a go of it on the river flats. They were driven from their market gardens. Yet, if this stream were allowed to flow cleanly and sweetly, the lands from the mouth to Geelong would supply the city, and Melbourne as well, with all their market garden needs; Geelong could have its own local milk supply from its own district dairy herds… At times now that supply must be supplemented from Melbourne and Colac.”
This was the pattern of the stories I heard almost endlessly. I was shown, on St Albans, a reservoir that once held a quarter of a million gallons of sweet river water. Today, it is choked and ugly with weed.
The stock that should be watered from it now draw from the Geelong water supply, adding to the burden of that already overburdened system.
As we stood gazing over the lovely, rolling landscape that marches boldly up to the Leopold hills, Mr H.G. Raymond, bloodstock breeder, of St Albans and Mr “Chappy” Hinchcliffe, who farms near by pointed out to me paddocks where once fine heards of bullocks fattened. Now, they are wasteland, the sport of the river.
And all this within a few miles of the State’s second city.
It is true that here and there land is being irrigated from the river, but many farmers believe that the effort is doomed. The soil will not stand the water’s hostility, they say.
Yet, the quality of the country is revealed on the Hinchcliffe property. Here there are stacks of surplus fodder, taken from soil nurtured by water drawn from Reedy Lake, which is filled from the Barwon. Mr Hinchcliffe brings the lake water to his land through channels laboriously hand-dug. It is then delivered into “basins,” whence it finds its way to its destination.
This is river water – but in its transference from lake to paddock it passes through a process of filtration, and reaches the land clean.
“I would have been off my place but for that water,” Mr Hinchcliffe says. “A former Government planned to place a breakwater at Tait’s Point, then to bring a gravity channel around Reedy Lake for irrigation. If that had been done, another 10,000 acres in this valley would have been brought into cultivation…”
Other thousands of acres near by could be made cultivable too. The land has high reclamation value, as is shown by the fact that before the breakwater nearer the mouth was built the river was salted right up to St Alban’s. Now great stretches have been cleansed and brought into profit.
These are but a few of the features, and the facts, of that sadly neglected stream, the Barwon. There are others – notably the local contention that if the existing breakwaters were destroyed, and one, sluice-gated, built at Ocean Grove, Lake Connewarre would become a great freshwater stretch, with about 30,000 acres brought into higher production…
As I saw it, the Barwon around Geelong is a struggling, unattractive stream, performing only a fraction of its function.
The Barwon needs – demands – attention.

No comments:

Post a Comment