The Friends of the Barwon was formally launched in October 2018 at the Provenance Winery. It was proposed in 2017 at a CCMA workshop when a member of the Upper Barwon Landcare Network raised concerns about a series of low or no flow events in the Barwon around Winchelsea and the lack of communication between agencies or groups caring for the river. Coincidentally a walk was undertaken by a group of Landcarers in stages over three years (2014, 2015 and 2016) from the origin of the Barwon at Forrest to the mouth of the Barwon at Barwon Heads.  A book cataloguing the walk – “From Source to Sea” followed and described the adventure. The book revealed much about the state of the Barwon. The hidden secret gems and the areas where man-made intrusions laid waste to the wondrous beauty of the river. In 2016 there was a major fish kill in the Barwon as the result of acidic inflows from Boundary Creek. Whilst residents of Geelong see a small part of the Barwon, it is not the whole picture. It was realised there needed to be a group that had as its primary intention the improvement of the whole Barwon catchment. So began our journey.

The Barwon Catchment is large and includes the Barwon (Barwon and Yarrowie/Leigh Rivers) and the Moorabool catchment (Moorabool River). It extends from the Otways to Geelong and Barwon Heads. To the north it reaches as far as Ballarat. Much of the catchment has been significantly modified by settlement. Prior to settlement it was the home of the Wadawurrung and to the west the Eastern Maar. To the indigenous population, the rivers meant life and were revered. Wadawurrung creation stories centre around Lal Lal, the home of Bunjil, the Wedge-tailed Eagle and Lake Connewarre, the home of Connewarra, the Black Swan. The connectivity of the river between Lal Lal and Lake Connewarre is an overriding issue in their culture and is a factor in the removal of the spans of the Ovoid Aqueduct to restore that connectivity.

We put great store in being knowledge -based and hopefully will lead the community to a better understanding of the threats to our rivers and how we can address them by working with agencies like the CCMA and utilities like Barwon Water and contributing to the debate about where our water will come from in the future.

We want “a healthy, flowing and life sustaining Barwon River”. That is our goal and obligation to future generations. The population in Geelong accounts for three-quarters of the catchment population. Currently 80% of Geelong’s water is supplied from the West Barwon Reservoir via the treatment at Wurdibuloc. We know from multiple studies that we can no longer rely on reservoirs to supply all our water needs as we are entering a period where rainfall annually since the Millenium Drought has fallen by about 20% and this consequentially had led to much reduced run off of water into our major catchments and streams. As a group we do not undertake work on ground, preferring to make changes within the government to implement measures that will protect and improve our waterways.

Prior to FOTB’s launch, our steering committees’ first major effort, in conjunction with Environmental Justice Australia, was to write a submission to the Barwon Ministerial Advisory Committee entitled “Protecting and restoring the rivers of the Barwon (Barra Wallee Yalluk) system”. We asked for:

  • the restoration of environmental flows in our rivers,
  • for the Barwon to be granted “personhood” and to be regarded as a living entity with protections like those afforded to the Yarra and streams in parts of New Zealand,
  • for development along the river corridor to be appropriate, whether it be in rural or urban areas, for the restoration or enhancement of riparian corridors,
  • for the exclusion of stock from our waterways,
  • the control of pests, either floral, like blackberries or faunal like rabbits, foxes and feral cats that have a devastating impact on our biodiversity.

Our concerns overlapped with those of the traditional owners, the Wadawurrung, who say that a healthy river means healthy country.

Since then, we have been involved in many submissions to Councils in the catchment – Golden Plains, Surf Coast, Colac Otway and City of Greater Geelong. Some have been for These include planning issues like the Inverleigh Structure Plan where we encountered the way developers use the planning process to achieve their ends by crushing concerned citizens with a phalanx of Senior and Junior Council, using an army of expert witnesses that dismiss the lived experience of local residents who, when it comes to it, know what really happens in times of flooding or the impact of poorly managed stormwater. The likely impact of such developments will no doubt alter the character off rural living zones with more intense development and decreasing biodiversity.

A chronology of submissions would follow with our objection to a 40,000 head sheep dairy at Murnong Farm on the outskirts of Inverleigh. Our concerns related to the proponents wishing to access an allocation of 100 ML annually via a sleeper licence from the Barwon as well as the risk of runoff of nutrients into the river as many tonnes of composted material, a by-product of the dairy, were to be spread on paddocks on the same property. Local landowners indicated that in high rainfall events (20 – 40 ml per day) this would result in water flowing from the property across the Inverleigh-Winchelsea Road onto neighbouring properties and then into the Barwon, adding an unacceptable nutrient load to the river, and if allowed would add to the frequency of blue-green algal outbreaks downstream in Geelong.

Another concern was a motor cycle training complex at Fyansford which was complicated by the developer doing extensive earthworks in the riparian zone prior to their application being heard at CoGG. An application was submitted to Council but was not allowed. An appeal to VCAT was pursued by the developer but withdrawn after VCAT indicated as a preliminary a Cultural Heritage Plan was required. The resolution of this situation is still in the hands of CoGG, the CCMA and various other bodies. We are hopeful the restoration of the site will commence soon. It is noted the area is now part of the NWGGA (Northern and Western Geelong Growth Area) and much of the site, being on flood plain will not be developed for housing but will be set aside for greenspace.

Prior to the last State election, we wrote to all candidates to familiarise them with our concerns for the river. The feedback was gratifying and has helped to foster our relationships with sitting members in the catchment. One outcome perhaps related to this contact was the introduction into planning controls across the state of a requirements for planning applications involving waterways to include reference to Significant Landscape Overlays to protect our rivers being subject to inappropriate development especially on floodplains and areas of natural beauty. Issues to be considered in the overlay would be the siting and design of buildings and fences, the removal of vegetation and undertaking earthworks. This was the result of speaking with the ALP candidate for Polwarth, Hutch Hussein, who then raised our concerns directly with Minister for the Environment, Lily D’Ambrosio.

We were concerned when the Government was going to allow access to Crown leases on river fronts for camping in response to pressure from the fishing lobby. Originally this was a matter to allow access to Crown leases on the Murray, Broken and Goulburn rivers but in the final draft all Victorian rivers were included. Changes were made in the access conditions. Our voice added to the concerns of the Victorian Farmers’ Federation.

We have worked with EnviroDNA to map parts of the Barwon for the presence of platypus and these observations have added to the Great Australian Platypus Survey. Fortunately, platypus populations were found throughout the Barwon catchment but they remain vulnerable.

We have supported the Friends of the Yarrowee, after a developer cleared a large area of land on a hillside for housing without taking adequate steps to stop the flow of silted runoff into the river. Fortunately, the EPA have responded and are taking measures to ensure the developer cleans up the siltation in the river.

One of the major efforts has been responding to the Central and Gippsland Sustainable Water Strategy. To this end Lach Gordon and Andrew Kelly (the Yarra River Keeper) initiated the Concerned Waterways Alliance to bring the attention to policy makers of the need for all Victorian rivers to be considered to ensure they have adequate environmental flows. It was also noted that in developing the strategy there had been no consultation with the general community apart from members of the Indigenous community. Incremental increases in allocations have been made but they are far from enough. Currently in the Barwon the deficit in annual environmental flows is 29 GL (gigalitres). The Barwon currently receives 1 GL for environmental flows and over the next decade will receive an additional 5 GL. Hardly enough to sustain the health of the river at a time when it is forecast there will be reduced rainfall and a warmer climate. The Barwon is not alone in this – the Moorabool has an increased allocation over the next decade to ensure connectivity throughout the length of the river, but it is facing significant challenges as evidenced by the recent work of People for a Living Moorabool highlighting the impact of unlicenced farm dams on flows into the river. A welcome change has been the recent allocation to Southern Rural Water of $9M to police unlicenced dams.

More recently we have seen the activation of the Lough Calvert Drainage Scheme as a result of rising water levels in Lake Colac causing flooding on the margins of the lake. The drain is opened when a certain level is reached in the lake. There is also a stipulation that water can only be released if salinity levels measured at Winchelsea are not exceeded. The water is discharged by a series of drains that flow from Lake Colac via Lough Calvert to the Birregurra Creek and then to the Barwon. The concern is that water coming from the lake is quite saline, about 4000 ECU and rich in nutrients. The last time the scheme operated it was estimated over 20,000 tonnes of “salt” was delivered to the Barwon with an impact on the in-stream biodiversity beyond Winchelsea. Flows of about 40 ML/day have resulted but with the recent drier weather it is likely discharges will soon cease and any threat to the Barwon will cease.

In the search for solutions to this problem of decreasing natural water resources and the impact on biodiversity we must find other solutions. At present flows in the Yarrowee are sustained by the discharge of Class C from the South Ballarat waste water treatment plant. Barwon Water treats a relatively small portion of its waste water to Class A but even then, it cannot by law be used for drinking. In fact, the government in the SWS specifically ruled out any consideration of using recycled water for drinking, preferring instead to look to increasing the capacity of the desal plant at Wonthaggi by 50 GL annually. They have also shadowed a desal plant on the Bellarine rather than investing in making a truly circular water economy. So called manufactured water from Wonthaggi currently supplies about a third of Melbourne’s drinking water and is being used in part by Geelong residents via the Melbourne-Geelong Pipeline. Waste water from treatment plants is currently discharged either to ocean outfalls or into rivers. Only 20% of waste water is recycled. The Eastern Treatment Plant at Cranbourne discharges about 130 GL of Class A water to sea or about 20% of Melbourne’s drinking needs. After treatment there is still the problem of legacy chemicals such as PFAS and a long list of pharmaceuticals in the biosludge. Presently this is dried and used in agriculture.  These can be removed and not returned to the environment if the biosludge is heat-treated to produce biochar. The technology exists but the government lacks the will to pursue it.

What do we want to follow up with in the next few years? We want to see a truly circular economy for water. We want to see integrated water management as the corner stone for all new developments. We know there are gains to be made with water efficiency measures. We need to look at how we manage stormwater and do not repeat the mistakes made at Torquay leading to the degradation of the Karaaf wetlands, where the lowered salinity levels from the influx of storm water is leading to dieback of flora in these saltmarshes. We need to press the government to lift the restriction on the uses of recycled water. We want our rivers to become living entities where people and nature can thrive – to be there for future generations.