By Liz Hamilton

Along with 60 or so people, I recently attended the “Talk It Up” session hosted by the Geelong Regional Library & Heritage Centre. 

Barwon Water’s Managing Director, Shaun Cumming, chaired the session which featured a stellar line-up of speakers. Shaun provided an overview of some of the challenges for the Barwon catchment as our climate continues to become drier and rainfall more erratic leading to less water flowing into rivers and being captured in storage. He also gave an overview of the work that Barwon Water is doing to reduce water consumption and the importance of the Wonthaggi desalination plant in securing Melbourne’s water supply which in turn, enables water to be supplied to Geelong through the Melbourne to Geelong pipeline.

Since the Millennium Drought (from 1996 to 2010), there has been a ‘step change’ reduction of average annual inflows compared to the long-term average. On average, the West Barwon Reservoir in the Otway Ranges, has experienced 30% reduction in annual inflows since 1997, amounting to a third of the Greater Geelong region’s annual water use. As our climate continues to warm, our rainfall is predicted to decrease across the region with generally less rainfall in winter and spring. Yet despite this, authorities are faced with the challenge of providing water to the Geelong region, which has one of Australia’s fastest growing populations and two of the nation’s most flow-stressed rivers – the Barwon and the Moorabool.

Award winning Climate Scientist, Joëlle Gergis, set the scene around recent trends and observations and forecast changes to our climate in coming decades. Joëlle’s presentation was sobering to say the least as she explained how Australia’s geographical characteristics and associated climate drivers mean that our continent is warming faster than the global average – temperatures have risen by 1.5°C since 1910, compared with the 1.2°C global average increase.

Joëlle told us how Australia’s already erratic and variable climate is rapidly becoming more extreme and unpredictable, bringing us closer to breaching thresholds that we may not be able adapt to. The forecast trend of reduced rainfall will lead to further long-term reduction of in-flows to our reservoirs.

Joëlle referred to her newly published Quarterly Essay Highway to Hell: Climate Change and Australia’s Future – the title of which was inspired by UN Secretary-General António Guterres statement that humanity is “on the Highway to Hell with its foot on the accelerator!”

Wadawurrung Traditional Owner, Corrina Eccles, shared her knowledge of the importance of water to the Wadawurrung people, who traditionally lived across and cared for, the diverse waterways, wetlands, estuaries and coastline of the Barwon region. The Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation (WTOAC) have a two full time staff working on water projects and issues on Wadawurrung country.

Corrina talked of her thrill with WTOAC involvement in delivery of water to the Moorabool Yaluk (river) and the Durdidwarrah wetland; a wetland which had been dry for many years due to river diversions practices from earlier European settlement times.

Cameron Steele, Co-ordinator of the People for a Living Moorabool (PALM) also talked about the watering of the Moorabool and the Durdidwarrah wetland and his joy in witnessing the return of sound, movement and life to the wetland. The importance of the work that PALM has been undertaking for many years is undeniable.

A SKM report from over 15 years ago indicated that natural flow at Batesford had decreased by 90%. More recently, the 2020 State governments long – term water assessment indicated that for the Moorabool, the measured inflows have decreased by 21% over the last 15 years, indicating the need to continue fighting for the river. Cam also emphasised the importance of ensuring that our water managers and the community in general are taken onto the river to experience the beauty of our waterways and to see for themselves the issues that our rivers face.

Deakin University’s acting Director of Sustainability, Zoe Roloff, outlined her work in the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan for the university. The Deakin campus was developed on farmland in 1974. Bordered by the Waurn Ponds creek, the campus infrastructure was essentially built along the bottom of a gully. The campus is prone to serious flooding as witnessed in 2017 and 2018 when 1 in 100 and 1 in 200 – year storm events occurred. Resulting in millions of dollars of damage, these events were a wake-up call for the university, and prompted the engagement of a consultant to help with development of an integrated water management plan in consultation with stakeholders.

Two priority projects are currently being delivered. The first project has turned a muddy stormwater drainage system into a constructed wetland; 18 months on and the wetland is really starting to thrive. The second project will be delivering Class A water from Armstrong Creek to the campus for irrigation. Previously Deakin were purchasing about 60 ML of potable water for this use. 

It was really encouraging to hear from people with a genuine passion and hope for the future of our waterways, as well as some of the positive actions that are being undertaken by the community and water managers. However, there is still much to do if we are to keep our rivers healthy for future generations to come.  

The event finished with a short Q&A.

A video recording of the “Talk It Up – Water Matters” event is available through the Geelong Library’s YouTube channel.

Talk It Up- Water Matters event