Rivers and creeks in Melbourne’s west deserve the sort of planning and environmental protections given to the Yarra, a campaign launched by environmental, legal and local river groups says.
The Rivers of the West campaign, which is being co-ordinated by legal group Environmental Justice Australia, wants similar tough planning rules to those brought in last year to protect the Yarra from inappropriate development.
“We want to shift these rivers from industrial drains to well-functioning waterways,” said lawyer Bruce Lindsay, of Environmental Justice Australia.
The campaign wants to replicate the protections granted along the length of the Yarra in 2017 under the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act.
Mr Lindsay was a key figure in the three-year campaign to convince both sides of politics in the lead-up to the 2014 state election to pledge for better protections for the Yarra.
The Rivers of the West campaign will urge the state’s political parties to back increased protections for the Maribyrnong and Werribee river catchments, and their tributaries including Jacksons Creek, Deep Creek and Steele Creek.
“We need this campaign because our creeks and rivers have had such a history of abuse and pollution,” said local creeks campaigner Helen van den Berg, who is a leading figure in the campaign.
The treatment of creeks and rivers in Melbourne’s west compared with the east was terrible, said Craig Rowley of LeadWest, a lobby group for the western suburbs.
The rivers there had “run with the blood and the guts flowing out of abattoirs and tanneries [because] the west provided the rest of Melbourne with its meats and leathers,” he said.
Mr Rowley said Werribee had long ago been selected to treat much of the city’s sewage “that had previously flowed directly into the Yarra”.
Today, he said, there was a Yarra River that had bountiful parklands and picnic spots, and state government planning controls to protect it. In the west, it was left to local community groups to “try their best to restore and protect our region’s creeks”.
“Too many of the west’s creeks are treated like industrial drains,” he said.
The campaign will:
- call for an end to over-clearing of vegetation in catchments feeding into the Maribyrnong and Werribee rivers, because of the impact on water quality;
- ask that wetlands be restored along rivers to also improve water quality;
- demand tougher planning measures to prevent urban growth directly affecting the Maribyrnong and Werribee rivers and their catchments, in areas such as Werribee, Sunbury and Romsey;
- propose better ways of managing contaminated stormwater runoff into rivers;
- propose a similar system of governance for the Maribyrnong and Werribee rivers as was granted to the Yarra.
The massive Commonwealth Defence site at Maribyrnong is highly contaminated right next to the river and is earmarked for large-scale development. This would have potentially damaging consequences on the lower Maribyrnong, Mr Lindsay said.
A quarry adjacent to Brimbank Park has been also earmarked for residential development, and Mr Lindsay said there were concerns about contamination from it too.
In 2017, the Andrews government’s Yarra act identified hundreds of parcels of public land the waterway flows through, and co-ordinated 14 public authorities operating along the river. It also established a new “Birrarung Council” to act as an independent voice for the river.
The government brought in stronger planning controls to protect against inappropriate private development on the river’s banks, set tougher rules to prevent overshadowing, and introduced mandatory height limits on the river’s edge.
The western suburbs campaign envisages similar laws.
Maelor Himbury is secretary of Friends of the Maribyrnong Valley, which has campaigned for decades to improve the health of the river.
Mr Himbury, who has lived near the Maribyrnong in Niddrie for 30 years, said huge improvements had been made to the waterway as the three councils in his area – Moonee Valley, Maribyrnong and Brimbank – had become more serious about managing it.
“The councils now take it really seriously,” he said.
But river groups needed to “make a bit more pressure on the politicians to take you seriously”, he said.
Another campaigner wanting better protection for the west’s rivers is John Forrester, who has lived 100 metres from the Werribee River for almost four decades.
He acts as the Werribee “riverkeeper”, a voluntary position. The part-time Yarra Riverkeeper was integral in campaigning for that river’s increased protections this year.
Mr Forrester said the Werribee River, much like the Maribyrnong and Yarra, passed through three multiple council areas – including Wyndham, Melton and Moorabool – and each had different laws.
He said the entire corridor for both the Werribee and Maribyrnong rivers should be declared a public park.
This would reduce the amount of firewood being taken without permission, make managing 4WDs and motorcycles easier, and restrict development on the river banks.
“Big buildings are being constructed on industrial estates with huge concrete walls or [large] wire fences. If they were putting them in with an aesthetic regard for the river, fine, but they just aren’t,” he said.
Both the Andrews government and the opposition said they were prepared to work with the western suburbs’ groups to better protect rivers like the Maribyrnong and Werribee.
“At a time of significant population growth, it is imperative to act to protect the Maribyrnong River,” said opposition environment spokesman Nick Wakeling.
Water Minister Lisa Neville said the government wanted to safeguard rivers in the west. Having passed laws this year to protect the Yarra, the government would “consider similar protections for other landmarks”, she said.
By Clay Lucas
Published by The Age on 6 January 2018