Essay

Across the divide

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IT'S SUMMER, AND I decide to drive the length of the Waranga Western Channel. I want to see for myself the canal system that carries water from the Goulburn River to the plains north of where I live, in Bendigo, Victoria.

I start at the weir on the Goulburn River. Built between 1887 and 1891, the Goulburn Weir was the first major diversion built for irrigation in Australia. It also contained one of the first hydroelectric turbines in the southern hemisphere. In the depths of the night men, women and children came to view the marvellous sight of the weir illuminated by electric light. So remarkable was the weir for its time, it appeared on the reverse of the ten-shilling and half-sovereign banknotes from 1913 until 1933.

I read all the statistics that engineering projects so reverently display. The Goulburn Weir holds 25,500 megalitres when full; it submerges an area of 1,130 hectares; its embankment is 127 metres long and 15 metres high. Listening to the power of the water gushing through the gates below, I am impressed by the engineering skills of State Rivers and Water Supply chief engineer Stuart Murray and supervising engineer William Henderson, who designed the imposing granite and concrete structure. It is not difficult to imagine the great promise the weir held for delivering water to people farming land on the semi-arid northern plains of Victoria.

The Goulburn Weir raises the Goulburn River to a height that enables water for irrigation to be fed by gravity along the Stuart Murray Canal, Cattanach Canal and East Goulburn Main Channel. The backwaters created by the weir are called Lake Nagambie. Melbourne people are buying up land around the lake and building houses with waterfront vistas. I drive over a crooked old timber bridge that perhaps once crossed the Goulburn River when it followed an earlier course. Amid the landscape of expensive houses, watered green lawns and willow trees, dead limbs stand as testimony to the red gums that once grew there. It is difficult to imagine the original river, or even where it ran.

I follow the Stuart Murray Canal to Waranga Basin. Once known as Gunns Swamp, in 1853 it was described as 'a desolate, wild district of arid bush' that sheltered 'a huge and melancholy lagoon'. Waranga Basin was constructed in the swamp between 1905 and 1915 to store Goulburn River waters. When I visit there is little water to be seen. The now mostly vacant caravan park and swimming signs stand isolated, stranded by the receding waters. In 2009 Goulburn-Murray Water pumped water from below the normal minimum operating level of the reservoir, an event that has occurred only four other times: in the drought years of 1926, 2002, 2007 and 2008. I spot the Waranga Western Channel that exits the end of Waranga Basin to start its 375-kilometre journey to the Mallee. I follow its purposeful path through the country.

At Colbinabbin the signs begin to appear. Roughly painted corrugated iron wired to fences, etched tin mounted on the back of trucks, handwritten notices erected in paddocks, phrases painted on a huge tractor tyre suspended from a tree. Their words protest the diversion of northern Victorian waters, via a pipe across the Great Divide, to satisfy the needs of Melburnians: 'Plug The Pipe', 'Stealing Water Is An Offence', 'No Water No Future', 'Take Our Water Eat Our Dust'.

And further on I do just that, as swathes of soil billow in the air - the bed of Lake Cooper heaven-bound. I call in at the shop at Corop to buy a bottle of local wine made from the grapes grown on the nearby Mount Camel range. The woman behind the counter jokes that the fine powder which covers the bottle comes at no extra cost. Except it's a joke that's not that funny. When I look around at the shelves, everything is coated in the earth of Lake Cooper, and I am told that these dust storms have become frequent over the past eleven years.

On to Rochester, where I cross the old coach road to Echuca that mirrors the Aboriginal pathway for the trade of greenstone. The Waranga Western Channel, in a remarkable engineering feat, burrows beneath the Campaspe River to magically reappear on the other side. The country here looks weary after more than a decade of low rainfall. People have sold their irrigation water and paddocks stand abandoned, neglected.

Following the roads made of gravel that was once Mount Hope, I come across McColl Road - a monument to Hugh McColl, Bendigo resident and politician, who initiated and kept alive the idea of irrigation for the northern plains of Victoria. McColl would be pleased, I think, to know that the road taking his name parallels the course of the Waranga Western Channel, an incarnation of the Grand Victorian North-Western Canal that he and Benjamin Dods so vociferously promoted from 1874.

And here is the township of Ballendella: a cluster of houses, a community hall, a closed school and a maze of channels. Surely in this name there is a link to the Aboriginal woman Turandurey and her daughter, Ballendella, members of Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell's expedition party that traversed the northern plains in 1836. And here also is the home of the Waterman family. The Watermans - Harold, Lilian and their children - farmed fifty acres in Ballendella for thirty-two years before coming to own their block in 1943. Their timber home and a newer 1930s concrete block house testify to the lives of two generations of Waterman irrigators.

I cross a bridge. Underneath once flowed a coursing waterway called Piccaninny Creek. Now it is known as Bendigo Creek and is nothing but a dry channel, its banks bare.

Further north, a sign that reads Sillmans Road is all that remains as evidence of the lives of Elizabeth and Henry Sillman and their son, British migrants who arrived in 1924 under the Empire Settlement Act. I stand in front of their block, now planted to saltbush to offset the effects of salinity. In the background stands Pyramid Hill, the granite rise from which Mitchell described the verdant plains of his land so inviting. For the Sillman family, though, it was a place of broken promises. In the drought year of 1927 they received only one-fifth of their irrigation water right, and lost all their crops and sheep. The next year heavy rains flooded their farm. Bitterly disappointed by the realities of trying to make a living from the land of the northern plains, the Sillmans left in 1933 to return to England.

These signs in the landscape tell a story of how people and country have co-evolved to make the landscape of the northern plains of Victoria. They are small monuments to the intersection of human dreams and environmental realities.

 

THE SEMI-ARID NATURE of the plains has always directed patterns of human settlement. The Baraba Baraba, Wemba Wemba, Dja Dja Wurrung, Ngurai-illam-wurrung, Wergaia, Daung Wurrung and Yodayoda peoples hunted and collected, adapting natural systems to exploit the resources of a variable climate. As they moved between the swamps, creeks, rivers, hills and grasslands of their homeland they etched physical and spiritual pathways into the landscape. They farmed land through fire-stick burning and engineered waterways to catch fish. Water attracted life and also marked the vestiges of its end. The places where populations congregated were the same places they buried their dead: beside lakes and swamps, in lunettes, near rivers.

Into this humming country in the high rainfall year of 1836 came the Surveyor-General of New South Wales and explorer Thomas Mitchell. Under his pen, fine chains of creek ponds, deep running streams, extensive tracts of grasses and abundant trees were brought into being for settlement by farmers and graziers. The watered landscape stood in stark contrast to the drought conditions of the unwelcoming New South Wales Darling River region where, earlier in 1836, Mitchell noted in Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, his party had had to 'wander in the beds of rivers...to seek in vain for water'. Mitchell's widely promoted vision of the plains brought to life the potential of the region for white settlement. But it relied intrinsically on the negation of Aboriginal experience of the plains as homeland.

In search of Mitchell's country came the squatters with their herds and flocks. In assessing the capacity of the northern plains for the grazing of sheep and cattle they dismissed the explorer's glowing accounts. Alexander Campbell rejected as too dry the 'barren plains of the Loddon' and Richard Grice described the Loddon River as wasting 'in the sandy desert'. Beyond bringing a more realistic orientation to Mitchell's effusive view of the plains, these squatters also judged the country in the low rainfall years of 1839 and 1840. By contrast, high rainfall in the mid-1840s brought to life the large expanses of native grasses on the plains and the country was judged as some of the best winter lamb-fattening land in the colony. To ensure a water supply, squatters dammed rivers, enlarged Aboriginal soaks and cut channels from creeks. But mostly they adapted to the variable climate by moving both people and stock to land elsewhere when dry seasons occurred.

The determined push to replace the transient squatter with a settled, industrious yeomanry was legislated in a number of Land Acts introduced in Victoria in the 1860s. Coinciding with the 1869 Land Act came plentiful rains, and selectors followed them to the plains of northern Victoria. The destructive qualities of the copious waters of 1870 were described with fear as stories traced the tragedy of drownings at Echuca, and damage to roads, bridges and property. But for Hugh McColl and Benjamin Dods of the Grand Victorian North-Western Canal Company, the floodwaters offered immense opportunities. Through the construction of an extensive storage and irrigation system, McColl and Dods imagined the northern plains as another productive 'Mississippi Delta'. They planned a large canal, running from a weir on the Goulburn River almost to the border of South Australia: a 'new river', with townships located at ten-mile intervals near elevated reservoirs filled by steam pumps using water from subterranean sources. The reclamation of the 'arid and desolate waste' of the northern plains, claimed McColl and Dods, would see bountiful harvests, the improvement of the regional climate through the introduction of so much water, the fertilisation of the soil by sediments brought from the Goulburn River and a much-boosted population.

Over six months from December 1884 Department of Water Supply Chief Secretary Alfred Deakin travelled overseas to witness first-hand the changes brought to the western United States by irrigation projects. Back in Australia, Deakin referred to the American concept 'duty of water' to calculate the volume of rainfall required to convert the northern plains of the colony of Victoria, with its 'unsatisfactory' rainfall and 'water famines', into an irrigated landscape of production. There was no doubt in Deakin's mind that the need for irrigation on the plains was 'most pressing and most urgent'. Unless the region was irrigated, he argued in his speech to introduce the 1886 Irrigation Act, 'the population will be swept away, and the land must go back simply to sheep-farming.' No doubt influenced by the nomenclature applied to the Great Plains of western America, Deakin named the region the Northern Plains and, in his more expansive moments, the 'great Northern Plains'.

Elwood Mead, chairman of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (SRWSC) from 1907, embraced Deakin's vision of a regulated irrigated water supply. An engineer and a former chief of the Irrigation and Drainage Investigations Bureau in the United States Department of Agriculture, Mead had experience in remaking landscapes. In 1896, as the state engineer of Wyoming, he argued that the arid lands of the West could be 'redeemed' only through the conservation of an irrigation water supply accompanied by adequate laws attaching water rights to land. On arriving in Victoria he was quick to condemn the irrigation landscape of the northern plains. The scattered plots over a large area, 'where one could ride for miles without meeting a man or seeing a horse', watered by costly channel systems, did not marry with his vision of intensive irrigation settlements serviced by central pumping facilities located on higher plain country.

In his 1909 Policy to be Followed in Irrigation Development, Mead noted the trend in America to smaller blocks. He recommended a program of acquiring large landholdings in every existing irrigation district in Victoria and subdividing them into allotments of between 20 and 200 acres. Farm labourers would make do with blocks of two to five acres, fruit could be grown profitably on 20- to 40-acre blocks, and 30- to 200-acre blocks would best serve dairying and mixed farming enterprises. By subdividing land into small irrigated farms on which crops could be grown all year round, Mead claimed, the unpredictable income of the dryland farmer would be done away with. Just as importantly, his proposal to introduce a compulsory water charge would guarantee a regulated financial return to the state. However, despite Mead's best efforts, by 1916 the total liabilities of closer settlement irrigable areas were calculated at more than one and a half million pounds. The parlous state of irrigation was due in part to very strong El Niño events that brought severe droughts to much of Australia in 1914 and 1915.

Reactions to the lack of reliable rainfall were typified by a chapter in the 1914 Handbook to Victoria titled 'The Problems in the State of Victoria Which Await Scientific Solution'. Special mention was made of investigations necessary to overcome 'the disasters...owing to drought', including the collection of accurate observations 'to show whether drought cycles can be predicted with certainty', the storage of 'the immense volumes of water that pass to the sea every year' to provide for irrigation, and the implementation of improved methods of farming that utilised the rainfall more efficiently.

In 1916, announced the agricultural scientist Thomas Cherry in his book Victorian Agriculture, the environment of Victoria had been brought under control by applying the principles of scientific cultivation. Using available statistics, Cherry argued that the highest rainfall years did not necessarily correspond with the best wheat harvests, proving that 'increased production of recent years is due to improved methods'. Cherry sought to bring about 'the passing of the unknown' by replacing 'speculations, guesses and uncertainties' with 'assured knowledge'. In so doing, he defined three agricultural rainfall zones for Victoria: the Wheat Belt, delineated by an average annual rainfall of 11 to 25 inches; the Closer Settlement Country (where irrigation was not needed), by an average rainfall of 25 to 40 inches; and the Hill Country, by an average annual rainfall of 40 to 75 inches. Cherry maintained that land with a summer rainfall of ten inches or fewer, such as the northern plains, should be made to produce both winter and summer harvests by equalising the wet and the dry months of the year through irrigation. Already in these districts, he claimed, scientific cultivation facilitated by machinery, fertilisers and international markets had enabled 'the farmer to change the soil into a factory, where the output is proportional to the amount of labor bestowed on the land'. The Victorian Department of Agriculture foresaw another advantage of irrigation: it would put paid once and for all to making a living by utilising 'faulty native grasses'.

But widespread floods in 1916, 1917 and 1918 proved that the environment had not been brought under control. Due mainly to 'the progress of settlement within the catchment of the rivers', the SRWSC maintained, floods 'may be regarded as inevitable, though in certain cases special measures may be practicable to control the streams and minimise damage'. In 1921, floods came again. Requests poured in from landowners to form flood protection districts. Levee banks, drainage channels and siphons were constructed to control floodwaters, and settlers on irrigated blocks were instructed to plant willows to secure channel banks. Over these years, it was the idea of too much water that contributed to constructions of the plains as a region that challenged human endeavour.

In the dry El Niño years of 1925 and 1926 the SRWSC initiated an entire 'remodelling' of the irrigation districts administered by the Kerang, Cohuna, Rochester and Loddon centres. The language of irrigation became interspersed with the measurements of diameters, circumferences and cubic yards as the modern replaced the antiquated. Reinforced concrete head checks, siphons, subways and stops replaced old, worn-out timber structures. Outmoded irrigation outlets were swapped for modern Dethridge meters. Pipe culverts took the place of bridges. New channels were excavated and silt removed from existing channels by a locally designed and built two-way mud scoop. Sludge, silt and 'water weeds' - native lignum, combungie and rushes - were removed from channels with bucket dredges. In 1928-29 the beds of the Loddon River, Pyramid Creek and Reedy Creek were 'improved' by cutting and grading. As a result of the remodelling, reported the SRWSC in 1929, 'an increased and more uniform demand for water' and a 'reduced variation in areas watered through dry or wet seasons' had brought greater stability to the area. The landscape prior to irrigated closer settlement, typified by 'sparse population, crude irrigation methods, and the grazing of stock on native pastures and annual crops', the commission said, had given way to the development of 'real irrigated agriculture' and, as a consequence, improved 'social conditions in country life'.

 

A CONCERTED EFFORT has been made over time to check environmental fluctuations through the application of science, technology and international trade - to convert the northern plains from 'outside country'. Outside country, the environmental historian Tom Griffiths writes in Words for Country: Landscape and Language in Australia (UNSW, 2002), lies 'beyond the limits of established settlement, a land as yet unredeemed by the hopefully advancing frontier, and therefore full of the freedom, promise and danger of such liminality'. Because the semi-arid northern plains defied official expectations of the patterns of ordered white settlement, the region became a particular focus of economic and political institutional agendas that sought to exploit the opportunities and minimise the challenges of a variable climate. Like other semi-arid places in Australia described by the historical geographer RL Heathcote in 'Images of a desert? Perceptions of arid Australia' (Australian Geographical Studies, 1987), the northern plains were used as a kind of 'laboratory for the geographical processes of land settlement and resource management'.

The experiment goes on. In response to a drying climate current government policies are attempting to modify historical legacies. The North-South Pipeline has been constructed to ship water from the Goulburn River in northern Victoria to Melbourne. As part of the Food Bowl Modernisation Project, the former Brumby government argued, the pipeline will not draw on the already stretched resources of the Goulburn River but will rely instead on 225 gigalitres of 'new water' found through modernising irrigation systems in northern Victoria. But the environmental effects of the North-South Pipeline are likely to be significant. Only receiving 23 per cent of its long-term average rainfall in 2006-07, the Goulburn River is under stress. With climate change it will become more so. Temperatures in northern Victoria are predicted to increase between 0.8 and 5 degrees Celsius on average, bringing higher evaporation rates and reduced rainfall.

What's more, some northern Victorian residents believe they are subsidising the ascendant institutional view that has adopted the market principles of demand to determine water price and allocation. By promoting the economic and social benefits of water piped to a growing Melbourne population, they argue, the costs of it being taken away from less populous regions has been downplayed. On the subject of the 225 gigalitres to be saved and the 75 gigalitres guaranteed for Melbourne, there is mounting concern that this water may not be actually found - that it will be taken instead from irrigation entitlements.

The fear of losing water runs high on the northern plains, where large communities have formed and developed over 127 years. In addition to the North-South Pipeline, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan proposes radical changes to the landscape of the northern plains. Because of concerns about diminishing inflows into the rivers of the basin, guided by the 2007 Water Act the plan sets out to determine the volume of water required to maintain and restore the environment. At the same time it seeks to address the social and economic effects on communities of removing water.

 

AT A COMMUNITY meeting convened by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in Echuca in late 2010, I listen to hostile community responses to the plan. Lined up at microphones placed around the room, members of the crowd of over a thousand people give voice to pent-up frustration. They challenge the science of climate change. They describe the impact on local communities of cuts to irrigation water. They detail the consequences of reductions to irrigation allocations on food supply and prices. 'The environment is the joker in the pack,' cries one farmer. 'It trumps everything.' Another declares, 'You have made implacable enemies of us.' It makes no difference that water for the environment will be either purchased from willing sellers or delivered from irrigation efficiencies. For irrigation communities in northern Victoria, communities that are the outcome of active government promotion and support of the irrigated landscape since 1883, water is a fundamental right.

In late 2010 and early 2011 another transformation occurs. After thirteen years of drought, heavy La Niña rains cause waters to spill from the Campaspe, Loddon and Avoca rivers, turning the country into a shimmering, shifting landscape. This is an age-old phenomenon, but because of the altered hydrology and the closer settlement of communities water has turned up in unexpected places. Houses are flooded and crops ruined by too much water. Some businesses in towns do not know if they will reopen. The rains provide concrete evidence, some locals say, that the drying climate predicted by scientists is not happening - and, therefore, the science behind the prediction is a furphy. Tony Abbott maintains that $600 million of water buybacks in the Murray-Darling Basin should be deferred to pay for damage caused in the Queensland floods. Victoria's Baillieu government is mooting the building of more dams to capture the water 'wasted'. It has challenged the environmental flows suggested by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, stating that, if introduced, they will not only impinge on the livelihoods of irrigators but flood extensive areas of private land in northern Victoria. Not a difficult scenario to imagine in the current wet. It seems too many inches of rain have altered not only the physical country, but are contributing also to conflicting visions for the future landscape of the plains.

It would be disingenuous to be buoyantly optimistic about the future of the plains country and its people. To do so would deny the evidence in the landscape.

A decreasing rainfall and associated scarcity of water for irrigation, ongoing economic restructuring of agriculture, and the need to return water to the rivers is affecting the people who live there. As reported inThe Age in March 2009, Campbell Fitzpatrick, the executive director of Victoria's Department of Sustainability and Environment, believes northern Victorian communities may well be Australia's first climate change refugees. The once abundant plains country has been fallowed, ploughed, sown, fertilised, irrigated and harvested almost beyond recognition. The vegetation is one of the most depleted in Victoria. Only 1.8 per cent of native vegetation remains, growing mostly on the public land of stock routes, cemeteries, aerodromes, roadsides and rail reserves. Of this remnant, 8 per cent is deemed vulnerable and 45 per cent endangered. Removal of vegetation has led to land degradation on a grand scale and the wholesale destruction of fauna habitat. A hot climate, weed invasion and rabbits hamper regrowth of native plants. Naturally high in salt because of earlier sea inundation, and fine in texture on the surface but slow to drain because of clay subsoils, the soils of the plains are being degraded by sheet erosion and rising saline water tables. In 2007-08 the volume of water in the Campaspe River was 89 per cent lower than average, and in the same years the Loddon River ceased, in parts, to flow altogether.

The dynamic processes that have created this landscape can tell us much about human and ecological adaptation to a semi-arid country. The reality of rainfall is determined by a combination of factors that affect the capacity of meteorological conditions to supply water to an area. Factors include air movement, the global pattern of solar oscillation, and the geometry of land and sea. Typified by a climate of variable rainfall and frequent dry periods extended by El Niño events, the northern plains of Victoria are not a place of norms or averages. Median annual rainfall ranges between 423 millimetres at Serpentine in the south to 369 millimetres at Kerang in the north. But to speak in terms of medians does not describe the downpours that double those figures, or the sporadic showers that halve them. Like much of Australia, aridity is a natural feature of the northern plains, and has been for thousands of years.

Yet successive governments have viewed the climate of the northern plains as an aberration. They have applied technology and science to ameliorate it, to make good what is termed the 'deficiency' of the country, to deliver certainty to a landscape described by its unreliability. There is no denying that the engineering by the state of an extensive channel and storage system has enabled a white population to settle the semi-arid country, or that agricultural diversification on the northern plains facilitated by science has contributed to the national economy. But by attempting to make the environment more certain in times of political, economic and climatic uncertainty, government schemes have actually increased unpredictability in many ways. They have put stress and strengthened reliance on a fragile environment, raised cultural expectations of rainfall, neglected local memory and experience, separated people from their waterscapes, prevented people from coming to terms with environmental uncertainty, and taken away personal responsibility.

Institutional visions presume uniformity. But plains dwellers do not know the country as a homogenous entity. They live instead on Powletts Plains, Salisbury Plains, the Terrick Plains, the Loddon Plains, the Torrumbarry Plains, the Patho Plains. They have the right idea. The northern plains are made up of regions of distinctive microclimates that sustain dynamic ecosystems. The rainfall at Kerang is not the rainfall at Echuca. The soils in Rochester are not the soils in Boort. Yet local knowledge is ignored, overlooked or considered only at the periphery by governments intent on remaking the landscape according to the priorities of the day.

The northern plains have had thousands of years of Indigenous settlement and more than 170 years of non-Indigenous settlement. Their people, individually and collectively, have adapted to climate variability over time through the practices of mobility, resilience and opportunism. They have an intimate understanding of the country and are well placed to imagine the future. One way of understanding the dynamic local ecology is to tap into the vast resource of historical knowledge held by the people who live there. Inclusion of local experience is vital if responses to the issues of water allocation on the semi-arid northern plains of Victoria are to be meaningful. Embracing local intelligence in the protection and restoration of the country of the plains provides the best opportunity for the environment to adapt. Seeking local interpretations of how irrigation has created the current social order is imperative.

As populations in Australia have increased their vulnerability to climatic variation by moving into semi-arid country, official policies have relied on science, technology and international markets to bring certainty to these places. But in doing so governments have contributed to local landscapes of scarcity. If future landscapes are to be imagined in any meaningful way this history must be studied and learned from.

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