Meeting Brian Simpson and spending a bit of time with him on the Yarrowee River in Ballarat researching this story was both a history lesson and an inspiration. Amazing what a small but dedicated group of people can achieve.
Sitting on the banks of the Yarrowee River it is hard to imagine the scene that confronted Brian Simpson and his friend Michael Adams when they first decided to clean up the waterway more than 30 years ago.
Ballarat’s gold rush had left the Yarrowee’s banks severely degraded and infested with weeds. The river itself had been used over time as an open sewer, rubbish dump and primitive industrial waste outlet.
“I was living in Mount Pleasant at the time and you could barely access the river,” says Brian. “The water quality was pretty awful. You’d get a lot of blue dyes and rubbish coming down. Shopping trolleys, plastic bags, it was a real nightmare.”
The river has a long history of neglect. In his book Lucky City, Professor Weston Bate describes the 1883 closure of the “infamous drain” that ran from Ballarat’s hospital down the city’s main street and into the Yarrowee, often carrying infected sewage, as “a minor reduction in the pollution of that once beautiful stream”.
“A soapworks and a fellmongery (dealer in skins and hides) upstream, the woollen mill downstream, the Chinese village, the gaol, the gasworks and dozens of factories gave it their effluent,” he wrote.
In a more recent story in the The Courier newspaper older residents of Ballarat recalled pollution in the Yarrowee as late as the 1930s.
“Blood from the meatworks in Skipton Street flowed under the street and then entered the water as an open drain and mixed with the blue-coloured run-off from the woollen mill, the two pollutants merging and turning the Yarrowee’s water purple,” the newspaper reported.
But despite the Yarrowee’s sorry history, Brian Simpson, who has notched up more than 30 years experience working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment, could see potential in the little river.
“It was a wasteland infested with weeds like gorse, blackberry, hemlock and fennel. At one stage we did a count and there were about 130 weed species just along the river,” he says.
“So a friend and I decided to do something about it. The idea was to come down on weekends, relax, light a fire, have a barbecue and start cutting out all the weeds.”
Every river needs friends
It didn’t take long for other locals to notice the two men hacking their way through the weeds and pretty soon there was a groundswell of support.
“It was the start in a way of an environmental movement in Ballarat,” says Brian.
“People would come down here on weekends and we’d have huge working bees, dragging out truckloads of rubbish. Eventually it became a friends group and was officially launched as the Friends of the Yarrowee River.”
Since then nearly 80 community groups, including 30 schools, have helped resuscitate the river.
“They wanted to bring their kids down and show them what the environment was like, how bad it was and how it could be improved,” says Brian.
The river has never looked back. It now forms the backbone of the Yarrowee River Trail, a 16 kilometre walking track that follows the Yarrowee and its many tributaries. Every day people can be found walking, jogging and cycling their river. They picnic on its banks and even help keep newly-revegetated areas free of weeds.
The upgrading of the river has also enhanced Ballarat’s biodiversity credentials by protecting remnant native vegetation, stabilising the river’s banks against erosion and improving stormwater quality.
The introduction of a management plan in 1995 saw the eventual creation of five new parks along the river – Gong Gong Reservoir Park, Nerrina Park and Wetlands, the Yarrowee Flora Reserve, the Yarrowee-Redan Reserve, and the Yuille Station Park and Wetlands.
Brian has worked in many conservation fields within the Department of Sustainability and Environment, including catchment management, soil conservation, vermin and noxious weeds as well as the management of small pockets of public land.
He has also spent a lot of time working with the Ballarat Environment Network and the region’s many community-based conservation groups.
“Twenty-four years ago when I first returned to Ballarat the department had a building full of people,” says Brian.
“The section I was in was called public land management, and we had plenty of staff sitting around busily writing management plans on how to manage our crown land.
“We were the experts – we did the planning and we told the public we knew best.”
Since then Brian has seen a dramatic change in the way Ballarat’s public land is managed, with much of the responsibility handed over to the locals.
“That’s meant more community engagement and more community education about Ballarat’s natural environment,” he says.
“I can’t be at every piece of crown land every moment of the day, but when we have the community looking after the land they’re there all the time, and that makes a huge difference.”
All the way to the bottom
Walking along the banks of the Yarrowee, Brian explains the significance of the river, which has its headwaters in Ballarat, becomes the Leigh River further south, and then runs out to the sea as the Barwon River at Barwon Heads.
His face lights up as he recalls a recent trip downriver.
“The water quality wasn’t too bad,” he says.
“There was a nice clear pool with some little black fish in it, waterbirds and black ducks. And you could see all the way to the bottom.”