This year I will have been associated with the Macalister River for seventy years, beginning with my move to live on my uncle’s farm at Bellbird Corner, and how things have changed since those days. It is twelve years since environmental flows were prescribed for the river, and now in 2015 a review is being undertaken with myself a member of the Project Advisory Group. With that in mind it seemed appropriate to recall some of my memories here, but first, a little on the course of the river. The initial source of the river is Macalister Springs, where water bubbles out of the ground in the lee of the Crosscut Saw, and the spectacular summer floral display on the slopes of Mount Howitt. These photos, scanned from Kodachrome slides were taken at the start of a bushwalk from Macalister Springs, along the divide, in February 1969. On the second day of the walk we dropped down into the upper headwaters where hundreds of trout fingerlings were in the pools, and big breeding fish swam between our legs while we were cooling off in the narrow channels.
From that high alpine beginning, the river, fed by snow melt and tributaries, winds its way down from the high country to the fertile floodplain, built up over millions of years by the unrestricted flows spreading out over the flat-lands and depositing their suspended silt. I don’t have a date for the following picture of the farm under flood, but it would have been before the Glenmaggie Weir reduced the number and magnitude of floods. The trees mark the course of the river, the dark line is the Lower Newry Road, and the paddler is my Uncle Jack.
The northern boundary of the farm was the Newry Creek, and for me, any story of the river would have to include the creek. I don’t have any geological information on its origin, but I suspect it was either an ancient river course, or an anabranch. In the years leading up to 1957 when the crest gates were added to the weir, increasing capacity and further restricting flooding, the creek was regularly refreshed. It held sweet water, a wealth of aquatic vegetation and invertebrate life, Short-finned Eels, Southern Pygmy Perch, Crucian Carp, Common Yabbies, and Eastern Snake-necked Turtles. Rakali the water rat foraged along the creek and Platypus came up from the river to access the abundant food supply. This picture of my cousin and me in a war surplus rubber dinghy gives some idea of the healthy condition of the creek at that time.
Returning to the river, in those days the water was clear, yes, it was dirty in flood time but then it cleared, and I remember being able to see eels lying beside logs and snags lodged in the bed. Native fish were plentiful, eels and pygmy perch I’ve already mentioned, but also Tupong and River Blackfish, plus other species like galaxias and grayling that I wasn’t then aware of. Tupong in particular were abundant and I caught many, up to 30 cm, close to the species maximum length of 36 cm. The watercourse varied, there were deep holes, faster flowing channels, and shallows with sandbanks, where a boy could swim, fish, and watch platypus come to the surface to exchange glances before disappearing again into the depths. Freshwater mussels used to be quite common, but may have been badly affected by the misguided de-snagging and clearing along the river that took place under the guise of “river improvement” for a period of time. This would have deprived them of refuge areas in time of flood, I’m unaware of their status now. Nearly a century of farming and grazing along the river had already had a major detrimental effect on native vegetation with an almost complete loss of understory and herbaceous species. At Bellbird Corner there was still an area of luxuriant bush, this image taken in the late twenties or early thirties shows that bush and the river at its best, with a large bank of phragmites on the far bank. Sadly that bush too disappeared with the signature Bell Miner colony after clearing in the 1950s.
Things were about to change however, in 1954 the Maffra Weir was built to divert water into the Main Eastern Channel, and this in conjunction with the crest gates at Glenmaggie had a profound effect on the river between the weirs, the creek, and their biodiversity. Tupong for example breed in estuarine waters, and for their spawning migration need unimpeded passage up and down the river. To my knowledge Tupong are now virtually absent between the weirs, and other native species are also blocked from moving further upstream by the diversion weir. Pygmy Perch which used to be abundant are now a rarity in the river, even below the diversion weir according to a reliable source, and gone from the creek which, following the reduction in refreshing floods is now usually just a stagnant shadow of its former self. The formerly clear river water is now always turbid to a degree, the reason for this is unclear, but it has been suggested that clay from the eroding shores of Lake Glenmaggie is responsible. It is a fact that there has been a great loss of material around the lake edges and many trees are now standing on a substantial length of exposed roots. This turbidity has a significant inhibiting effect on the growth of aquatic vegetation and must also affect other life forms in the river. European carp are now a most unfortunate fact of life too, they can contribute to turbidity and consume native fish eggs and larvae. For a graphic illustration of the turbidity coming down in floods the next image is striking, it is a whirlpool formed where July 2007 floodwater is entering an under-road culvert to eventually rejoin the river after passing through Bellbird Corner reserve, the clay theory may have merit. The culvert takes the present meagre Newry Creek water under the Lower Newry Road, where in my farm days a timber bridge from where we fished for eels by the light of hurricane lanterns spanned the creek, another illustration of major change over the years.
It’s not all bad news though, significant work has been done to improve the environmental health of the lower Macalister. The West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority has carried out extensive willow removal and bank stabilisation, fencing to exclude stock has been installed with re-vegetation work to complement the natural regeneration that has taken the place of the willows, and now environmental flows and their timing to coincide with fish breeding cycles is under the microscope with a range of other issues. A lot more could be detailed, but perhaps that is enough for the present except for two final photos taken where the river enters Bellbird Corner reserve. The first soon after the willow removal approximately fifteen years ago, and the second as it looks today, showing what just can be achieved in reversing environmental decline.
Click most images to enlarge.