Thursday, 10 January 2019

Living Large

I’m driving home on one of those glorious summer mornings that start out cool and misty, then by mid-morning, clear away to radiant sunshine. I’ve been for a swim in Gisborne, and returned the back way, past Barringo Creek and down Gap Road and Sandy Creek. 

There’s Robert and Margaret up ahead, out walking, and I pull up. They came down for dinner earlier in the week, and it is good to see them again. We exchange small talk, and it’s good to stop in the middle of the morning routine, at the side of a dirt road, with the sun streaming down through the trees, catching up with warm-hearted people.

Living large, I’d call it, with people who know that care itself is important—that our social world isn’t a given, but is made anew each day. 

When I get home, a friend staying with us has a blog post from Nora Bateson, daughter of Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist and systems thinker from the middle of the 20thC. We read the piece out loud, on the veranda.

“The work of the coming decades is not the work of manufacturing, of software development, or of retail seduction, it is the work of caring. Caring for each other and the biosphere. In that care there is the hope of finding new ways of making sense of our own vitality.  The ‘my’ in my health is not mine; rather it is a consequence of my microbiome, my family, my community, and the biosphere being cared for.”

How do we conduct ourselves at this moment, when so much is at risk and so much in need of radical change? Bateson’s solution is to stay deep in the difficulty we’re in, and turn to those with whom we live, to learn our way through to more viable systems. “Business as usual is a swift endgame,” says Bateson.

Let’s take sewerage for instance. Western Water’s plant east of Riddell needs more capacity. You’ll catch it flashing past as you head to Melbourne on the train, but for most of us, it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’. But it is kind of our problem–more houses, more people, more poo, more grey water. There aren’t agricultural businesses near Riddell to use the treated water, and land for dispersing the flow is very expensive, so, heave ho, it’s into Jacksons Creek. That means more nutrient into the system, and that requires a licence from the Environment Protection Authority.

Western Water are looking at the options. We know that fencing and revegetating along creeks up-stream can improve water quality and quantity, and this might offset a higher nutrient load from the treatment works. But it’s a complicated equation. At Riddells Creek Landcare, we’re asking Western Water to work with us to create a learning program on the science, economics and best practices involved.

Sewerage and healthy creeks—how to put the two together? We want to give an informed opinion when the options come through, and be part of generating the options. Drop a note to and I’ll put you on a mailing list if you want to keep track of this project. Expect to learn a lot. Expect close conversations with other people in and around Riddell who live large, and who care what happens here.

Four commitments to creeks

Creeks connect places and people, and creeks reflect the health of the land around them and the behaviour and attitudes of people. Members of Riddells Creek Landcare, Greening of Riddell, Stanley Park Committee of Management and Clarkefield and District Landcare met 10th Dec, 2018 to discuss priorities for community action on creeks. Tim Read, JCEN Facilitator, and David Galloway, provided support. 
Riddells Creek upstream of the Carre-Riddell Bridge

We worked through four steps.

Step 1. Why is now a good time to think about creeks? Recent strategies from government open opportunities for communities to work on creek health: the Healthy Waterways Strategy, with Performance Objectives for the Jacksons Creek sub-catchment; MRSC’s draft Biodiversity Strategy; The Victorian Biodiversity Strategy wants to improve Victorians connection to nature, as part of protecting biodiversity; the Environmental Volunteering Plan wants to increase volunteering for the environment. Closer to home, Western Water is looking at options for offsets for increase outputs to Jacksons Creek from the Riddell sewerage works (aka Recycled Water Plant), and the Riddell Structure Plan locks in rapid growth of the town. There are many plans, with many goals: it’s time to decide what community groups will do to make their contribution.

Step 2. What’s your interest in creeks?  Personal interest drives volunteer effort, so we started here. We heard what Julie MacDonald, Heather McNaught, Vicki Green, Helen Kalajdzic, Lachlan Milne, George Wright, Lyn Hovey and Ross Colliver have been doing on creeks over the last few years.  We heard many specific instances of how local government, ParksVic and sometimes Melbourne Water (MW) have failed to act to protect and plan for creeks in town and rural areas.

Step 3. What’s happening to creeks? We looked at maps of current condition and targets for condition developed by Melbourne Water. Residential and rural living development both affect creeks. Melbourne Water has protecting waterways as core activity, but for MRSC, waterways protection seems to be very much secondary to land use planning. It’s left to residents to raise negative impacts on creeks, but they are often chasing a horse that’s already bolted. In rural areas, MW’s Stream Frontage Program has supported landholders fixing their creeks—the challenge is now getting to those who are disinterested or hard to contact.

Step 4. What will we commit to? Personal interest, what creeks need, the potential influence of our groups, and the reality of our actual capacity converge on four priorities:

Working on creeks. Individual group members look after creeks in or bordering their properties. Groups are committed to improving creek condition of Riddells Creek from the town bridge to Wybejong Park (Greening of Riddell), of Jacksons Creek from the Knox bridge downstream to around Palmer Road (Clarkefield Landcare), and on Turitable Creek (Stanley Park Committee of Management).
Introducing people to creeks. Creeks are easy to love, but people who are new to rural areas need a guide and educator. We can leverage what individual members and groups are doing on creeks to educate people about creeks, how they work and what landholders are doing to look after creeks. This kind of education helps shift attitudes from fear, abuse and neglect of the natural environment to attitudes that support care—respect, affection and curiosity. Community groups have the credibility to be educators, but we need to communicate with people in towns and rural areas in a way that moves people from ignorance and complacency to action. 

Eyes on creeks. Community groups members often see what’s happening to creeks sooner than staff of government agencies. Rapid reporting of threats to creeks gives individuals in agencies a chance to act and influence what their agency is doing. This is ‘below the radar’ intervention, where relationships of trust and respect are critical. Sharing observations of what’s happening locally will help government staff to focus their limited time and resources.
Challenging business-as-usual. When reporting threats doesn’t change things, and business-as-usual needs a shake-up, speaking out publicly activates opinion in the community and puts pressure on government agencies to act on their responsibilities. Community groups will be stronger if they speak together.

Campaigning is energy-intensive, so we’re going to have to pick the issues that justify that energy. Five hot issues were raised:
  • private extraction of water upstream of Stanley Park, and the failure of Southern Rural Water to inform landholders and impose sanctions;
  • failure by MRSC to consider the health of creeks in development applications, to include permit conditions that address the health of creeks, and to act on failure to implement permit conditions;
  • damage to publicly-funded landholder revegetation when properties change hands and new owners don’t look after past work on their own and adjacent public land;
  • sediment flowing into creeks from MRSC gravel roads and from development sites, due to inadequate standard practices and failure to develop and insist on better practices;
  • neglect of the Riddell Main Drain, upstream of town (infill and weeds), in town (rubbish and ignorance that it is a creek), and downstream (weeds again and no attention in development planning for the commercial centre of Riddell).