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Realising the dream of Birrarung: FIVE YEARS AGO THE IDEA OF LEGISLATION TO PROTECT THE YARRA RIVER WAS JUST A DREAM. TODAY THE YARRA RIVER (WILIP-GIN BIRRARUNG MURRON) PROTECTION ACT IS ENSHRINED IN VICTORIAN STATE LAW. HOW WAS THIS LEGISLATION BORN? COULD IT BE A MODEL FOR OTHER RIVER PROTECTION LAWS? AND--MOST IMPORTANTLY--WILL IT IMPROVE THE HEALTH OF MELBOURNE'S FAMOUS BROWN WATERWAY?

THE YARRA is renowned for its brownness. Some call it the river that flows upside down. It used to be described as being too thick to drink and too thin to plough.

Ian Penrose, a former Yarra Riverkeeper--responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the river--and now an ACF Councillor, says the water's colour is mostly due to run-off from farming in the catchment and stormwater in the suburbs.

Water pollution was just one of the persistent problems Ian encountered as Yarra Riverkeeper. Another was an issue familiar to anyone who has supported ACF's work on the Murray Darling: the damming of the river to take out large quantities of water was damaging its health.

"Convincing the government to provide the river with a secure quantity of water each year to be released as environmental flows was our first big success," Ian says. "These flows, in combination with a cap on the amount of water taken from the Yarra, are needed to support the life-giving ecological processes the dams were stopping."

Buildings encroaching on the river was another seemingly intractable problem.

"Tall buildings on the bank and those close to the river ruin the experience for people who paddle, cycle and walk along the river, as well as destroy precious wildlife habitat," Ian says.

"The bulk of the controls on new buildings take the form of guidelines that are administered by local councils. Whilst developers like the flexibility of such non-mandatory controls, they don't adequately protect the river corridor from encroachment."

"Everywhere we were fighting these individual planning approvals, up and down the river. And we didn't have the resources to do it. Not like the amount of money that's coming in on the industry side."

The issue was not merely one of insufficient resources. Ian came to the conclusion that local councils were not well-placed to make decisions about the impact that a building close to the river would have on the wider community. Along much of its length the Yarra lies on the boundary of local government areas. When councils approved applications for buildings on the riverside, they rarely considered the negative impact that building would make to people on the opposite bank--in a different council area.

"We had to involve the state. We needed legislation that would last longer than one term of government--that had bipartisan support--and that was on a larger scale than councils can provide."

Ian--and others like Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Bruce Lindsay--could see the need for a law to oversee the management of the whole river system. But you can't float a big change like that before laying the groundwork. That meant public awareness and political advocacy.

"We started off by raising awareness about how special this river is and how important it is to people," Ian says.

"One of the challenges for nature conservation in large urban areas such as Melbourne is that city-dwellers have few opportunities to experience nature--a problem that will escalate if the city continues growing. That disconnection with nature means many Melburnians do not have a good knowledge of the issues facing the Yarra, which I argue is Melbourne's most important natural asset.

"So I spent a lot of time on education, but always with the message, what can we do to make it better? Because knowledge alone is not going to save the river. You've got to have action. Yes, education was important, but the punchy end was advocating for change."

Ian met with politicians from both sides of the house.

"I would take them out in the Yarra Riverkeeper patrol boat, one-on-one, on to the river, making them aware of how special the river was and tapping into their values.

"One of the benefits of a little patrol boat is that there's nowhere to hide. So every politician who came out got an earful of the stories of the river--and they could see it in ways you can't see from the bank. We talked about what they could do. And that got them thinking and talking about legislation."

This work convinced the Labor opposition to go to the 2014 state election with a commitment to establish a Yarra Act. Labor won the election. After nine years as the Yarra Riverkeeper, Ian retired from the role.

But the job wasn't done.

"Andrew (Kelly), the new Yarra Riverkeeper, Bruce (Lindsay) and others had to push hard for the new government to follow through on its commitment. These things don't just happen without pushing."

Ian was present for the introduction of the Yarra River (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Protection Bill to state parliament in June 2017, where Wurundjeri Elders welcomed the law. It is believed to be the first time Wurundjeri language had been spoken on the floor of Victoria's parliament. "It was a momentous occasion," Ian says.

The involvement of Indigenous people in the preamble of the Act and the parliamentary launch made the law stronger, deeper and enhanced its credibility.

"The Wurundjeri Elders became a leading voice for the Act," Ian says.

"When you talk about the river, you soon get to talking about the Indigenous association with the river which, like any part of the landscape, is intimate. That sense of place is incredibly powerful. And it's a powerful driving force for caring for it. The more we recent settlers learn from that sense and pick it up for ourselves, the more we are going to look after the place. It isn't just the science. It isn't something that will come automatically to a new arrival. That sense of place and the responsibility and joy of caring for it is something that grows."

So will this new law actually protect the Yarra's flows, its wildlife and its natural values?

"It i s a step forward," Ian says. "Of course it could be stronger, but it is a good thing. It acknowledges the importance of this river to Melbourne and Victoria. Regulation in the past has been very piecemeal, but this law views the Yarra as a whole system."

EJA lawyer Bruce Lindsay says there's never been anything quite like the Yarra Act in Australian law.

"It is remarkable because it recognises the Yarra and its environs as a discrete, integrated living entity, to be managed as a single landscape under a 50-year vision. It's a framework Act--it sets up important opportunities for things to happen. It is still up to executive government to do certain things, such as prepare a strategic plan for the whole river corridor. But there are elements of the law that will take effect regardless of the action or inaction of a particular government.

"The participatory design process--getting communities involved--was important. Collaborative law reform is much more effective than lawyers trying to do it on our own. Public involvement is a prominent feature of the Act and it will be fundamental to achieving strong outcomes for the environment."

Bruce is now working with community groups in Melbourne's west to secure better legal protection for the Maribyrnong and Werribee Rivers and other smaller waterways.

"Like the Yarra, the rivers of Melbourne's west are valued by communities in the suburbs and upstream, but their protection and restoration is constrained by weak and fragmented laws," Bruce says.

"The Yarra Act sets up an innovative model. That could be a starting point for law reform to protect and restore other rivers. Some key features--like the 50-year vision for restoration--will be relevant in the west."

Ian Penrose wants to see how the Yarra Act plays out. But he also can see potential for this new legislation to be a model for other river-specific laws.

"Wouldn't it be fantastic if all those rivers had legislation to protect them, the way the Yarra does? But this is just a first step for the Yarra. Let's see how this one is implemented and how the Act works in practice," Ian says.

"In our dry climate, healthy flowing rivers are not just vital for wildlife, they are very important to people's lives. Whether you live near the Yarra, the Maribyrnong, the Werribee, or one of the many creeks, that waterway is precious. And with the pressure of expanding populations, they need better protection."

Josh Meadows was ACF's media adviser for 12 years to 2017. He now manages media and communications for Environmental Justice Australia.
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Author:Meadows, Josh
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2018
Words:1382
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