Firing up the ute, Russell Pell tunes in to the weather report. "This is not what you want to hear," says the ABC announcer to his largely rural audience, "but I'm afraid there's no rain on the horizon."
Russell, who runs a dairy farm at Wyuna, on the Goulburn River near Shepparton, has heard this sorry news too many times. Driving across what used to be floodplains, he points out the sparse canopies of the thirsty River Red Gums: “Some of these trees are on their last gasp. They just can’t get enough to drink.”
Growing up on the farm he now owns, Russell sees the Goulburn River as an old family friend: he points out a favourite log he fished from as a kid, and remembers checking the crayfish nets with his dad, a job that always led to a tasty dinner. “I drove our pony gig with the crays in the back,” he recalls. “It was always chock-a-block.”
But Russell’s lifelong link to Wyuna – meaning “clear water” in local Aboriginal dialect – means he’s witnessed big changes in both the Goulburn River and our attitudes to water. “In the early days the environment was just seen as a resource. We never thought it would come under threat,” he says.
Pollution was the first culprit. “People used the river as a drain. The water quality became appalling in the 60s and 70s – the native fish were sick, fishermen’s bait was dying on the line. It was a sad time.” While this decline was painful to watch, Russell says the community felt powerless. “We just didn’t know what to do.”
That changed in the mid-90s, when new data showed the high pollution levels coming from this catchment.
“That was a real wake-up call to us all,” Russell remembers. That uncomfortable truth triggered an increasingly holistic approach to restoring the Goulburn, which now includes water protection, anti-erosion and biodiversity measures. Russell is also closely involved in a major project to reconfigure the region’s century-old irrigation system, to reduce water wastage.
As the river became healthier, native fish and birdlife began to return. But it’s too late for some species: “The flocks of bright-green native budgies we used to see are gone now,” says Russell regretfully. Noting a drop in the curlew population, he recently fenced off a paddock to protect the ground-dwelling birds from hungry foxes.
Drought remains the worst problem for Russell and his fellow farmers, many of whom have been forced out of the industry. For 50 years, this stretch of the Goulburn naturally flooded its embankments every year. “But in the past eleven years that hasn’t happened once,” says Russell. “With the drought, alongside climate change and groundwater extraction…the situation is scary.”
While water shortages spell tough times, Russell’s seen a shift in thinking that reveals a growing respect for the environment:
“If the river wasn’t healthy I wouldn’t live here – but if the dairy industry doesn’t do well I won’t be here either. We need the river, but we also need our livelihoods. It’s a balancing act.”
Story by Meg Mundell, 2007