The town of Yea has affectionately named him "Mr Wetlands", and not just because you can replace one letter of his last name to form the word. Russell Wealands resigned from the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority (GBCMA) three years ago, but his involvement in the Yea River remains as strong as ever.
“I spend a ridiculous amount of time working on the Yea River and its wetlands. I’m very lucky I have a supportive wife and family,’’ Russell says. “I’m not always down on the wetlands but I suppose my mind, body, soul, and a lot of my energy is involved in looking after our river systems. I feel I’m really linked with the Yea River and it hurts me to see it struggling’’.
Having moved to Yea nearly 13 years ago to take up the position of Executive Officer to the newly formed Upper Goulburn Waterways Authority (a predecessor to the GBCMA), Russell oversaw a raft of changes to the way waterways are managed. He initiated the removal of willow trees along the rivers, introduced waterway grants for farmers to fence off their properties, and implemented the controversial waterway charge.
“That charge was initially taken very poorly. I had the pleasure of talking to everybody in the catchment because they all objected,’’ he smiles. “I think in one day my assistant and I answered about 200 phone calls. “In retrospect though it was the best environmental education campaign ever undertaken because we had an opportunity to speak with everyone, explain why those landholders should contribute to protecting and sustaining our rivers, and point out that at least 85 or 90 per cent of the funds we were collecting would be spent on the ground improving our waterways, which improves not only our environment but our quality of life and feeling of wellbeing’’.
Almost immediately upon his arrival in Yea, Russell identified the potential of the unique wetlands on the floodplain near the town entrance. “I realised that this amazing environmental asset which had suffered from years of neglect was in fact a tremendous opportunity for Yea. While it had been grazed, the remnant vegetation was still fairly healthy.”
“Over the years we have secured several grants, built bridges and opened up a series of walking trails and erected high quality interpretive signage.
“I’m still leading the charge to establish a multi-functional environmental education centre to focus on sustainable water resources and the Murray Darling Basin. It will incorporate displays of our Aboriginal heritage and culture, commercial office spaces, and a visitor information centre’’.
Now working primarily as a community volunteer, it is obvious Russell places his faith in the cooperation of the local community to help turn the tide on the declining condition of the Yea River.
“It’s a matter of really engaging and informing your community, and importantly working with them to identify and achieve sustainable solutions for healthy rivers – they are the arteries of our nation,’’ he says. “If the river dries up the town of Yea will be up the proverbial creek. It’s not just the government’s responsibility – it’s the community’s as well. We’re all in this together’’.
Written by Daniel Clarke, Environment Victoria, July 2008