Protecting the Barwon River system

The Barwon River system (Barra Wallee Yulluk) is vital to the communities of the Geelong region, the Otways, the Moorabool Valley and all of the diverse creatures that call it home.  

Friends of the Barwon and Environmental Justice Australia convened a series of structured discussions and prepared the proposals set out in this report to achieve a healthy, flowing, life-sustaining Barwon River system.

The Barwon river system – including the Moorabool River, the Barwon River, Leigh Creek and several hundred kilometres of minor tributaries – is the lifeblood for communities, wildlife, farms and millions of people. These rivers give us drinking water, places to rest and play, and homes for platypuses, native fish like Spotted Galaxias and Common Jollytails, as well as Short finned Eels. 

But the Barwon system is at a turning point.

It is water system highly modified by human impacts but a singular living and functioning ecosystem nevertheless. Growing pressures on the system from water and land use decisions continue to put serious pressures on the integrity of the Barwon system. Change to the management of this river system is inevitable.

The question is in which direction it will proceed. Will priorities that take from the rivers continue, to the detriment and decline of the Barwon system, or will more sustainable and adaptive management prevail?

This river system is under long-term, growing strain from overdevelopment, over-extraction (including Geelong’s water supply) and deforestation.  They are in dire need of a new approach to restore them as a healthy, life-sustaining river system.  

This is exemplified by the catastrophic ecological collapse of Big Swamp in the upper Barwon in 2016 while the Moorabool River is the most flow-stressed waterway in Victoria.  

EJA, Friends of the Barwon and People for a Living Moorabool have campaigned for new legislation to protect the Barwon River, which acknowledges the river as a living entity.  

In 2019, following ongoing work from these groups, the Victorian government established, in parallel to ‘waterways of the West,’ a Ministerial Advisory Committee to set a new policy framework to preserve and restore the river.

In response, EJA and Friends of the Barwon released the Protecting and Restoring the Rivers of the Barwon – a report detailing how to take care of the river, including new legislation and improved planning.  

Our proposals include place-specific legislation for protection of and improvement to these waterways, alongside complementary actions and programs. We propose governance reforms better adapted to recognition of the system as a ‘living’ system. We propose a framework for strategic planning, as well as behaviour-shifting mechanisms applying to how decisions are made and resources are directed to management of these waterways.

The Victorian government’s ‘action plan’ was released in December 2021 but failed to make the critical changes necessary to safeguard those waterways and the wildlife they support.    

Local environment and community groups continue to advocate for effective protection and restoration of the Barwon and Moorabool Rivers including engagement with the Victorian government to put in place strong and effective plans for water management across southern Victoria.