With just two days’ notice, community volunteers at the heart of the Koondrook Perricoota co-design welcomed a shiny entourage of politicians, bureaucrats and media.
The whistlestop tour was part of a $330 million funding announcement with no less than five state and federal politicians; Liberal Party’s Sussan Ley, Member for Farrer and Federal Environment Minister; Perin Davey, Nationals Senator; National Party’s Melinda Pavey, NSW Water Minister; Liberal Party’s Justin Clancy, Member for Albury; and National Party’s Wes Fang, Member of the NSW Legislative Council.
The $330 million is to fund five projects under the New South Wales Murray-Darling Basin Plan Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism.
The Koondrook Perricoota project has been a white elephant of government spending with the $120 million over-designed project sitting idle.
The true heart of the story is the people who worked tirelessly for meaningful change in the face of political games.
At the base of one of the giant concrete outlets on the Moulamein Road, just outside of Barham, Anthony Jones of the Barapa Barapa people and member of the Joint Indigenous Group (JIG) gave the welcome to country and acknowledged also the Wamba Wamba and Yorta Yorta people.
“The amount of cultural sites and evidence of our people being around back in the day is phenomenal in this area,” said Mr Jones.
“When it came to, particularly working on this project, just in this area there are eight burial sites.
“With those burial sites in mind, and being found, they didn’t lose one day of work in the project. We bent over backwards, everything went according to plan for them.
“The downside is we don’t think we have been properly recognised for that.
“We are still willing to work with all the community groups, we see what a great opportunity this is for everybody.
“Through the cultural evidence, our people have been managing this land for years and there is plenty of evidence of how it could be better managed.”
David McConnell, local farmer and chair of the Koondrook Perricoota Alliance (KPA) has family history and ties to the forest since the 1880-1890s.
“Unity is carried in the three organisations pushing this, the KPA, the Wakool Rivers Association and the JIG. We have been united in our stance in how this is to be treated for many years and that unity is unwavering. I think that shows a commitment that has to be respected,” said Mr McConnell.
“A lot of us have been on these planning committees, whether it was KPOC (Koondrook Perricoota Operating Committee) since the beginning.
“We’ve stuck fast and we want to see it to completion.
“The initial planning was to fill this whole thing up and drain it slowly, which was never going to work. If they had listened to locals, this would never have happened.”
John Lolicato is a local farmer and chair of the Wakool Rivers Association.
“I think it’s terrific you have made the effort to come out here again,” said Mr Lolicato.
“KP was commissioned in 2012 and since then, we haven’t been able to utilise it.
“As community members, we are absolutely disgusted with it. Everything is there and it’s ready to go. All we needed was to address a few of the legacy issues we have been talking about since day dot.
“To us, co-design means the partnership we’ve got.
“At the end of the day, we all point in the same direction and it’s been working terrific.
“Since 2012, we have had two commissioning flows, not proper flows, and that is due to some legacy issues. Until they are dealt with, you won’t get community endorsement.”
Mr Lolicato also highlighted the unnecessary destruction of two historical sites within the forest when the previous works were completed.
“We had a rifle range up the road here. The boys came back from the war and wanted to practice with their 303s. That was in excellent condition and we had said don’t touch that, and the township of Milverton, it had a sawmill and 100 odd people lived there and there was a school and a post office.
“What the community had said was completely ignored. When the forest was opened up again, it was all gone.
“While our indigenous history is extremely important, even our European history is really important, we only have 200 odd years of that sort of stuff.
“We’ve had a lot of kicks in the gut, but a lot of us are really passionate about the forest and the history we have got, that’s why we got involved.
“We really do want to see this move to the next step where we have proper co-design.”
Malcolm Starritt from Womboota farms stud sheep, wool, prime lamb and beef production toward the top of the forest.
“There are three things that have become very clear during the hundreds and hundreds of hours of engagement we have spent with departments discussing the forest,” said Mr Starritt.
“These three things are what underpin social license, which is the foundation of any kind of success we might have in being good stewards of this forest. The first is that co-design is a process that must be an actual co-design process.
“It’s crucial that if all parties are going to get the maximum value out of the forest, that time has to be spent with the real decision makers and those community rep’s that are here today.
“There is considerable wear and tear on goodwill when watering events don’t happen. Despite all of that, time has been volunteered.
“Continuity is vital. KPOC needs to be continuous between events. The amount of work between events to find the issues and resolve them means that the work leading up to the watering event can’t be/won’t be cancelled.
“Having continual representation and continual terms of reference and actively managing this forest is the only way we will get success.
“Using local engineers and local contractors is essential.
“Big multinationals that are looking at maximum profit and getting in and out as quickly as possible hasn’t worked.
“We’re adamant that wealth stays in our community and that the enormous amount of local knowledge just here alone is of value, and we can drive real change on decision and the problems aren’t repeated.”
Todd Gelletly is the owner of Gelletly Red Gum Firewood.
Todd pointed out the state of the trees and how red gum population and density are important to forest health.
“What we need to be able to do is actively manage the forest to achieve greater forest health,” said Mr Gelletly.
“Arbuthnot Sawmills has been harvesting red gum wood across three centuries, there are more trees out here than when they started.
“Working together to deliver the outcomes this project was designed for.
“We employ over 100 people directly through industry and we turn over between $20 and $24 million, 90% of that would go directly back into the local economy.”
Mr Gelletly also highlighted the roll that forestry plays in fire management.
“We supply up to 800 hours of machinery and man-hours in fighting fires.
“That was never more evident than the black summer a couple of years ago. We had a fire up the other end in Perricoota on a 44-degree day and with a howling gale, and we kept it within the containment lines.
“Without local knowledge and machinery at a minute’s notice, that would have escaped into local farms.
“We want to continue to actively manage the forests, these forests have been actively managed for tens of thousands of years.”
The convoy of cars and dignitaries then headed to the Pollack Swamp site where collaboration between landholders is proving to be a winning recipe. The Pollack Swamp adjoins the property of Graham and Tanya Heffer. The Heffers play a vital role in ordering water and giving up grazing opportunities to see the project go from strength to strength.
Dan Hutton, a private environmental consultant and wetland specialist, has spent many years on the Pollack project and working with archaeologist, Colin Pardoe, to document the evidence of the traditional owners.
“This is the seventh consecutive year of flooding in Pollack Swamp,” said Mr Hutton.
“Of the 220ha, there has been a 96% encroachment of red gums into what would have been open water.
“It’s a highly significant heritage site. We’ve surveyed most of the area now. You’re looking at 150-160 aboriginal sites just on here, they’re distinct villages.
“Dates at the bottom of the heritage here go back 3,600 years, so we are talking about real sustainable levels of population within this area.
“It’s a learning process in which you start off small, see what happens and what benefits we are getting.
“You want to build social license, this is your model.
“Get people attached to the outcome, deliver what they want and they will back you.
“The idea here is we take this model; this is an example. We replicate this in KP so we have 8 to 10 of these small sites we have identified because of the heritage within those specific locations.
“We know those habitation spots were right next door to highly productive wetlands and swamp areas and supported a lot of people, we are talking hundreds of people.
“If we hit those hotspots, we know we get the wetlands next door. We are not talking huge volumes of water, we are talking targeted areas, small volumes, annual flows. Maintain the lagoon as permanent wetland refuges and things start to improve.
“Everything is still improving; we don’t know where we are going to get to, but it is still exponentially improving. Bird species present is increasing, bird breeding is increasing, species of wetland plants is increasing, population of fish is increasing, and water quality is increasing.
“There is an equality here, and there is expertise in the community that agencies don’t have and don’t know, so they have to come together as equal partners. It’s got to be long term, this community wants long term outcomes, not the next five years.
“Long term economic, social and environmental outcomes from this, there is $120 million already gone into this. We owe it to the ratepayers and taxes to deliver this damn thing. It can be delivered, we can turn this around, this is what that forest could look like.”
Roger Knight is the executive officer of Western Murray Land Improvement Group.
“We shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time seeing stuff pre-designed or pre-developed and then surprise us because someone thought, ‘well, we’ll do this in Canberra or Sydney. Here you go, this is what we’ll impose on you.’ It doesn’t work like that,” said Mr Knight.
“We’ve learnt from past experience that community must be front and centre of this program if we want to achieve real benefit to the environment and also protect landholders from increased flows.
“At the start of this year, through four workshops and some online surveys, we went to the community to see what they would like to see for the forest.
“People were really invested in this. They came from northern Victoria and southern NSW. There were a lot of new faces and this was their key vision.
“They want a healthy forest, a working forest and a people forest. They don’t want a national park. Not one person wanted a national park, that’s the model that they want.
“Maybe this is a pilot for the future on how a forest can be run, not just a state or national park.
“Bringing landholders together and working through the pros and cons of a watering event, listening to the community – it’s not easy, it’s hard. Different views, people who think it’s just going to grow mosquitos.”
The final word of the day went to NSW Water Minister, Melinda Pavey.
“I sort of want to say to you, Roger and Dan, you are preaching to the choir in so far as who we are and what we all believe in.
“Keith Pitt would love to be here with us today, he has had a lot of money burning a hole in his pocket. He’s told me and we want to get that money out and spent in a way that does this, it’s just beautiful, it’s stunning.
“From what I’ve known growing up on this river system, we need to make it healthier and better.
“There’s been so much really bad discourse around decisions of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the drought made those a real fever pitch, and now we are resetting it. How you want it reset, how you need it re-set and Keith is on side for that, Sussan is on side for that.
“We have money and we just need to make sure we make this river healthier and better. Listen to our communities.
“We will make decisions in relation to that flow and height, they’re not made. I can tell you heart on heart, those decisions aren’t made. We will only make those decisions with you in the room.
“We will also make sure there is money for infrastructure spent locally.
“We want local small manufacturing, small businesses to be part of the success of this redevelopment and the rejuvenation.”
This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 28 October 2021.