Water is everything, but first a little history.
The Wollondilly River and the Mulwarree Chain of Ponds define Goulburn. The Wollondilly, while ultimately providing Sydney with water, carves its way through an often steep gorge. As a result its flow is sometimes very rapid and it contains large volumes of water. In the early days of Goulburn it was thought that the banks of this, the larger of the two rivers, would be an ideal site for the centre of the city. Plans were made to place it near the historic and aptly named Riverdale homestead, now one of many local National Trust properties. Flooding and churning water put an end to this and the town centre was moved to its present place, on a high bench between the two rivers.
One of the charming spots admired by visitors to Goulburn at the time was a collection of lagoons, unusually found high above the river. It was noted for its natural beauty and great wealth of bird life, including brolgas and many species of waterfowl. Unfortunately both brolgas and lagoons are now gone. Neither suited the early settlement. The brolgas were shot as vermin and the lagoons filled in with rubble, much of it ruined bricks. Today the area is notable for its motels and tennis courts, and remembered only as Lagoon Street, the origin of its name unknown and irrelevant to many living in the city. By the middle of the nineteenth century Goulburn had grown so much and was such a centre of great wealth and culture — earning its own cathedral and many other ornate and expensive, permanent buildings — that it became a city, sometimes affectionately known as The Queen of the South. It became a hub for ambitious, creative and far-sighted people, punching well above its weight. It is claimed that in the ballroom of what is now Mandelson’s guest house, wealthy and powerful men, marvelling at the new wonder of Stephenson’s Rocket in England, drew up plans for a railway to take their wool to the sea whilst creating a real estate boom in Sydney. This railway was duly built and railway stations placed at regular intervals, creating towns and suburbs where there had been none before. It was so successful that, wisely perhaps, the NSW Government refused to allow such a vital asset to remain in private hands and, allowing substantial profit to be realised by the private owners, took it over. Also in Mandelson’s resided one of Australia’s wise heads, the lawyer Daniel Deneihy. He deeply resented plans by wealthy squatters to replicate in Australia a Westminster System of government, complete with a hereditary upper house. This Antipodean House of Lords was to be generated by the descendants of the squatters themselves, for which Deneihy lambasted the likes of William Wentworth (of Vaucluse House and crossing the Blue Mountains fame) as promoting a “Bunyip Aristocracy”: a ludicrous fancy. He succeeded and Australia gained its present more egalitarian form of government.
At the same time one of Australia’s hero-explorers, Captain William Hovell, decided to settle in the town. He owned a swathe of land across the Mulwarree which he ultimately but unsuccessfully offered to Sydney University so Goulburn could have its own campus.
There is a large picture above the manager’s desk at Mandelson’s. It shows the town at the time, warts and all, replete with a bullock dray climbing the dirt road, someone shooting his gun near the main street, the Methodist Manse where the current golf clubhouse stands and a painted-in idea of what the future railway station (to be built on the site of the Town Common) might look like.
Beyond that railway lies the Mulwarree Chain of Ponds. Originally its planners thought the Wollondilly would make a better source of water for the steam engines, but some examination showed that the Mulwarree, though smaller, slower flowing and weedier, had much cleaner water; perhaps that’s why. Of course the town needed buildings, and could afford pretty substantial ones. One of Hovell’s neighbouring landowners was Thomas Stubbings, a man who decided he could make good use of the sandy clay to be found along the alluvial flats of Goulburn’s watercourses. In Eastgrove, behind the site of the unsuccessful university campus, was a street called Melbourne Place. Today it is called May Street. Stubbings built his house (still to be found at the intersection of May and Chiswick Streets) and created the Melbourne Place Brickworks in 1863 on 30 acres (13.5 hectares) of the river bank. Opposite his house kilns were built as well as what ultimately became a large hole in the fertile plain. Many of Goulburn’s older houses and buildings are constructed from this material.
By the 1950s Goulburn’s progress had levelled off considerably. The brickworks was removed but the hole remained. Hovell’s proposed university site had become Goulburn Golf Course and the site of his house is thought to lie somewhere beneath Woolworths’ loading bay. Old photographs showed a stand of massive trees near the golf course, seemingly Ribbon Gums, Yellow Box, Apple Box and Cabbage Gums. Over time these too were all but clear-felled. Today there remain a few older specimens of each of these species in the neighbourhood. Apple Box are still common in the golf course and Ribbon Gums can be found along May Street.
For about 60 years people made ambitious and sometimes fanciful plans for the brickworks land, but nothing much happened except the advent of weeds and the disintegration of the few bricks remaining around the site. Around 2000 then Greater Argyle Council engineer Peter Mowle envisaged a combination wetlands and extension of the golf course, as well as the very functional opportunity to store waste water from Eastgrove in the hole. In 2003 a Concept Report was carried out but Mulwaree Shire was amalgamated with Goulburn City, nine years of drought came along and nothing more was done. In 2008 The Goulburn Group (TGG), a newly formed community organisation, commissioned the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University to estimate and address major perceived needs in Goulburn, its economy, environment and society. The Fenner School report detailed several major issues which were developed into three projects by TGG and presented to Goulburn Mulwaree Council (GMC). The ideas included the formation of a business opportunities and promotion working group, a working group to encourage city tree-changers to settle in the Goulburn district and what was initially perceived as a lake to overcome Goulburn’s then biggest publicity nightmare, the terrible drought.
This concept was heavily reworked by Rodney Falconer and Bill Wilkes, both TGG members but also members of the Goulburn Field Naturalists Society, a group that had previously worked with Peter Mowle in developing his concept for the old brickpit. With pivotal help from Sydney landscape planner Lisa-Maree Siebert of MotherEarthWorks, a new and fairly exhaustive preliminary assessment report was published in September 2010 and presented to GMC. The concept was taken on whole-heartedly by Council, which voted unanimously in April 2011 to accept all TGG’s recommendations including providing support for the project, providing gross pollution traps and putting into place an environmental levy to pay for water treatment throughout Goulburn. Council decided that a working group was to be set up comprising major stakeholders, to oversee the project. This is the Wetlands Working Group and includes representatives of TGG, GMC, NSW Lands, Goulburn Golf Club and Plants Australia, with Council providing administrative support and Peter Mowle providing engineering advice. The Environmental Levy is one which was suggested by the NSW Government to pay for the treatment of urban stormwater going into the State’s rivers. It was enthusiastically taken up by most Councils and by 2010 of the 30 or so Councils in the Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment only 2 had failed to enact the levy; one of these two was Goulburn Mulwaree Council. At the same time that Council was being lobbied by TGG, Rodney Falconer, Bill Wilkes and David Marsden-Ballard used an audio-visual presentation to present TGG’s vision to most of Goulburn’s larger community groups in 2011. This gained great support and several offers of expertise and funding. Several community groups promised ongoing support in terms of expertise and labour, including those mentioned above, Rotary chapters, gardening clubs and others. In December 2010 the drought was broken by several prolonged rainy periods, resulting in flooding of the Mulwaree. This event taught us many things about the design of the future wetlands. Among these included that floods in this area seldom come from upstream as we had expected. The Wollondilly in flood contains far more water with far greater force than the placid Mulwarree and so it forces water up the channel of the Mulwarree for quite a distance. This also means that, in general, floodwaters in the wetlands site rise and fall without great currents to tear objects away. There was a vigorous response by native water plants, frogs and waterfowl to the flood creating an almost overnight aquatic ecosystem that lasted for several months before completely drying out again in September 2011. There was local breeding of Australasian grebes, white-faced herons, dusky moorhens and coots, while the sounds of thousands of breeding spotted meadow frogs and pobblebonks (also called eastern banjo frogs) were deafening. One reason for this prolonged process was the lengthy leaching of water from Rocky Hill, perhaps a rather perilous situation for the many houses perched there in north Eastgrove.
Water is everything, but so, it seems, is money
In June 2011 TGG applied to the NSW Community Building Partnership Program and, with the strong support of local State Member, Pru Goward, was successful in June in obtaining $70,000 to kick the project off. To this were added funds from GMC and the Hawkesbury-Nepean Catchment Management Authority to bring a total of over $100,000. The money was used to build the engineering foundations of the proposed wetlands: the boulder walls or berms to direct water around the wetlands and a dam and culvert to keep the water in that the brick builders had tried so hard to let out. Attention was also given to collecting and growing native plants, and removing and managing weeds, an ongoing problem in a flood-prone environment. Most of the heavy work was undertaken by Divall’s Earthworks, and Andy Divall was extremely generous with his time and contributions, taking as great an interest in TGG as we have.
In March 2012 the river flooded again. By then the berms and dam were in place and an entrance pipe laid to allow water into the wetlands from the second channel of the river, running through and behind the golf course. This second flood was also a great teacher. It destroyed the ancient and crumbling fence for some distance above the May Street bridge with the mass of vegetation generated by the first flood weighing down the old wires and flimsy posts. It also showed that our new pondage worked. A dry period followed the flood and we were able to see for ourselves how fast evaporation would lower the water levels. What we had failed to see was that the entrance pipe failed to bring water in from the old channel; instead it drained the wetlands by almost a metre.
This time the wildlife was different too. Before the flood the wetlands had dried out leaving only the deepest pool near Chiswick Street with any water in it. As has happened so often in the past, the water plants shrivelled up, most returning to their tubers and other storage organs in the mud, while a rich carpet of grass and weeds covered the newly dried land. Small waders, such as sandpipers, dotterels and lapwings began to predominate, while ducks slowly moved away, leaving only a faithful pair of grey teal. Thickets of native water-pepper covered the wettest patches and survived drying out. Starlings and crested pigeons began to colonise the thorn bushes and a peregrine falcon from Rocky Hill swooped down on them from time to time.
After the flood the water-pepper remained with the uppermost branches still surviving above the water line. The other water plants — mainly water ribbons and floating fern — did not reappear. Ducks returned, as did rails, but now waders decreased in numbers while deeper water birds — such as coots, chestnut teal and hardheads (a brown duck with white-eyed males) — were more numerous. The coots browsed on the water peppers while water insects and algae fed new flocks of teal and black duck. The colder weather meant that only a few isolated common froglets remained to call, but there remained a steady population of white-faced herons, grebes, moorhens and ducks. Small waders were now found mainly in the muddy shallow overflows. Before this flood, workmen from GMC had deposited large mounds of eucalypt mulch near what was then the edges of the ponds. The flood swept many of these away, but many others remained to form miniature islands. It was on these and other emergent knolls that grey teal bred, producing little gangs of fluffy ducklings eyed hungrily by luckless ravens. A black-shouldered kite appeared in country now clearly abounding in its principal food source, house mice.
In May 2012 FROGS (Friends and Residents of Goulburn Swamplands) was registered as a Landcare Group and its charter drawn up by Debbi Rodden, Bill Wilkes and Rodney Falconer. The major aim of FROGS is to act as the community group managing and maintaining the wetlands long after initial construction works have been completed. Before its public inauguration in October 2012, a core group of FROGS was started (as tadpoles?) and worked on small structural projects such as removing old rotting fences, cleaning up the site and planting a trial native plant patch near the causeway.