The Forests Commission’s Role in Catchment Management
David Williams (bio)
"The Commission repeats its contention, stressed in previous reports and endorsed by authorities all over the world, that a permanent solution of water conservation and erosion problems is fundamentally dependent on the systematic and strict management of vulnerable highland catchments under effective forest vegetation. The natural protection so afforded is a prime factor in soil stabilization, in the control of surface run-off, and in the encouragement of maximum absorption of water into the soil to feed natural underground water storages." FCV Annual Report. 1938/39
The Forests Commission Victoria (FCV, hereafter termed ‘Commission’) took a close interest in catchment management and erosion control from its very earliest days. It advocated for the permanent reservation of mountain catchments to provide for utilisation of the timber resources and water conservation from as early as 1922. It raised concerns about the detrimental impacts from uncontrolled grazing of mountain forests in the following year, proposing that it should be given authority to regulate forest grazing to protect against significant erosion that was occurring at the time.
As well as supporting proper management of mountain forests for water conservation, the policy also supported its major objective of permanent reservation of the valuable timber resources from the substantial mountain forests in Eastern and North East Victoria.
The Commission was successful over a period of time in achieving the reservation of vast areas of mountain forests and utilising the timber resources from those forests as well as implementing practices to protect water conservation thereby supporting water supply to much of rural Victoria.
The key catchment management question from the earliest times was whether timber utilisation in catchments was compatible with water conservation. The resolution of this question was to have a significant impact on the Commission. The Commission contended that closely controlled timber utilisation was compatible with water conservation and so adopted a policy of timber harvesting in water supply catchments. In contrast Melbourne’s water supply authority, Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) maintained a ‘closed’ catchment policy which stated that public access is to be strictly controlled and economic, commercial, urban and recreational use or developments are to be prohibited. Accordingly, the MMBW’s position was that timber harvesting in Melbourne’s water supply catchments was incompatible with providing high quality water for Melbournians.
The policy differences represented a major point of conflict between the organisations for a number of decades. The conflict was ultimately adjudicated in favour of the MMBW and Melbourne’s extensive forest catchments remained closed to timber harvesting. This outcome was one of the Commission’s major disappointments.
The Commission’s interests in catchment management were advanced at two levels which warrant separate consideration. The two levels of interest were:
- Permanent reservation of catchments predominantly in Victoria’s mountain areas in North Eastern and Eastern Victoria, and
- Specific case for timber utilisation in Melbourne’s water supply catchments.
As early as 1922 the Commission advocated for the permanent reservation of extensive forested catchments in Eastern and North Eastern Victoria (Forests Commission Victoria, 1928). This included a proposal for the permanent reservation of 170,000 acres (66,900 hectares) of the watershed of the Tambo and Timbarra Rivers to ensure protection from fire and to preserve stream flow for the rivers and creeks within the catchments. Another proposal was the reservation of the extensive Hume Basin catchment to ensure water conservation to support the recently commenced construction at the time of the Hume Weir on the Murray River.
The Hume Weir was being constructed jointly by the Victorian and New South Wales governments and was a project of national significance. It was completed in 1936 to provide flood mitigation, hydro-power, irrigation and water supply. The Victorian agency involved was the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (SRWC) which was the water authority for rural Victoria (other than Melbourne metropolitan water supply). The Commission correctly argued that the success of the Hume Weir project required protection and proper management of the forest catchments upstream of the weir.
The Commission’s supporting case included:
- Permanent reservation of the catchments as forest cover was widely accepted as the most effective land use to provide fire protection and water conservation,
- Appropriate specialised forest management practices were required to conserve water resources,
- The FCV was the appropriate agency to assume responsibility given its expertise in forest management,
- Carefully controlled utilisation of the timber resources was compatible with water conservation,
- The community cannot afford the luxury of dedicating extensive forests to single use of water supply to the exclusion of utilising valuable timber resources.
The Commission saw these principles as important to the future development of the State. It reiterated its position in subsequent years restating its proposals in 1926 for the catchments of the Tambo and Buchan Rivers. In 1927 it repeated its call for permanent reservation for the Hume catchment and affirmed its policy of the compatibility of timber utilisation and water conservation. Commission representatives actively promoted these messages to the public through opportunistic platforms over the subsequent decades.
The Commission undertook surveys of the Murray and Mitta Mitta Rivers in 1933 to quantify the extent of erosion and siltation flowing from adverse activities including uncontrolled use of fire, land selection in unsuitable localities, alluvial mining and free reigning lease holdings by cattlemen. This was to support its case that proper management and elimination of damaging activities in the headwaters of the catchments was essential to support the important Hume Weir project. It furthermore contended it was the appropriate agency to manage the forests for these outcomes. An example of the ineffectiveness of dual responsibilities occurred on unreserved Crown land where the responsibility for grazing was with the Lands Department whilst the Commission exercised responsibility for fire protection. The Commission drew attention to the observations of the Royal Commission into forest grazing which noted that graziers were the main cause of fires in mountain forests in Eastern Victoria. 8 The Commission contended that the Lands Department did not have the expertise, resources or level of interest to proactively control or effectively manage grazing.
The Commission in 1935 again raised concerns about negative impacts of ill-advised clearing of forest cover in the headwaters of highland catchments. The clearing of forests caused serious adverse impacts through the flooding of rich agricultural land following the heavy rain and flooding in Eastern Victoria in 1935. Floods in all Great Dividing Range catchments caused serious soil wastage at high elevations resulting in siltation and choking of rivers at lower levels impacting rich agriculture land.
Review of the Use of Victoria’s Public Land – Commission’s Proposal, 1936
The Commission had repeatedly highlighted problems of substantial erosion and land degradation caused by inappropriate forest clearing and other damaging activities, but its representations had produced little immediate response from the Government or other land and natural resource management agencies.
In an attempt to raise the matters to another level and with a strong belief in its position about reservation of unreserved Crown forests and its suitability as forest manager, the Commission in 1936 presented a proposal for a review to determine the optimal use of all of the State’s public land. The review was to include a comprehensive survey and consider what land should be permanently reserved as forest, what areas could be released for settlement and what areas already denuded needed to be reforested. It further proposed that the review would be jointly undertaken by representatives from all land and natural resource agencies and a coordinated report would be presented. The proposal did not meet with immediate support. The Commission continued to advocate for such a review in the succeeding years.
The extended drought between 1936 and 1945 and increased pressure resulting from population growth after World War II caused the Government to realise the land and water management arrangements at the time were inadequate. It established the Land Conservation Authority (LCA) in 1940 to address the shortcomings. Its role was to conduct land assessment over the whole of the State in order to achieve a balanced use of Victorian land. 12 This was similar to what the Commission had proposed in 1936 but the difference being that the Commission proposed the review be undertaken jointly by representatives for all Victorian land and natural resources agencies whereas the LCA, as the body with overall responsibility, was independent of the government departments. The LCA had limited impact on the Commission’s interests.
Land Conservation Council (LCC) was established in 1970 following public land management controversies. Its role was to present recommendations on the balanced use of all public land in Victoria. The LCC was well supported by various governments with the overwhelming majority of its recommendations being accepted. The LCC recommendations significantly adversely impacted the Commission’s interests.
Catchment Management Prescriptions
By the late 1940s the Commission was expanding its approach to catchment management. It pointed out that it was increasingly observed worldwide that proper management of forest catchments was superior to all other approaches for maintaining effective control of soil erosion and water conservation, which includes maintaining the quantity, quality and regularity of water flow. The Commission contended management of forest catchments was essential to protecting water supply engineering structures which underpinned water supply. To reinforce its message the Commission highlighted the lessons from the devastating 1939 bushfires about forest cover being an appropriate method of managing water conservation. Widespread erosion and siltation occurred from burnt areas following heavy rains where the decomposing vegetation and litter cover on the forest floor had been destroyed by the fires.
It is noted however that the Commission’s strongly held position on compatibility of timber utilisation and water conservation was not supported by scientific evidence at that time as very little, if any, relevant hydrology research had been undertaken. This was a key issue in the debate with the MMBW which held the opposite view. The MMBW’s position was likewise not supported at the time by hard evidence from relevant research studies. This matter is further discussed below.
The Commission was aware that its conflicting position with that of the MMBW would at a future time be publicly contested and would need to be resolved. This encouraged the Commission to pay increasing attention to how it would demonstrate the compatibility of timber utilisation and water conservation. It recognised the importance of expert knowledge of water and soil conservation to proper management of forest catchments by introducing special courses in 1948 into forestry training to ensure all foresters were expertly prepared for managing forest catchments. The Commission reflected on the changes that had occurred over the preceding two decades and noted there had been a substantial increase in water supply for rural communities derived from forested catchments on the one hand, and considerable changes in logging procedures on the other hand. More intrusive practices including use of steam winches and tram haulage were replaced by less intrusive tractors and road transport. Also sawmills had been relocated in towns outside the forest following the recommendations from the Stretton inquiry into the 1939 bushfires in Victoria. 7 Using this experience, the Commission committed to the preparation and application of comprehensive catchment-specific prescriptions in the late 1950s that included provisions covering the following:
- Roads, snig tracks and log landings – these were to be planned, constructed, maintained and used in a manner that minimised erosion.
- Planning logging operations – plans were to minimise canopy openings consistent with silvicultural requirements and operations were to be controlled by tree marking to the maximum extent possible.
- Logging operations were to be undertaken in the following manner:
- Snigging – care was to be taken to avoid siltation of any running stream.
- Stream protection – streams were to be kept clear of heads of felled trees, logs and other material associated with logging. A strip of at least half a chain (10 metres) was to be reserved along each bank of permanent streams and a clear distance of at least 10 chains (200 metres) was to be established upstream from an inlet of any weir. Where it was necessary for tractors or other vehicles to cross streams, suitable crossing were to be constructed.
- Rehabilitation – appropriate measures were to be undertaken to prevent erosion of snig tracks and landings and to divert drainage from snig tracks and landings.
- Wet conditions – it was desirable to suspend logging in small catchments during the winter period where possible. Where complete suspension was not possible, operations were to be minimised and confined to areas least liable to erosion and where soil disturbance would cause minimum stream turbidity.
- Habitation– camps and other living quarters were not to be established in catchments.
- Burning operations – were to be minimised consistent with proper fire protection.
- Timber salvage in the event of wildfire damage – approval of the Commission was to be obtained before undertaking such operations.
The timing of these actions was probably largely influenced by the anticipation of the Government’s need to decide the conditions for the catchment of the new Upper Yarra Dam and the Parliamentary Sate Development Committee inquiry into the utilisation of timber resources in the State’s watersheds which commenced in 1957. This is discussed further below.
This approach was further advanced in the 1960s with a procedure for the preparation of prescriptions in consultation with the Soil Conservation Authority (SCA) for catchments proclaimed under the Soil Conservation and Land Utilisation Act 1958 which provided for logging and water conservation. Within a few years prescriptions had been promulgated for sixty catchments. 1
Overall, the Commission was successful in having mountain catchments permanently reserved with the utilisation of timber resources being achieved through carefully regulated management practices. Victoria’s water supply catchments as at 1959 are shown below.
Victoria’s Water Supply Catchments 1959
When the Commission was established in 1919 it was aware of the MMBW’s ‘closed’ catchment policy. The MMBW’s policy of strictly limiting public access and excluding all economic, commercial, urban and recreational activities in Melbourne’s water supply catchments was embraced when the MMBW was established in 1891. Thus, the Commission probably felt it prudent to place a claim on access to timber resources in water supply catchments early on. Accordingly, it formally announced its contrasting policy of the compatibility of utilising timber resources with water conservation in catchments in 1922.
This policy difference was significant as it would at some time in the future require resolution, the result of which could determine whether timber resources from significant areas of highly productive mountain ash forests in the Central Highlands could be available for utilisation. Whilst the conflicting positions were significant at a policy level in the early decades, they were of limited practical importance until 1939. Up until that time the MMBW had been providing Melbourne’s water supply from Yan Yean, O’Shannassy, Silvan and Maroondah reservoirs. These water sources had limited forest catchment implications for timber harvesting.
Planning Melbourne’s Water Supply
Water-borne diseases were killers in Australian cities throughout the nineteenth century. Such diseases were due to unhygienic waste-water and sewage disposal, and lack of clean drinking water. Melbournians became fearful with the news of the outbreak of cholera in Britain in the late 1840s. The Victorian government established the Sewers and Water Supply Commission (SWSC) in 1853 to provide sanitation to Melbourne in response to demands for improved sewerage and water infrastructure. 5 The Government provided a loan of the very large sum at the time of £600,000 for the SWSC to provide clean water for Melbourne. The loan was to be repaid by rates levied on water users.
Yan Yean reservoir was built on the Plenty River in 1857 as Australia’s first water supply reservoir. In the view of the City Surveyor at the time, James Blackburn, the reservoir would … ‘render it needless to revert to the Yarra for any purpose than as the principle drain … and sewer for the city’ 5 This early pronouncement identified the Yarra as a ‘single purpose’ river and established the sourcing of water from rivers and dams as the appropriate approach to providing Melbourne’s future water needs. The SWSC adopted the ‘single use’ policy for the Yarra River.
A Royal Commission was established by the Victorian Government in 1880 to address the concerns about the spread of disease, particularly typhoid, from the city’s unhygienic waste disposal practices. The MMBW was established in 1891 to replace the SWSC as an outcome of the Royal Commission. Hence, the MMBW was established to solve what was considered a major societal threat of widespread disease. The Government, in supporting the establishment of a sewerage system and water supply, was also keen to showcase Melbourne as a prosperous and modern city. The MMBW extended the ‘single use’ policy of its predecessor by adopting a ‘closed’ catchment policy.
The purpose of this background is to highlight that the MMBW was established to undertake an important task for the State and accordingly commenced its role as a high-profile organisation with considerable community and government goodwill. It was able to maintain this standing in the subsequent decades as it grew to become a very large and powerful organisation with extensive responsibilities for Melbourne’s water supply, sewerage system, drainage infrastructure and planning for the city’s development. This afforded it close association with Melbournians which represented more than two thirds of the State’s population. It also provided the platform for it to maintain a close and influential relationship with various governments over the decades.
Planning for the future water needs for the Melbourne population was a fundamental component of the MMBW’s charter. Melbourne’s population was growing rapidly as was water consumption. Melbourne experienced two waves of rapid population growth prior to World War I (1851-1858 and 1882-1892) and then very rapid growth following World War II until 1970. During the latter period the population increased at more than 60,000 per year, averaging three per cent growth per year. Per capita water use doubled from 1857 when Yan Yean water supply was completed until 1940 when the MMBW decided to proceed with the construction of the Upper Yarra Dam.
Not surprisingly the MMBW had developed ambitious long term plans to expand Melbourne’s water supply. At the time of approving the construction of the Upper Yarra dam in 1940 the MMBW was planning for a population of 2.5 million, which was achieved in 1970. The population in 1940 was 1.1 million. These plans incorporated sequential expansionary steps to increase water supply from further afield. Maroondah and O’Shannassy reservoirs were completed in 1927 and Silvan reservoir in 1932. The next step was to pipe water from the Yarra River to Silvan reservoir. The subsequent big expansion, and the one with potential significance to the Commission, was the plan to build a dam on the Yarra River. The dam wall was to be 240 feet (72 metres) high which would create a huge upstream catchment much of which included highly productive mountain ash forests in the Central Highlands. Stages beyond the Upper Yarra dam included building a pipeline to channel water from the Thomson River to the Upper Yarra dam and then to dam the Thomson River creating another very large upstream catchment.
The MMBW announced its intention to build the Upper Yarra dam in 1940 and requested the Government set aside 25,000 acres (10,000 hectares) of the Yarra watershed and another 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of the valley itself for the dam under the same conditions as other catchments were vested in the MMBW at the time,that is ‘closed’ catchments. The Commission objected to exclusion of harvesting and re-iterated its position on the compatibility of timber utilisation and water conservation in catchments. The Government vested 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) of forest for the construction of the dam wall to allow construction to commence but did not determine the status of the catchment at the time. The Commission received compensation of £31,000 for the loss of royalties for the timber foregone. 11 The MMBW formally decided to construct the dam in April 1940 at the estimated cost of £1.78 million. The dam construction progressed very slowly during the war years and was completed in 1957.
“Closed Catchments” - Showdown
Bearing in mind that there was a lack of relevant research-based evidence to support either of the conflicting positions, it was difficult for the Government to decide on the status of the catchment. Nevertheless, both parties were making strong representations to the Government. The Government sought advice by asking the Parliamentary State Development Committee to carry out an inquiry into the utilisation of timber resources in the watersheds of the State.
The Committee commenced its Inquiry in 1957 and presented its final report in 1960. The eight Parliamentary members of the Committee were aware of the contentious nature of the matter with a number of vitally interested parties as well as the Commission and the MMBW. A number of local municipal authorities and public bodies, other interested Parliamentarians and representatives of the local pulp and paper industry and sawmilling companies were closely interested as their interests would be directly affected by the Government’s decision.
The Committee’s inquiry represented the first thorough review of the subject. It succinctly phrased its task as resolving the question of ….. ‘Can the State of Victoria afford to manage all of its forested water catchments for the production of only water? 9.
The Committee made a number field visits and took evidence from many parties and individuals. There was a high level of public interest and metropolitan and local newspapers reported and speculated on the inquiry. The Committee found it necessary in its final report to refute newspaper stories that it had prematurely reached a position in favour of continued logging in catchments before the inquiry had concluded.
Of the many submissions made to the inquiry, the most relevant to the current consideration were those made by the MMBW and the Commission.
The MMBW Submission
The submission can be summarised as follows:
- Its ‘closed’ catchment policy involved strictly controlled public access and exclusion of economic, commercial, urban and recreational uses or developments from Melbourne’s water supply catchments. This included exclusion of timber harvesting.
- ‘Closed’ catchments allow the production of high quality, untreated water supply to Melbournians. This avoids water treatment which would be expensive.
- Melbourne’s water is very high quality, untreated and ‘soft. These properties could be jeopardised if logging was permitted in the catchments.
- Fire risks tend to be reduced where public access, including logging access, is restricted. Occurrence of fire in the catchments represents a major risk to the quality of the water supply.
- ‘Closed’ catchments avoid problems with activities associated with multiple use catchments which can degrade water quality.
The MMBW’s submission focused attention on the concerns about water quality but did not include research-based evidence to support its contention about the adverse impact of logging on water quality.
The Commission Submission
There were three main components to the Commission’s submission4 including:
- Supportive statement about the quantity and value of timber that would be foregone if logging was excluded from Melbourne’s water supply catchments highlighting the importance of continued availability of this timber resource to the State.
- Commission’s view that logging carried out under strict prescriptions in catchments is compatible with water conservation.
- Responses to the MMBW’s submission.
Compatibility of Logging and Water Conservation
The main arguments included:
- In the absence of specific research-based evidence, attention was directed to overseas observations and practices including from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. A number of experts had opined that logging was compatible with water conservation. One expert, Edward Hopkins of the Bureau of Water Supply in the United States noted “With modern purification, it becomes evident that, for an impounded river supply, a virgin woodland watershed is archaic.” 6. Several examples were referenced where logging had been occurring in catchments for a number of decades without detriment to water quality.
- Empirical experience with rural water supply catchments revealed that logging had been carried out for extended periods with no adverse impacts on water quality.
Response to MMBW Submission
There were two primary considerations as follows:
- Polluted water through increased turbidity
- Risk of disease
- The contention that logging and roading result in turbid water was totally erroneous.
- Turbidity depends on the types of soil over which water has to run and the velocity of the water, not logging operations. Clay soils typically exhibit high turbidity and low siltation whereas sandy soils exhibit low turbidity and high siltation.
- Soil disturbance around log landings and road drainage demonstrably did not cause turbidity.
- There was a pronounced absence of information to support the contention that logging causes turbidity despite MMBW’s known observations of water flow under different conditions in ‘closed’ catchments.
- Diseases such as typhoid, cholera and schistosomiasis are human diseases.
- The pathway for such diseases to flow from catchments to households would involve:
- Carrier would initiate the pollution in the catchment
- Runoff would carry the deposited organism to the point of off-take or the reservoir via streams and creeks or rivers
- The period of transportation from the point of deposition to the consumer would need to be within the survival period of the organism
- There would be no other risk of pollution in the water supply system.
- The organisms exist in their natural environment inside the human body so humans carry the organisms. In practice typhoid and dysentery bacteria would live as long as two weeks in clean natural water. There are other variables that would also impact the survival period of the organisms.
- There are protection measures that could be applied to address these risks including:
- Avoid points of human concentration in the catchments, particularly near drainage lines, and
- Provide adequate storages to ensure water is held for a period beyond the survival period of the organisms before delivery to consumers.
- There were at the time a number of other human associated risks with the management of the catchments. A main highway passed close to the Maroondah reservoir, the public had access to the Watts River which was the main feeder of the reservoir and access to a viewpoint over the reservoir. There were long distances of open channels for conveying water to storages. These open channels were outside the catchments and traversed open country, frequently crossed by roads and tracks and were vulnerable to pollution. Surface run-off from these channels into storages would certainly have been contaminated. These represent significant risks as potential sources of human-transmitted disease.
- Under the circumstances avoidance of contamination above the storage would be meaningless and completely ineffectual.
- There have been no cases of human disease observed over a number of decades from water from rural Victorian catchments where logging had been occurring.
The Commission convincingly refuted a number of issues which informed the MMBW’s position that logging in catchments represented a threat to the supply of clean water to Melbournians.
The Committee was persuaded by the Commission’s submission as reflected in the observations and recommendations listed below. 9
Some of the Committee’s relevant observations included:
- Recognition of the importance of timber to the State. There was a substantial shortage of local timber and increasing demand. The State was spending £10 million per year at the time on importing timber. The Committee observed that the State must make every effort to maximise availability of local timber.
- In the Committee’s words … “it is practicable for logging to be carried out without deleterious effects provided strict supervision is maintained over operations”.
- It responded to a number of points raised in MMBW’s submissions as follows:
- In response to the MMBW’s claims on the purity of Melbourne’s untreated water from its ‘closed’ management, the Committee observed that Melbourne’s water did not at the time meet World Health Organisation’s standards and that the water was not sufficiently clear for some industrial uses who were required to treat the water before use,
- The view held by many that Melbourne’s water “softness” was due to exclusion of logging from catchments was erroneous and is determined by soil types. Also the view that chlorination would cause Melbourne’s water to become much “harder” and would produce a “chlorine taste” were erroneous.
- The Committee considered it was hard to support setting aside a large catchment exclusively for water production at a time when much water flowing down the Yarra River and out to the ocean could be available if treated.
- Many catchments do not contain a satisfactory network of access roads for adequate fire protection.
- Should the whole State’s policy be based on exclusive use for water production from catchments, large numbers of farms, grazing lands, and inland cities and towns would have to be evacuated.
Some of the relevant recommendations included:
- That controlled logging operations based on established silvicultural and regenerative management practices of the FCV be permitted under strict supervision in all catchment areas.
- That logging operations be carried out on the basis laid down by the FCV standing instructions dated July 1959.
- That controlled logging on the catchments of MMBW and the Colac Water Trust be carried out by the respective authorities, or by contracts let by those authorities, or alternatively by the FCV.
- That proper management working plans be drawn up for the management of the catchments of MMBW and the Colac Waterworks Trust on the basis that only seven per cent of the respective areas are subject each year to controlled logging.
- A Joint Research Committee, responsible to the Minister for Conservation, be set up to study and report on the effects of various types of activities and management which occur on Victorian catchments from which town water supply or alternatively for human consumption is drawn.
"Closed Catchments" Maintained
The Commission must have been pleased with the Committee’s inquiry and recommendations. The Committee supported the Commission’s position that carefully regulated logging should be undertaken in Victoria’s water supply catchments. The Committee was persuaded that carefully regulated logging was compatible with water conservation following its observations of logging operations in some rural water supply catchments under FCV management. Also, it was mindful of the need to maximise the timber resources available from the highly productive Upper Yarra catchment forests.
However, and notwithstanding the Committee’s recommendations the Government signalled its intention to vest the Upper Yarra catchment under the MMBW which would have the effect of excluding logging from these forests. The Commission made strong representations arguing against such action pointing out that the valuable timber resources from one third of the Central Highland’s highly productive mountain ash forests would no longer be available. The Commission’s representations were to little avail. In 1967 the Government announced its decision to exclude logging from 40,000 acres (16,000 hectares) of the catchment forests for at least 10 years. 1. The decision was to be reviewed with the benefit of results from research trials that were to be established “to determine whether, or under what conditions, controlled logging in the water catchments may be practicable without detriment to the quality or quantity of the water supply”.
In 1980 the results of the research were published in line with the ten-year review requirement. 1 There were two main conclusions:
- Limited harvesting could be carried out in certain areas without detriment to water quality given good planning and rigorous implementation of prescriptions,
- The age and density of forest cover and so natural events, such as bushfires or artificial manipulation of the cover (such as harvesting), had a major impact on water quantity.
Interestingly, the second finding referred to impacts of activities on water quantity which had not been raised as a concern at or prior to the Parliamentary Committee’s inquiry. Following the 1980 review, the Upper Yarra catchment was vested in the MMBW and logging was excluded from the Upper Yarra catchment.
Utilising water from the Thomson River was incorporated in MMBW’s long term plans from the 1940s and the matter was contested by farmers and local Councils in Gippsland at the time on the basis of the impact on availability of irrigation water in Gippsland. 10 A firm plan was announced to construct a dam on the Thomson in 1968 and was approved in 1975. The dam was completed in 1984. The reservoir was to provide an almost doubling of Melbourne’s water supply and would provide for a population of 5 million which was achieved in Melbourne in 2020. The new dam encompassed a catchment of almost 49,000 hectares. Logging was excluded from the Thomson Dam catchment although the impact was less severe than from the Upper Yarra catchment as the forests were less productive for timber resources.
Why was the MMBW successful?
It is interesting to speculate why the MMBW was successful in maintaining its ‘closed’ catchment policy given the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee’s inquiry and the results from the post-inquiry research trials. The Government had no other sources of information other than subsequent representations made to it by the MMBW, the Commission and other interested parties.
The MMBW was persuasive. Being a very large and powerful organisation, it had always exercised considerable influence with various governments over the decades. It carried important and politically high-profile responsibilities to provide clean water, sewerage system, drainage services as well as planning for the city’s future. It gained political support through winning its case in the court of public opinion despite neither being able to convince the Parliamentary Committee nor provide unequivocal support based on research trials.
The MMBW’s public support stemmed from having always maintained high level engagement with the community which generally had a positive regard for the MMBW, considering it to be a competent organisation. High level engagement came through a number of avenues including:
- Close involvement with metropolitan Councils through Councillors who were Board members of the MMBW.
- MMBW collected water rates from all Melbournians which raised its community profile notwithstanding it received protests from different sections of the community about the level of rates from time to time.
- It was regularly raising funds for capital works through public loans which were overwhelmingly well subscribed. This reflected general confidence in the organisation and many members of the public keenly engaged in the MMBW’s works to follow their investments.
- As Melbourne’s planning authority, the MMBW engaged the public on particular planning issues and bigger picture plans for the city’s future. This engagement was fraught on particular issues from time to time but overall increased the MMBW’s positive public perception.
- The MMBW was consistently proactive with publicity from very early days. Its simple constant message was that the community could be confident about a reliable supply of high quality pure water – the water was largely untreated, plentiful and the envy of other capital cities. This message was well received and trusted by Melbournians despite the Parliamentary Committee pointing that some of the messages were erroneous.
The MMBW appeared to successfully use its considerable positive support from Melbournians to carry the day with various governments over a number of decades. In comparison the Commission had limited leverage as it did not have the support of a large public constituency. However, importantly it maintained its policy of logging in rural water catchments.
The Commission expressed its interest in catchment management from very early days on its belief that properly managed forests were the best way of providing water conservation, and preventing erosion and siltation of streams and rivers. The Commission argued this was a good reason to permanently reserve mountain catchments in North Eastern and Eastern Victoria. Reservation would also ensure permanent access to the timber resources from the forests. The Commission further contended that as the State’s dedicated Forests Department, it was the appropriate authority to manage these forests.
The Commission continued to develop improved approaches to managing forest catchments. Its forestry training included specific water catchment management courses from 1948 to ensure that trained foresters would be expert in catchment management. In the late 1950s it promulgated prescriptions to regulate logging in catchments. These catchment-specific prescriptions were comprehensive and prepared jointly with relevant water authorities. Thus, the Commission’s policy of logging in catchments was successfully practised in Victoria’s rural water supply catchments for the following decades.
Melbourne’s water supply was a different case. The MMBW was responsible for the city’s water supply and had consistently maintained a ‘closed’ catchment policy (incorporating exclusion of logging) based on its contention that logging and other human activity would detrimentally affect water quality. The conflicting policies had limited practical relevance in the earlier years until the MMBW announced its plan to construct the Upper Yarra Dam in 1940 and requested the management responsibility of the associated Upper Yarra catchment be transferred from the Commission to itself. Much of the catchment included valuable timber resources from the highly productive mountain ash forests. Vesting the catchment in the MMBW would exclude access to these important timber resources for which there was considerable market demand. The State was significantly dependent on imported timber at the time of high demand driven high population growth and housing boom in the 1960s.
Neither of the conflicting policies was able to be supported by research-based evidence at the time, complicating the Government’s decision on the matter. The Government sought advice from the Parliamentary State Development Committee which it requested to undertake an inquiry into the utilisation of timber resources in the State’s watersheds. The inquiry was contentious and attracted considerable public interest. There were a number of parties with particular interest in the Committee’s deliberations and recommendation. The Committee recommended that logging be permitted in Victoria’s water supply catchments under the Commission’s strict prescriptions, thus unambiguously supporting the Commission’s policy of the compatibility of controlled logging and water conservation.
Following the inquiry the Government decided that logging would be excluded from the Upper Yarra catchment for at least 10 years after which time the decision would be reviewed with the benefit of findings from extended hydrology research trials into the impact of logging on water quality in the catchment. The research concluded that (1) logging under careful prescriptions would not detrimentally affect water quality, and (2) certain activities including logging may have a major impact on water quantity. This research shifted considerations from impacts on water quality to water quantity. In 1980 the Government decided to vest the catchment in the MMBW resulting in the exclusion of logging from one third of Central Highlands highly-productive mountain ash forests.
It’s interesting to speculate on why the MMBW persuaded the Government in favour of its ‘closed’ catchment policy given a lack of supporting research-based evidence and the recommendations of the Parliamentary State Development Committee. It seems the MMBW was more influential in its post-Committee representations than the Commission. The MMBW’s influence stemmed from it being a very large and powerful organisation that had favourable support from a large constituency of Melbournians.
The MMBW completed construction of the Thomson Dam in 1984 and logging was excluded from this larger catchment area. The timber resource implications were less severe than those applying to the Upper Yarra catchment because the impacted forests were less productive.
Overall, the Commission was heavily involved in catchment management from its very early years. It improved its knowledge and practices and in the late 1950s promulgated comprehensive catchment specific prescriptions for logging in water supply catchments. Adherence to the prescriptions enabled the Commission to successfully log water supply catchments in rural Victoria for subsequent decades. However, logging was excluded from Melbourne’s catchments which affected substantial volumes of valuable timber from significant areas of highly productive mountain ash forests in the Central Highlands. This loss was one of the Commission’s major disappointments.
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2. Forests Commission Victoria 1928. Handbook of Forestry in Victoria.
3. Empire Forestry Conference Australia and New Zealand 1928.
4. Forests Commission Victoria 1959. Evidence Presented to the State Development Committee on its Enquiry into the Utilization of Timber Resources in the Watersheds of the State. Bulletin Number 11.
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6. Hopkins, Edwards 1954. Journal of American Water Works Association. Vol 46. 5, 1954.
7. Royal Commission 1939. Report of the Royal Commission to Inquire into The Causes of and Measures Taken to Prevent the Bush Fires of January, 1939 and to Protect Life and Property and The Measures to be Taken to Prevent Bush Fires in Victoria and to Protect Life and Property in the Event of Future Bush Fires. Government Printer, Melbourne 1939.
8. Royal Commission 1946. The Report of the Royal Commission to Inquire into Forest Grazing 1946. Government Printer, Melbourne 1946.
9. State Development Committee 1960. The Utilization of Timber Resources in the Watersheds of the State - Final Report. Government Printer, Melbourne 1960.
10. The Gippsland Times 1944. Waters of Thomson River. The Gippsland Times, 25 September 1944.
11. Weekly Times 1953. Forests Needed to Protect Melbourne Water Supply.
12. Werdiningtyas, Rr Ratri 2019. Understanding the Co-evolution of Land, Water, and Environmental Governance in Victoria, Australia during 1860-2016. Doctor of Philosophy Thesis, Department of Infrastructure Engineering, The University of Melbourne