The Croppers Creek Hydrology Project

A Personal History
Leon Bren (bio)

The project is located 22 km s-w of Myrtleford and about 6km from the Lake Buffalo Dam wall. Monitoring of three small catchments – Clem, Ella, and Betsy Creeks started in 1975. This involved measurement of streamflow and rainfall. The catchments all carried native eucalypt forest. In December 1979 Clem Creek slopes were cleared. The debris was burnt in April 1980 and the slopes planted with radiata pine. This grew steadily if not spectacularly and the trees were becoming of harvestable size about 2005. An on-site meeting in November of that year discussed this with plans to be formulated in the coming months. However, in January 2006 the area was burnt by the “second megafire” and this destroyed all equipment and the plantation. The equipment was replaced by the University of Melbourne insurance policy, the burnt pines were harvested, and the slopes replanted. Measurement of outflows is continuing. The work was mainly concerned with water and nutrient balances but many other aspects of forest hydrology have been considered. Now read on….


The Unvarnished History

Well the correct name is probably the “Cropper Creek Paired Catchment Hydrology Project” and I think that title might be on a collection of files somewhere in the Government Archives. The project was and is a “classic” paired catchment (aka “watershed”) project in which three small streams were gauged in north eastern Victoria. After some years of this, the slopes of one of the catchments was converted from native eucalypt forest to radiata pine, and the changes in water and nutrient flow emanating from the catchment measured. It is still continuing, albeit in a rather reduced form. The project has, I believe, been productive in terms of books, papers, and training.

Anyway, the saga really began about 1972. I had been recruited as a young researcher in hydrology– they probably decided I had “potential.” God knows how because I knew nothing about hydrology (there were no courses in it then). However, I was keen and read up about it as much as I could, and did a lot of maths studying too. The Forests Commission Victoria, in its wisdom, had decided that water issues were important and they needed to get some “in-house knowledge” Then the boss – the late Dr Fred Craig (“Chief Forest Research Officer”)– called me over to his office and, amidst clouds of cigarette smoke (did I say it was a different age then?), said that we needed a paired catchment project to look at the water impacts of radiata pine, and it was my job to get one in.

By this time I did know a bit about the subject. The FCV had been involved with the Experimental Catchments Committee – a multi-department group really run by the Soil Conservation Authority but also involving the State Rivers Department that had gone down this pathway before. They had a number of such projects – the Stewarts Creek Project, Long Corner Creek Project, and the Reefton Project to name three, but none had every really produced much knowledge. They always seem to flounder in data processing issues. Looking back, I think The ECC aims were as much about stopping the Forests Commission doing anything or “getting ahead” as getting knowledge. Anyway, this caused the FCV in general and Freddy in particular a lot of distress – hence this project.

So Fred’s view was that we needed a project outside this Committee, and I was the tool that would be used to produce it. “You have chosen a very blunt tool” was my assessment of this view. But he’s the boss so that’s it; let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

During the planning phase I became painfully aware of my manifold inadequacies, and that some of my scientific training was lacking as well. Anyway, I thought I’d go and introduce myself to the “hydrologic gurus” and see what they thought of this yet-to-be project. Most were helpful, and some very helpful, but I did discover that they liked models and modelling, and that long field-measurement campaigns were beyond their experience. The most common advice was that we could do it all by “modelling” (which, in hindsight, would have been a waste of time without good field data). Anyway it was all helpful, but suddenly the time for planning was over and it was time to get the shebang on the road.

Lots of poring over maps of plantation areas and it seemed that the north-east offered the best prospects. The FCV was being hammered with complaints over “peak flows” from its Warrenbayne plantation development (mind you, an inspection of the so-called affected land showed that the farming practices were nothing to boast about). So “investigation of peak flows associated with plantation formation on steep country” was the rationale. And then into one of the Forests Commission Victoria fleet to go and look at such sites.

Koetong Plantation seemed to offer the best chances. Lots of native forest, lots of plantation development, and lots of steeper country. But it was a long way away. Anyway, I spent a fair amount of time looking at the unpropitiously-named “Dry Creek” area. There had been a lot of tin-mining there a century or so before. We got as far as defining a notional project, but the distance from Melbourne worried me, as did the name. And I marked out a notional road to get in there but noted it crossed over an old surveyed road on the Parish Plan. I checked this with the Survey Branch who almost had a stroke – some long-dead surveyor had pegged out a road and township that was never built. But the survey and gazetting of this tin-mining megalopolis-to-be had been well done and effectively it would have been a big (and costly) survey amendment process if I was not to have a paper town in the midst of my Paired Catchment Project. So it was off to look elsewhere!

That “Elsewhere” was Myrtleford, Veteran researcher George Minko discussed the project, pulled out a map showing the Croppers Creek Basin, and said “that was likely to be a good spot”. What I found out years later was that Forester Bert Semmens in the 1950’s had thought that we should do some “hydrologic monitoring” and that he and Bert had concluded that this basin was the ideal one, but the project in itself never got off the ground. But some decades later, here was a person looking for the same sort of stuff. Well done, George and Bertie. Anyway. there was a flurry of letter writing and we got a sort of grudging permission to proceed. The project was in the catchment of the current Buffalo Dam, and there was a vague plan to build “Big Buffalo” which would have impinged on the project, so we did have some communication on that. Half a century later and there is still a vague plan to build “Big Buffalo” emerging from time to time..

The road in was by a wandering track through abandoned paddocks (“Fletchers”) that took you into the bush. After that you hopped out of the car and walked for about an hour up the side creek. There was a small track that went up a spur well to the south of us, but apart from the first 100m, that wasn’t much use to us. I did a lot of wandering by myself in there, trying to visualise the project and then finding weir sites. It always seemed to be raining and the streams were always flowing in 1973 (it was, indeed a wet year). Pleasantly I always did find my way back to the car but such sole excursions wouldn’t meet current occupational health rules. Because navigation was always by map-reading or dead-reckoning, I was pleased to find (years later) that where I thought we were actually coincided with the maps. Anyway, we marked out construction areas and an access-roads., and we were set to go. Also pleasantly the area had been well-mapped for possible future plantation work, and those maps then and now have been so valuable.

All of this sounds logical and rational, but there was always a concern that, notwithstanding our best efforts, it wouldn’t happen. We had a realisation that much of the cost of the project would ultimately be in the pine conversion, and it was hard to get any agreement from anyone as to where that was going. Best we could do was to try to keep people informed and put up with the yawns of boredom. We knew, sooner or later, that there would be a heated discussion on all of this.

See also:
FCV Bulletin 27