Fears for one of the last Yarra billabongs

Bolin billabong
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A community group fears engineering works will undermine the heritage value of one of the last Yarra billabongs, Rochelle Erwin reports.

A community group fears engineering works will compromise the heritage value of one of the last remaining billabongs on the Yarra River.

Dennis O’Connell, President of Friends of Banyule, says the Bolin Bolin Billabong in Bulleen “should be kept as natural as possible” because it is of great significance to Indigenous people.

But Manningham Council, in partnership with the state government, has commenced work on an “integrated water harvesting facility” at the billabong and has cut down trees, excavated the area and installed concrete pipes and barriers.

O’Connell says the work will make overall improvements to the billabong but nevertheless threatens the natural state of a site that “holds importance to the traditional owners” and was “significant for cultural gatherings”.

Tommy Plahcinski, an engineer with Storm Consulting – the company undertaking the work – says the Victorian Government respects the cultural heritage of the area and is committed to protecting the Billabong to reflect its condition prior to European colonisation.

“A lot of assessments had to be done to ensure cultural protection … Every tree has been assessed,” he says.

“This is not uncommon for a project of this scale.”

Billabongs were once an important feature of the river’s floodplain and supported a range of vegetation, including frog and bird communities and ancient river red gums along their banks.

John D’Aloia, president of the Warringal Conservation Society, says early European settlers viewed wetlands as unclean and disease-ridden. “During European settlement many of the billabongs were drained or dried out” to use the ground for agriculture, roads and sporting fields.

“At the moment Bolin is the only billabong that has any water in it … the rest are lost,” says D’Aloia.

Although it is a rare survivor, the Bolin Bolin Billabong’s biodiversity has already been affected by development and its “wetting and drying cycles” have been altered by changes to the river upstream.

Plahcinski says the integrated water facility will restore the natural river flow and help rehabilitation.

Daphne Hards, treasurer of the Warringal Conservation Society, says she supports the work being done to improve the water quality and hopes it will rehabilitate the billabong back to its pre-European state.

O’Connell says the billabong was an important ceremonial meeting place for the traditional owners during the annual Iuk, or eel, harvest. It was a time when communities came together for negotiations, trade and marriage.

He says the area should therefore “be kept as natural as possible”, and the maximum number of trees should be retained so the site is “in its original state”.

Manningham Council’s senior project engineer John Tinkler says in order to try to retain the site’s original features, “a pipeline will be bored under a number of significant trees along the Yarra River.”

However, “while every effort has been made to minimise tree losses, the proposed works also involve the removal of several trees and revegetation works.”

Meanwhile Tinkler says a cultural heritage management plan sets in place a number of requirements and planning permit conditions “to protect natural heritage of the Bolin”.

He says the project aims to improve flooding and will lead to a “decrease in the levels of nitrogen and pollutants”.

O’Connell agrees that “water harvesting will help to alleviate potential for the billabong to dry out during drought years”, and he acknowledges there have been “many changes” made to the site in the past decade, greatly affecting its original state.

According to Plahcinski, the project will be finished by August 2017.