Locals say the section of the Yarra River running through Warburton is healthy because they look after it and their care for the river stems from a healthy “community spirit”.
Warburton Information Centre coordinator Jeanette Iley says that “Warburton is a small town and we look after our backyard.”
The Yarra River is swimmable in Warburton, 75km east of the highly polluted section of river that runs through the Melbourne CBD.
Because the community is so involved in the conservation of the Yarra, Iley said that Warburton has “every hope of keeping a nice clean river”.
“One of the biggest attractions for people to live in Warburton is the community. I think the town itself does an excellent job in supporting the river. It’s lovely,” she said.
And the community’s cultivation of its environment is evident to tourists.
“I’ve never been here before but, oh my gosh, it’s so pretty. I definitely want to come back,” said Melbourne tourist Bethany Judd.
“It’s such a large landscape change, 30 minutes of driving can change everything. It’s crazy that it’s so close to the city”.
“The river is disgusting in Melbourne, there’s rubbish floating in it. It’s actually scary to consider falling in,” Judd said.
The river in Warburton is “constantly compared” to the river in Melbourne, according to Iley.
“Nowadays, we have so many resources. We are more aware of industry and all of the pollutants that go into the river. It’s more under control than it was 50 years ago.”
“We’re lucky to have such a strong sense of community pride,” said Jessica Baillie, a local conservationist and a longtime volunteer on The Upper Yarra River Committee of Management.
The committee has planted upwards of 13,000 plants along the river in Warburton over the last seven years, alongside local school and kinder kids.
“It’s a big job for volunteers and little kids,” said Bailie.
Bailie stressed the importance of locals taking initiative with the river. “In Warburton, we’re at the headwater. It’s the most pristine part of the Yarra. Whatever happens here affects what happens downstream.”
Volunteers walk up and down the two kilometre stretch of Yarra each morning and local school groups have a passionate involvement in protecting the river.
“Any rubbish is gone by 9 am,” said Iley. “They prevent the rubbish from washing down in the storm water, which then prevents it from washing down into the river. It’s a huge community service.
“Lots of local kinder, school and volunteer groups take samples and look at the bugs. If the bug levels don’t have much diversity then you know the river health is low. These testings have shown we have really great diversity and platypus and vegetation.”
Iley said the river doesn’t pose any danger towards swimmers, “we’re not worried about it.”
“Melbourne Water wouldn’t be providing informal swimming access points if it was officially a problem” said Bailie.
“I think it’s so important that all kids from all cultures have the opportunity to just get into a river, and for it not to be seen as dirty or dangerous.”
“You can’t do that in Melbourne. You can’t just jump in the river. We’re really lucky.”
Despite Iley and Baillie’s praises of the river’s health, some residents of Warburton have witnessed its decline.
Warburton insurance broker Chris Thomas’s family has lived in Warburton for generations.
“We didn’t have a swimming pool in Warburton so we all used to swim in the river when I was a kid,” said Thomas.
“Down near the post office was all just rapids, now it’s all got tea tree and other rubbish.”
A decrease in river quality could be seen by Thomas after the major drought in eastern Victoria between 1979 and 1983.
“Because the river was low during the drought, there are a number of spots along the river where bits of debris and so forth got caught and things grew.”
“We need to clean out the environmental weeds like the willow trees and clear out the snags the fall into the river,” Thomas said.
“Recently, a gumtree fell from the south to the north bank of the river. Someone has cut the tree so it’s not blocking the road, but left the rest of it.
“Give it 10 years and it’ll be covered in weeds like blackberries and ivy.
“It’ll create an environmental nightmare. The council and volunteers should be doing a bit more maintenance to keep those environmental weeds out.”