History is a rather subjective field, but a brief look at the history of water and environmental managment in Sydney and Kangaloon reveals repeated crisis management of Sydney’s water supply, and a strong and ongoing connection with land use, rural livelihood and water self reliance in Kangaloon.
Sydney and Water, “droughts and flooding rains…”
The spot chosen for the settlement was at the head of the cove, near the run of fresh water which stole silently along through a very thick wood the stillness of which had then, for the first time since the Creation, been interrupted by the rude sound of the labourer’s axe. (David Collins, Account of the English Colony of New South Wales, 1802)
Australia is the driest continent. For thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal people, through their deep cultural and spiritual connection with the land, have known how to care for and share water, not only with each other, but with all the other animals and plants in the environment. It is not the predominant approach shared by non-indigenous Australians.
The first site for European settlement in Sydney was Tank Stream, which provided an abundance of fresh water for the colony as it flowed from a wetland in Hyde Park to the Sydney Harbour. (31) Convicts carved tanks, or reservoirs into the banks of the stream to save water, hence the name. But within 40 years, it had become too polluted to use, filled with rubbish, sewage runoff and contamination by piggeries and other farming activities. Another source of water was found, and Tank Stream became an open sewer drain, then part of a underground sewer system and laterally a stormwater drain. The story of Tank Stream has become part of Sydney’s cultural heritage. (32) It is etched in the psyche of those who have a connection with the land and it’s water. It’s how things were done back then, and too often, how it’s still done.
Sydney’s rapid expansion and population growth has gone hand in hand with the ongoing challenge of finding reliable supply of water in a country with unreliable rainfall. We now understand the El Nino Southern Oscillation (33) which amplifies climate variation, and how El Nino and La Nina events accentuate our “drought and flooding rain” patterns. Sydney Water’s own account of the history of meeting Sydney’s water and waste needs is a tale of constantly seeking “new” sources of water in response to prolonged drought periods. The early days of the colony saw periods of famine in severe drought, early settlers being used to a more benign climate and unprepared for long periods without rain. The “Great Drought” of 1934-1942 was one of the worst for NSW, and it caused complete failure of water supplies in Sydney. Dam levels fell to 12.5%, drastic water restrictions were enforced, including mandatory 30% reductions in brewery productions! (34)
Fortunately, the topography of the Sydney basin with it’s deep gorges and river systems, provided the ideal opportunity to use all the big earthmoving, pumping, filtering and pipe laying technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries to build a series of dams throughout an ever growing catchment area. These big dams were an amazing feat of engineering, a testament to mankind’s triumph over the flow of water. Sydney now has the largest per capita water supply in the world, mostly stored in 21 dams which is collected from 5 catchment areas, occupying 16,000 square km. (35)
Sydney’s poor record of water planning, driven by demand, and controlled by engineers rather than by economics or ecology was the big issue which surfaced in the first El Nino driven drought of the 21st century when yet again, eastern Australia found itself in the grip of a long drought with the prospect of grave water shortages.By 2004, the NSW government had announced plans to syphon water extra water from the Shoalhaven River (located in Kangaroo Valley, not far from Kangaloon) and raise the walls of the Tallowa Dam, causing outrage from the local community who’s rivers and environment were suffering from the drought and low level water releases from the dam. The nearby townships engaged in their own water war in 2005, a hard fought community campaign which demanded that Sydney stop looking further and further afield to solve its water shortages, and implement better water saving measures. (36) The plan was shelved, and the government looked to other options. Plans for a desalination plant in Sydney had also been announced, and met with staunch opposition from environmentalists and residents of Sydney who were concerned with the huge cost of the project and the energy intensive nature of the process. So groundwater as a possible option came under the spotlight.
By 2006, when the proposal to extract groundwater from the Kangaloon Aquifer became the next (increasingly desperate) attempt to ship to Sydney from afar, there was strong awareness of the historical record, of lack of planning for water shortage in drought followed by taking the water from other areas to Sydney, always at the expense of the local communities and their environments. Building of many of the big dams in Sydney’s catchment area over the previous century had affected local communities and caused irreversible environmental destruction, although this could always be seen to be justified to satisfy Sydney’s ever increasing thirst.
Conquest of the Yarrawa Brush; Water Self Sufficiency of the Kangaloon District
Early European settlement of Kangaloon followed quite a different, but equally environmentally destructive path. Intrepid explorers in 1817 found a track through the escarpment rainforests of the Illawarra to the cool temperate rainforests of the tableland. This area was known as the Yarrawa brush, described by Hoddle, the surveyor general, as “thick forests with huge trees, too thick to penetrate, the most formidable brush I have seen since I came to the colony.. the vines so thickly entwined around the huge trees and small as to render the sun obscure at the time it shone with great brilliancy”. These forests were to become a rich source of timber for the colony, with the valuable red cedar of the Ilawarra being logged till there were few left, and even the governor of the times being concerned at the widespread deforestation that was occuring. By 1862 settlers on the tableland were clearing the land in the Yarrawa Brush, felling trees, creating farmland which, with fertile, rich volcanic basalt soils and high rainfall, would soon become highly productive dairy country, supplying milk for Sydney, and butter from local factories for both Sydney and export to Britain.
Creeks were the only source of fresh water, and the first bark huts were erected along their banks. The settlements were isolated from the closest fledgling highland villages and could be cut off for months in times of heavy rain. So communities were self sufficient in every way. It was a hard life, every family’s existence depending on what they could grow. Once the “scrub” was cleared, fences were built and there was a huge amount of bluestone or volcanic rock which had to be removed by hand, used to build walls and houses, giving the district a distinctly European feel, which it retains to this day. (43) As well as good water supply in the creeks, there were many natural springs and high rainfall, so farming was very productive, although severe droughts affected this area as well as Sydney, with an intense drought of the 1860’s bringing the settlement to near starvation. (38) Every farm managed their own supply of water, capturing spring or creek water and rain in dams and tanks, and in times of drought, when one spring ran dry, they could extract water from another with windmills and later petrol pumps. There was never an expectation that water needs would be met by government. Farms and homes could only be established where there was access to water, and water rights were closely associated with land title. (39) Kangaloon, East Kangaloon, Glenquarry, the villages under which the aquifer lies, and that are closest to the borefeild, to this day are still not connected to town water supply, farmers and residents remain responsible for collection and management of their own water, a fact which ties them closely to thinking about and budgeting their water on a daily basis, a heightened activity during drought, and something to fight for if their only source is threatened.
Eric Norman, a delightful gentleman of 87 years, whom I met on a recent drive to Kangaloon, was born and raised in Kangaloon, went to school, and raised a family there. His grandfather emmigrated from England and was an original settler who cleared the land and established a dairy. His sons took over the dairy, and Eric remembers as a child, the backbreaking work of clearing large boulders in the paddocks, by hand and in time, the farm becoming his. Eric told me his son has “taken the farm” to Wagga Wagga and he is finally set to retire. So this period of Kangaloon’s history is still within living memory, not the pages of history.
His story, as a local resident and farmer, gives a very strong insight into how the local community, particularly the few remaining dairy farmers, would regard the underground water as their own. They had no issue for water to be managed so as to be shared equitably with other farmers in the area, in fact, in 2005, authorities issued a ban on the release (40) of any further licences for private or commercial groundwater bores in the Kangaloon (and surrounding) area. This was because groundwater use had exceeded a sustainable threshold. So in light of this recent information, it made no sense that if there was not enough water in the aquifer for local farmers, where was the water for Sydney to come from?
The people of Sydney and Kangaloon have borne witness to great acts of environmental degradation. Urban development of Sydney has engulfed huge tracts of fertile land once used for food production. City living has caused a disconnect between everyday life and the true cost to the environment of unbridled urban sprawl and poor resource management. European settlers did not place much value on the natural Australian landscape and environment. Paintings and drawings (41) depicted a romanticised perspective of natural settings, a distinct Europeanization of the bush.
So it was seen as a positive transformation to clear the forests and establish a more familiar, lush rural setting, reminiscent of English farmland, particularly in the cool, fertile Southern Highlands, still characterised by English gardens. Escarpment rainforest was so different from other Australian regions, it was even thought the vegetation must have come from elsewhere. Yet still it was desecrated. (42) The remaining remnant rainforest areas of the Yarrawa Brush are now highly valued sites, and where farming has ceased, regeneration is occuring. Even lush farmland and non-native gardens have high heritage value, as population increase has led to development of many highland areas for housing. People everywhere, including Sydney, are becoming more aware of the value of what has been lost and the importance of preserving what has not been destroyed.
The Wingecarribee Swamp, just below the head of the Nepean River, is an ancient Montane Peat Swamp. In 1997, an environmental disaster of epic proportion occurred. (23) Poor government administration of peat mining leases led to over mining of peat from the wetlands and ultimately, a massive collapse of the swamp, a tragedy which reverberated through the highlands. Every household was aware of this event, because peat ended in the local water supply and for a couple of weeks, tap water was dark brown. This recent act of environmental missmanagement had heightened environmental awareness in the region, and when proposals to drain the aquifer threatened this and another swamps in the borefield area, there was a deep community sense for the need to protect these endangered areas, as the government had failed to do so in the past. It was the Wingecarribee Swamp and other upland swamps ecosystems, rich wetlands, with numerous unique and endangered plants and animals which had been characterised in great detail in efforts to save the swamp, which led to the Federal Government to intervene in the Aquifer project on environmental protection grounds. (13)