AS YOU drive up to the Wonthaggi desalination plant, it’s impossible to ignore the avenue of dead and dying saplings lining the road.
It could well be a metaphor for the plant itself, which has been mothballed since it was completed last year, more than a year behind schedule and well over budget.
Opinions about the plant remain divided. With Victorians paying $860 million a year not to use the desal water, the “antis” outnumber the “pros” now but when drought returns, as it surely will, the pendulum will swing back.
But back to the dead saplings – eucalypts, banksias and casuarinas – part of the grandly named Wonthaggi Desalination Plant Ecological Reserve.
Desal owner Aquasure’s announcement of the 225-hectare reserve last year went a long way towards soothing ruffled local feelings, even among those who had opposed the plant or who felt Bass Coast had been short-changed for the massive disruption to the shire during construction.
A full-colour brochure by Aquasure stated that the coastal park, one of the largest ecological restoration projects undertaken in Victoria, would be a joint project with Bass Coast Landcare Network, the co-ordinating body for the shire’s 10 Landcare groups. With more than 20 years' experience on hundreds of local revegetation projects, Landcare was well placed to ensure the project was run properly.
The brochure depicts happy families wandering in verdant bushlands, enjoying the eight kilometres of walking and cycle trails, and watching wetland birds from bird hides. “New, constructed dunes will integrate the desalination plant into the landscape,” it states, “blending with the existing sand dunes and the natural landscape, and providing visual and acoustic protection to nearby neighbours.
“An existing tributary to the Powlett River and a number of old farm dams will also be rehabilitated as part of a new system of wetlands that will provide habitat for animals, including migratory birds.”
Of course a 225-hectare coastal reserve is a long-term project but it’s hard to square the vision with the sight that greets the visitor now.
Lining the road to the plant, the entry valley, as it has been dubbed, are hundreds of dead and dying eucalypts, banksias and casuarinas, very well staked and obviously planted as mature and healthy trees.
Some of the artificial dunes near the desal plant look promising with mass plantings of ground cover, sedges and shrubs. And the design is beautiful, with winding tracks and sudden breath-taking views of the wind turbines through the dunes.
But from the main road to Wonthaggi, the park presents a picture of desolation. Very nice entrance gates on both sides of the road lead to a wasteland covered by a thick layer of coarse mulch but little sign of life. It’s like walking over an old tip site.
I’m confused: has the reserve been planted or has it not?
Aquasure’s senior communications adviser Louisa McPhee assures me it has. She says most of the planting was completed by September, with more than 2.5 million plants put in, most of them as tube stock.
“There will be limited visible vegetation cover until plants establish,” she says. “This can take up to six months depending on seasonal conditions.
“As with any planting project there are always a small percentage of plants that fail during the establishment phase. Ongoing maintenance will be undertaken to minimise that failure rate.
“A review of the whole area will also be undertaken over the coming months and where necessary plants will be replaced when conditions are optimal for growth.”
Sitting at my desk, I realise I've only looked at the park from the road. The planting must be further into the reserve. I call the dog and return to walk the entire track.
Apart from a few small copses of vegetation, most of the reserve is bare except for weeds. A few straggling plants – tiny burnt banksias and some tiny paperbarks – suggest the area has in fact been planted but there has been a very high failure rate.
The most prolific survivor is a groundcover with small yellow button flowers. Apart from that, clover and capeweed predominate.
I am more mystified than ever. With so much local experience, how could Landcare get it so wrong?
In fact, I learn, Landcare was involved only briefly with the project. The landscaping and planting was managed by Australian Ecosystems, whose director Brendan Condon is building the Cape Paterson Ecovillage.
The executive officer of Bass Coast Landcare Network, Kellie Nicholls, says Australian Ecosystems seconded four of their staff to go across to the project. Landcare was also subcontracted to do some of the early monitoring and pest animal control of the site before the planting. But Landcare had no direct involvement with the planting at the site and is no longer involved.
She says Landcare would have approached the project very differently. “We would have established the tracks first. We would have done a lot more weed control and increased the density of planting through direct seeding.”
Landcare also tendered to Aquasure for the contract to maintain the reserve. Ms Nicholls says they envisaged the coastal reserve linking to Archies Creek wildlife corridors, over to the Gurdies reserves and ultimately down to the Holden testing ground. It was a mind-boggling opportunity to create a network of wildlife corridors and reserves around Bass Coast.
“We would have loved that contract. We wanted to ensure the reserve became a community asset rather than a community liability.”
They did not win the contract, which went to Indigenous Designs Environmental Services.
While Landcare is no longer involved in any way, Ms Nicholls said they would continue to pursue opportunities to become involved.
In recent talks with the council, Aquasure has intimated it would like the community to take over maintenance of the reserve, although it is not clear whether that is in a volunteer or professional capacity.
The Bass Coast Post left a message for Australian Ecosystems director Brendan Condon but he did not respond.
November 22, 2013
I have just read your amazing article about the desal coastal park. Once again we see the disconnect between development driven by financial interests and respect for the natural environment that underpins our survival.
It could be argued that this is only a comparatively small area but sadly it seems to be the footprint of development everywhere. And wouldnt it be a good idea to retain permanent water restrictions to help remind us of the importance of H2O? Also, it seems ridiculous to overlook the local knowledge of Landcare in replanting the area.
Heather Tobias, Wonthaggi
November 17, 2013
'The Mystery of the Bare Coastal Park' is a revelation and it should be played on a much bigger stage. The general public deserve to be informed on this issue, not just us privileged Bass Coasters. It is as good as anything I have read relating to the desal and I feel there is a lack of follow up on such topics. They seem to flare and then fade because nobody keeps stoking the fire.
Bob Middleton, Jeetho West
November 17, 2013
Just a quick note to congratulate you on your story. Very good. Also loved Gill Heal's piece on Hazel Swift ('The Great Defender', November 16, 2013). Keep up the outstanding work.