No water, no fish. Who is killing the fish? Even despite the looming disaster of climate change, the availability of fresh water is in crisis everywhere. Why?

Edward Hopkins

Exploding population numbers and an ever increasing consumer demand means water is in trouble. Which also means we can no longer afford feral water thieves pinching such a scarce life force. Otherwise, it is death by a thousand cuts. The problem is the ferals are under our noses selling us the dummy.

Since early settlement and even today, private landowners with or without regulatory approval have been pinching water from natural wetlands and streams, irrespective of the downstream consequences. ‘Do as you please on your own land’ has been an entrenched attitude. This sorry tale is still happening.

On the sporting playing field referees and umpires are there to ensure the stamping out of feral encroachments disrupting fair play. If the adjudication is not there or conducted poorly alarm bells ring. Rectification becomes paramount.

Water management also has existing rules and regulations. Yet too often officialdom turns a blind eye or teams up with private interests to fill their wallets. The circumstances facing the water crisis at Lake Tooliorook at the heart of the Corangamite Drainage Catchment Basin in Western Victoria, is a distressing instance of how officials and private owners acting according to their own advantage play a game of death.

As a keen kayak angler I have a vested interest in the freshwater Lake Tooliorook situated near Lismore, west of Geelong city.  I am a paid up member of the Lismore Angling Club. My sister and her family farm property nearby; a section of their land extends to the shoreline.

I have also got to know Clive Bustard. He is a lifelong resident of Lismore and now takes me fishing in his boat. A pillar of the local community, he has caught more trout from the lake than anyone else, has won the most Lismore Angling Club tournaments and fished for most of his 84 years. He’s shown me his angling tricks, but not all of them.

I am a regular visitor and the trout fishing until recently was spectacular. As the lake’s angling reputation  spread local business owners started rubbing their hands. Yet despite ample autumn and winter rains, nothing has flowed in or out of the lake. It is under stress.

The fish are not biting like they used to and I say to Clive; “I bet the salt levels in the lake and surrounding soils are rising.”  I also add, “it’s likely the lower water levels will increase the chances of a noxious blue-green algae bloom.” He agrees something has recently changed in the water quality since the lake levels started declining.

During the past months I have become aware of two un-authorized water diversions by landowners near Lake Tooliorook – the private, self-styled construction of a major levee and an illegal culvert on a designated waterway.

I mentioned to Clive that this is typical of what has happened in catchments everywhere throughout Australia; “landowners believe they are entitled to do as they please on their own property without regulatory approval, irrespective of the impact on the catchments and downstream stakeholders.” I referred to these private landowners as “feral water thieves” and noted that often the theft was given an “official” nod.

He then tells me about the recent expansion of the Railway Reservoir in the lake’s upstream catchment and said; “It’s robbing water from Tooliorook.” Clive was unsure if the expansion was authorized or another example of feral water theft.

Next day, we drove to the reservoir and observed an extra metre in height had been added to the concrete spillway, confirming photographs Clive had taken on a previous excursion. Not a drop of water flowed over the spillway into the channel below that would normally feed Lake Tooliorook.

On the night of our visit to the reservoir, I attended the committee meeting of the angling club held in a back room of the Lismore pub. Clive tabled the controversial photographs for discussion.

The talk was lively. Who would do this? Did anyone know? What next? Any point writing to the Minister For Water? Useless, was the consensus. All he does is sign letters.

The original reservoir was built in the late 1800s on 400 acres of land acquired by the Railways. It provided water to steam trains that plied a nearby railway line needing a drink at the Derrinallum stop. It was about the size of a footy oval. The land surrounding the reservoir was leased for farming. There was public access and locals in the know caught redfin there.

The reservoir and land was eventually sold to private buyers. It can be seen from the entrance gate to the property and has recently grown to the size of a small lake worthy of launching the kayak, if there was public access. We watched for where the fish might be. He said the reservoir was never used for irrigation. It is now for the exclusive use of the private landowner.

In 2008 the regulatory authority responsible for all water above and below ground and all infrastructure in the basin, Southern Rural Water, approved an irrigation license application from the private landowner. We assumed the regulator was making a tidy profit from the sale. We will never know because the application and approval were kept secret. It was never advertised, nor were downstream stakeholders notified.

The granting of the license occurred during the time Australia was suffering from the ten-year drought (2000-2010), the longest on record. All waterways and lakes in the basin, including the reservoir, were bone dry. Prior to the irrigation approval, bulldozers were seen on the private property increasing the length and height of the reservoir’s retaining walls.

The regulator has since acknowledged the initial works were undertaken without regulatory approval, but were given retrospective approval. Again, the regulator did not advertise or notify downstream stakeholders of what had occurred at the reservoir.

During the 2010 drought-breaking floods the entire catchment, including the lake, reservoir, and the downstream basin resembled an inland sea. Soon afterwards the private owner increased the height of the aforementioned concrete spillway without regulatory approval, was granted retrospective approval, and again the regulator chose not to inform the public.

When all this eventually came to light, Clive and I concluded the irrigation license and reservoir expansion was a feral profit-making venture, hidden from view. Prior to the 2008 license approval, pasture irrigation had not been a feature of farming in the Lake Tooliorook catchment that feeds the Corangamite drainage basin.

As a rule of thumb, to increase productivity basin farmers have concentrated on dry crop rotation technology and improved husbandry, and still do, because the water throughout the basin is too precious for squandering.

The basin has no clearly defined river catchments or watercourses. It is reliant upon a delicate system of interlocked ephemeral waterways, such as wetlands, piddling streams, plus a series of dug ditches, culverts, levees, and dams.

In his long living in the district, Clive has seen Lake Tooliorook and the ephemeral waterways variously dry and full of life. Now things are changed. He said the recent upstream damming and interference with waterway flows, “was not giving the lake a chance.”

We agreed regulating and managing waterways is complicated, especially when called upon to stamp out feral encroachments. But Clive and I think it should also be simple. Chatting in his boat, we reckon if the fish are on the bite the system is in good health.

In our experience, we have found it is still greedy landowners abusing regulatory guidelines, along with statuary authorities guarding ambitious pecuniary interests with scant regard for public trust, that is killing the fish.

The starting point is regaining trust. No trust, no fish, no chance.


Once a magnificent wetland-swamp featuring a small lake and abundant wildlife, Lake Tooliorook was turned into a larger recreational lake for locals and visitors in the 1930s. The lake has unparalleled views to the nearby extinct volcanic cone, Mount Elephant, which is often referred to as a ‘beacon of the western plains.’

The recreational lake is a prime example of how private owners and local authorities agreed, in previous times, to destroy wetland features in favour of tidy, accessible amenities on cleared ground, a public picnic and camping ground and boat ramp.

The wetland was a vital aqualung in the upper catchment of the Corangamite drainage basin system. Pre-settlement, a series of interlocking wetlands were abundant throughout the drainage basin. Since settlement, private landowners, with or without regulatory approval, have constantly pinched water from these wetlands.

Today, Clive and I are thinking, the lake, as the largest and northernmost body of fresh water that feeds the basin, could still act as an aqualung, when it is full and overflows. When it runs dry there can be no mud-eyes, no minnows, no birds, and no trout.


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