THE WATER MUST COME FROM SOMEWHERE?
In 1971, at the age of 21, I retired from competing in elite sport.
At the time, there were several reasons why I opted out of a promising career. In hindsight, I feel much of it has to do with searching for the source of that early loneliness that had dogged me since childhood.
While living in Melbourne, many of the visits to the homeland included a drive to the hilltop view reflecting on what I could now see and explain. From this platform you can see, not far to the north, the course of the Latrobe River running from west to east.
The river is the source of the Yallourn Storage Dam – later renamed Lake Narracan – a substantial body of fresh water built to supply cooling water for the electricity generators at the nearby power station downstream.
The dam is where most of my water skiing training occurred. Where as a teenager, I first attempted to set an Australian water ski speed record. And the dam is where a species of European Carp were fish tanked by a local Latrobe Valley farmer.
From the Yallourn Storage Dam / Lake Narracan, the feral carps quickly invaded the inland waterways of southeastern Australia including the Murray – Darling River basin.
Most of my time skiing was spent dunked in the water wearing a lifejacket with my head bobbing above the surface waiting for the boat to return and getting ready to re-launch. And even more time was spent at the water’s edge preparing to ski. Afterwards, towelling off and preparing for the next go.
As a skier suspended so long in water and at its edge I began to sense changes occurring beyond familiar wave effects, current, tide, backwash, and undertow. I began noticing intrusions such as bank erosion caused by boat wakes, oil slicks, rubbish and weeds infesting waterways.
The further afield I went in search of tranquil water for training purposes, I could still see signs of feral degradation. The dam water had since acquired the taste of carp.
The species has a high tolerance for less oxygenated water than native fish. They suck food from the bottom along with water and mud, filtering it out with gill rakers. Even in stagnant water carp can grow in excess of a metre.
In Australia, they have no natural predators. Native fish shun them. A Government Primary Industry bulletin warns how ‘carp contribute to poor water quality by uprooting vegetation and stirring up sediments during feeding, leading to increased turbidity’.
And how, ‘they can migrate to and from breeding grounds during the breeding season, sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometres’.
Like carp, open cut mining and power generation are hungry for water. In constant search. The water must come from somewhere. It does. From the northern Alps, feeding the Yallourn Storage Dam are the Latrobe and Tanjil rivers.From the southern ranges, the Moe River and Narracan Creek.
After the dam’s water is ingested by the mining operations and power generators it reappears as vapour above the giant cooling towers, or as boiled and lifeless water dispersed downstream, or as sludge.
Hidden from public view, sludge (a toxic mix of water, furnace ash, and chemicals) is piped to the northern side of the river into the disused Yallourn North Open Cut mine. A few kilometres long and one wide, a deep crater lies at the centre.
The disused mine site is surrounded by bush land and planted pines behind a perimeter high-wire security fence.
The two syllabic name of Sir John Monash (1st SECV) – Mon & Ash – describes the benefits and the dangers of the modern enterprise founded on profit and public utility. Mon reflects the modern dictum that more and more can be gained from less. To do so always implies some form of collateral damage that somehow has to be managed and contained – Ash.
Civil society has come to depend on checkpoints that keep the unwanted feral behaviour at bay.
In sporting terms, to respect the integrity of a code’s rules and guidelines, a hierarchy of familiar punishments are aimed at containing feral behaviour. For example, a whistle is blown and a penalty awarded. If it persists a whistle, a penalty, and a yellow card warning is issued. If it threatens the integrity of the game the player is shown the red card and sin-binned.
During the ‘old’ Yallourn collaborate measuring sticks gleaming waterways and electricity transmissions to the Melbourne and Victoria grids. By the 1990s there was a change. Privatisation & government trade union discharges.
Fanfare ideology. The legion of billowing shadows, yellow-orange jackets, permits, black patrol SUVs, and wire fences. Regulators, Ombudsman, Watchdogs are installed to monitor compliance breaches. Each is a technician skilled in policy, rules, guidelines, and Power Point presentations.
Stamping feral behaviour. Catch-up games chasing a tail. All else is hidden from view.
In addition to the conventional open cut mines throughout the Latrobe Valley Region, there are plans to start mining coal seam gas from the surrounding landscape. From atop the Coaches Road hilltop, there is an area marked for coal seam gas mining that extends hundreds of kilometres east and west. This stretch lies between the Alps to the north, and Bass Strait coastline to the south.
Often called ‘fracking’, wellheads populate a landscape, drilling deep shafts. A fluid comprising water and chemicals is injected into the earth’s crust searching for sub-structural coal veins.
The combination of water pressure and chemical releases gas to the earth’s surface where it is contained, then sold as an alternative to burning coal. The treated water is also brought to the surface.
This toxic mixture is held in open ponds or transported elsewhere. For how long: and where it is seldom known. The fear is an intrusion that cannot be contained. I understand the water must come from somewhere.