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Byron Shire
July 20, 2024

It was once clear water, running over clean sand and pebbles…

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There is serious pesticide pollution in the Richmond River estuary. But the problems of the Richmond River start well upstream. And they started long ago with extensive timber clearing from the 1880s. The damage was quick, as noted by local historian Louise Tiffany Daley:

‘The squatters on the upper river were only too glad to clear their land for pasturage and to sell the great stands of rare timber. In a short time the forest country at Unumgar and Roseberry and around Kyogle was invaded by an army of workers. Long processions of bullock teams hauling great logs of cedar and pine could be seen making their way slowly towards Casino.’

The subsequent damage was extensive, and was felt well downstream. At Irvington, a few kilometres east of Casino, the logs were dumped into the river to float down to Coraki.

A wharf, built at Irvington in 1898, was later abandoned due to river shoaling. This is the deposition of eroded soil from upstream river banks.Before the timber clearing, things were different.

Local historian Louise Tiffany Daley. Photo www.richhistory.org.au

Clear waters

Some of the earliest squatters on the Richmond were the Bundock family; Wellington Cochrane and Mary Ellen Bundock settled at Wyangarie, north of Kyogle, in 1842. One of their daughters, Mary Bundock lived much of her life in the area. She made an extensive collection of Aboriginal artefacts and kept meticulous records which are highly regarded for their accuracy.

In her memoir she noted: ‘The Upper Richmond was then a beautiful stream of clear water, running over clean sand and pebbles, an ideal of beauty and purity not to be surpassed anywhere, with steeply shelving banks either of clean grass or shaded by beautiful trees of many kinds.’

Damage to the river continues in the headwaters and along the full length of the Upper Richmond where the uncontrolled access of cattle to the river and its tributary creeks is commonplace. This leads to trampling of vegetation, an increase in nutrient levels and major soil erosion. Whereas there was once ‘clear water, running over clean sand and pebbles’ the river is now very different. In the shallows it is common to sink almost knee deep in mud, and even with low flow, when it is at its clearest, it can only be described as murky.

Over much of the river channel above Casino, the river is wider and shallower. It’s wider because of the erosion. And it’s shallower because that eroded material is deposited in the channel. That’s what happened at Irvington. It’s happening still.

The condition of the river comes down to a question of values and attitudes.

On a recent kayak journey south of Kyogle, over a stretch of about 500 metres five dead cows were seen on the river bank or in the shallows. And then there was the one cow stuck in the mud, still alive. Just. If it’s possible for a cow to have a forlorn expression, this one had it.

‘A healthy river should be seen as a public good, same as a school or a hospital’. Photo Graeme Gibson

Paddling the river is to come across all sorts of items, either washed in during flood or dumped. A lounge chair. An axle from some sort of farm machinery. A road sign. Chemical containers. And then there’s the plastic festooning the riverbank trees – where there are riverbank trees – slowly deteriorating. Microplastic overload. However these items got there, no one is getting them out.

To some the river is little more than a water supply, or a drain. While there are farming families immensely proud of their achievements, there is a level of denialism over the condition of the river.

An Ecohealth report from 2014 rated the river as D+. A citizen science project over 2022-23, which has used a different methodology and cannot be compared directly with the 2014 report, has found similar problems.

Who owns the river?

There is also a widespread misunderstanding about ownership of the river channel and the extent to which adjoining landowners can manage the river. It’s not uncommon to find a fence, from bank to bank, through the water channel. This is a method of controlling cattle movement up and down the watercourse. Not of keeping them out of the watercourse.

Coming across a barbed wire fence across the river while kayaking presents a challenge. It’s also decidedly dangerous. Imagine swift flowing murky water with a barbed wire fence at or just below the surface.

Fencing across a watercourse is also illegal. That applies to the river and creeks that are, from time to time, capable of navigation. It does not apply to gullies and areas that may be inundated by floodwater.

The problems of the Richmond River have their origins and their continuing issues in two phenomena. Colonialism that displaced Indigenous stewardship of the land and the river. And capitalism that saw profit as the main game at the expense of all else.

A healthy river should be seen as a public good, same as a school or a hospital. And just as schools and hospitals are funded by governments, actions to achieve a healthy river should be funded by governments.

This will require change by landowners. And in many cases that change will be resisted. There are issues over the level of government support and the question of compensation needs to be tested. There are some very good land and river managers who care. And Landcare makes impressive gains. But these are piecemeal.

Along with government support, what the Richmond River needs is a whole lot of care and a whole lot of love. It will never be what it once was, but it can be so much better.

♦ Graeme Gibson is currently researching a social and environmental history of the Richmond River.

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  1. Local Champion Tom Wolff ( revive the Northern Rivers . com) is doing some great work in this space.

    If land owners, the length of the river, were encouraged to leave a 25 metre buffer (riparian zone) to be planted out with natives (or at the very least, left to grow wild) either side of the river from Ballina to Kyogle, the health of the river would improve thanks to the natural filtration riparian zones offer amongst many other benefits. Many farmers are already onto it, but more is needed.

    Such zones also reduce river bank erosion, especially during floods where farmers/owners often lose valuable land.

    Will also help to catch all the tanks, containers and other plastic rubbish that ends up in Ballina and local beaches after floods.

    I hope this issue gets more press, it’s needed!

  2. For ‘capitalism’ replace with western colonialism. The difference is under colonialism the whole social system more complete than ‘capitalism’ which is a system of private wealth that doesn’t need a social system to operate in the first instance.

  3. Colonialism and capitalism are what allows you to sit in a kayak and write these articles. The taxes from those farmers pay for the roads and universities etc you use. Ans Australia was going to be colonised anyway

    Bit if balance.

  4. Graeme Gibson – please contact me as I have further information on the river which maybe of interest to you, having assembled a large enviro history case study on the river recently. Indeed values are a foundational issue. Due for publication by the International Pollutant Elimination Network (www.ipen.org) in March. Matt Landos. You can google my contact details. Many farmers are repairing their land and the river. We need to financially support them to do more.

  5. Too true.
    A cogent article indeed.
    Being a perch-fisher I see a lot of debris in the river.
    Un-licenced pumping when the river is very low too.
    Several national and state fishing organisations would totally agree with your conclusions.
    They are trying desperately to remediate this parlous situation in the Richmond River.
    Perhaps the Author should contact them and compare notes?

  6. Did the cow get saved?
    I found this comment distressing, without follow through.

    Don’t put children and animals in stories unless a follow through.

    Echo please follow up.


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