Feature / Environment

Creek saviours’ work is far from done

A new hardcover book shows just how much has changed over 40-plus years

Mark Phillips Friday, December 8, 2023

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Luisa Macmillan and Ann McGregor on the banks of the Merri Creek in Brunswick East.

Luisa Macmillan and Ann McGregor on the banks of the Merri Creek in Brunswick East.

Creek saviours’ work is far from done

A new hardcover book shows just how much has changed over 40-plus years

Luisa Macmillan and Ann McGregor on the banks of the Merri Creek in Brunswick East.

Mark Phillips
Friday, December 8, 2023

THE revival of the once-neglected Merri Creek into a popular community asset has been an environmental success story but the job of restoring the creek to full health is far from over.

Poor water quality continues to plague the creek almost half a century after a group of Brunswick residents first set about protecting and restoring the creek and its banks.

But while the waterway itself may still be a work in progress, the creek’s banks are almost unrecognisable from what those residents found in the mid-1970s.

The vision and tenacity of those community members who fought to protect and restore the Merri Creek over four decades is now celebrated in a new coffee table book that showcases the waterway’s natural beauty.

Through dozens of before and after photos and an accompanying written narrative, Merri Creek: A Ribbon of Nature in Melbourne’s North tells the story of how the creek and its banks were rescued from the brink of destruction in the late-1970s and revitalised into the popular parklands they are today.

Winding along 60km from beyond the northernmost outskirts of Melbourne and through its most densely populated inner suburbs before meeting with the Yarra River at Clifton Hill, the Merri Creek has been transformed since those dark days almost half a century ago.

Two key figures in that community effort over the years are Brunswick residents Ann McGregor and Luisa Macmillan, whose joint contributions to the creek’s health were also celebrated at the book’s launch at CERES on November 30.

McGregor was awarded an Order of Australia Medal earlier this year for services to conservation and the environment. She was a founding member of the Brunswick Merri Creek Action Group in 1976 and has been president of the Merri Creek Management Committee since 2012.

Macmillan was until recently manager of the MCMC, a position she held for two decades.

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Today it is possible to stand at some positions along the banks of the Merri Creek and forget that you are in one of the most heavily urbanised parts of Australia.

But almost five decades ago, the Merri Creek was an estuary in danger of dying. Already a dumping ground for rubbish and industrial waste, neglected and mostly avoided, much of the creek was set to be concreted as part of a plan for a new freeway.

That led to the formation of the Brunswick Merri Creek Action Group in 1976, which was subsequently folded into the Friends of the Merri Creek in 1988.

Ann and Bruce McGregor were both founding members of the action group, whose instigators also included Gil Freeman, one of the founders of CERES in Brunswick East.

Before and after photos of the Kirkdale Park area on the Bruswick side of Merri Creek as it looked in 1986 and again in 2015.

“We had just moved into Brunswick and there was very little public open space or park land and we were interested in plants and birds and saw the potential to restore it and to make a place for recreation,” Ann McGregor said.

“It was totally overgrown with woody weeds like fennel and it was hard to get along the creek.

“There were also a number of private properties where the titles ran all the way down to the creek so there was no public access, and it was a bit of a dumping ground because people saw it as a place to dump stuff they didn’t want.

“Very few adults went there, it was only really adventurous kids who explored it. There was also a freeway reservation which if it had been built would have wiped out the creek.”

Around the same time as the formation of the Friends of Merri Creek in the late-1980s, the Merri Creek Management Committee was established with representation and support from all the local governments that the creek runs through.

The two organisations work together, with the MCMC co-ordinating projects to restore the environment and providing education and advocacy, while the volunteer-based FOMC regularly runs clean up and planting days, conducts bird and water quality surveys and operates walks and tours along the creek.

McGregor has been president of the MCMC for more than a decade and is also currently vice-president of the FOMC.

Luisa Macmillan, who has a background in environmental policy and planning, particularly freshwater ecology, had been a member of the FOMC from earlier days before she was employed as manager of the MCMC in early 2002, based at CERES.

She said the two organisations had a shared vision and she had seen her job as ensuring the momentum continued to preserve the Merri Creek along its full length.

Tonnes of plastic, cardboard and other litter will take weeks to clean up.

McGregor says the area has been transformed since the 1970s and today it is flourishing.

“It’s brought birds back so we’ve got 28 or 30 species of birds and it’s also a much appreciated place for people of all ages to go for a walk or a jog or a bike ride.”

But both women warn that despite the obvious progress, the Merri Creek continues to face serious environmental challenges.

“Pollution levels are still very high in the creek,” Macmillan said.

“We’ve had a lot of success in restoring the terrestrial habitat but the water quality and the in-stream habitat hasn’t improved to nearly the same extent.

“And I think while in Brunswick and Northcote we’re really fortunate to see lots of well established re-vegetation, there’s still lots of areas that may look green but are still very weedy and not dominated by indigenous species and aren’t as particularly good a habitat as they could be.”

Macmillan said chemicals and other pollutants ended up in the creek from stormwater drains whenever there is heavy rain, and this was impacting on low counts of water bugs which provide food for fish and platypi.

“It’s not like the bad old days when certain factories would discharge waste straight into the creek. It’s more poor quality of urban stormwater runoff rushing into the creek in many places without prior treatment, some of that from industrial areas.”

Ann Sanson says the idea for the book first arose in 2014.

Paying tribute to McGregor at the book launch, former Labor Upper House MP Glenys Romanes said she was renowned for “her vision, her passion, her integrity, how good she is at strategic thinking, all the hard work she’s done and sheer tenacity”.

“That … has inspired us all to do better ourselves,” Romanes said.

In turn, McGregor said of Macmillan that she had been a staunch and effective advocate for the creek and its tributaries, the parklands and special sites.

“She’s lived and breathed things Merri Creek for over two decades,” she said.

Macmillan recently stepped back to part-time work after 21 years running the Merri Creek Management Committee. She will continue at the MCMC as special projects manager, while her successor, Bernadette Thomas, took over recently as executive officer.

Another veteran member of both organisations, Ray Radford, has also retired after 25 years involvement.

The new book grew out of an exhibition to mark a quarter of a century of the Friends of Merri Creek in 2014. That comprised of 12 large panels with before and after photos that told the story of how the creek had been saved from destruction.

“Even back then we were thinking, well, the exhibition is all very well but what about something that people can take away with them? Maybe we should be thinking about a book,” said Ann Sanson, who co-ordinated the new publication.

The result is a 118-page hard cover book that traces the history of the Merri Creek from its occupation by the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung to the present day, with dozens of color photos taken by volunteers.

Costing $65 it can be purchased from the Friends of Merri Creek online shop. The Birds of Merri Creek 2024 calendar, featuring photos by Adi Tudor, can also be bought online for $30.

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