The Maribyrnong Catchment

The Maribyrnong, Mirrangbamurn – Melbourne’s second largest river brings life, joy, and balance along its journey from source to sea. The river we know, and love, is not just water, but the intersection of ecosystems, culture, and community – together as one living and integrated natural entity. Some have said the name Maribyrnong derives from mirringgnay-bir-nong which in Woi-wurrung is said to mean “I can hear a ringtail possum.”

The Central Macedon Range is the primary source of the two major tributaries to the Maribyrnong River: Deep Creek flowing to the north, and Jacksons Creek flowing to the south. These tributaries join near Bulla to form the Maribyrnong River. Below this confluence, the Maribyrnong stretches 41 km before it meets the Yarra. Three small creeks, Arundel Creek, Steele Creek, and Taylors creek enter into the Maribyrnong below Bulla. The river and its tributaries have carved a path through the basalt plains of the region, creating a diverse landscape of escarpments, gorges, and river flats. The 1400 square km catchment is a predominantly rural catchment with the river valley cutting through the lava flows of the Keilor and Werribee plains created by volcanic eruptions over two million years ago. As the Maribyrnong enters the built-up area of Melbourne, it begins a dramatic transformation from a natural river to a highly urbanised working river.

The Maribyrnong River valley has been home to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation for at least 40,000 years. Thousands of cultural sites and places have been recorded, most along the river, in the form of stone tools, scar trees, and unique floral assemblages. The Keilor Cranium site is one of Victoria’s most important archaeological sites suggesting indigenous occupation back to at least 30,000 years BP. Extinct Pleistocene animal fossils are also associated with the site. The Mount William Stone-Axe Quarry is the largest and best-known indigenous quarry in Victoria spread over 50 acres. Known as Wil-im-ee Moor-ring, meaning “axe place” in Woi-wurrung, the greenstone quarry was an important source of raw material for manufacturing greenstone axes, which were traded over a wide area of south-east Australia. The western clans were said to have worked hard to balance community and Country by employing sustainable agricultural practices. Terraced myrnong gardens were cultivated, with bright yellow blooms stretching for kilometers. The Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung saw the valley as an aggregate of water and land with its flora and fauna, and their agriculture practices ensured the reliable supply of resources. The land and waters of this region continue to hold deep spiritual and cultural significance to the Kulin Nation.

The first Europeans to explore along the river were Charles Grimes (1803) and John Batman (1835). With the establishment of Melbourne in 1835, sheep runs soon appeared in the Avondale and Sunshine areas as early pastoralists favoured the open grazing country of the Maribyrnong’s upper reaches. Whereas the Freshwater took the name ‘Yarra’, the Maribyrnong River was soon dubbed the Saltwater by early settlers, due to the tidal nature of its lower reaches (to Solomon’s Ford in Avondale Heights). The river, at least in its lower reaches (the river estuary), remained known as the ‘Saltwater’ River until 1913.
As Melbourne grew, the shape of the Maribyrnong itself began to change. The bed was dredged and cleared of fallen timber, the banks straightened and raised. Eucalypts and casuarinas along the frontage were cut out, wetlands were filled in, and tributaries channelled into drains. The banks of the river have been extensively modified since 1920’s with straightening, widening, filling, deepening and beaching works all taking place.
During the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century much of Melbourne’s industry was located along the river. Abattoirs and their attendant noxious trades crowded the banks and discharged their untreated waste to the rivers. Pipe-works, meat canneries, paint factories, soap works, a sugar refinery and fertiliser plants – all lined the riverbanks, their liquid wastes turning the water red and their fumes polluting the air. During dry summers, the Maribyrnong often completely ceased to flow, which compounded the problems of pollution. The foul air and filthy rivers branded Melbourne as ‘Marvellous Smelbourne’, but locally the western suburbs were stigmatised as ‘Worst Smelbourne’ or ‘Worst Smelldom’.
Growing environmental awareness in the 1970’s saw local activists successfully lobby governments to clean up the river.Through their efforts, local and state governments were pressured to take action and invest in pollution control measures, such as upgrades to sewage treatment plants and the implementation of regulations to restrict industrial pollution. These efforts contributed to a significant improvement in water quality and the recovery of aquatic fauna and flora in the Maribyrnong River catchment. The success of these campaigns demonstrated the power of community activism in creating positive change for the environment. It also highlights the importance of ongoing efforts to raise awareness and advocate for environmental protection in local communities.
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