22 May 2023
The Maribyrnong River valley in western Melbourne has been home to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation for at least 40,000 years.
It is a place of calmness and home to diverse plants and animals, including platypus and echidnas, birds of prey, toads and frogs, native fish, reptiles, and insects.
It is also an environment at risk, which is why ecologist Dr Nicole Kowalczyk was appointed as the first Maribyrnong Officer in 2021.
For years, there had been a Yarra Riverkeeper and Werribee Riverkeeper, but it was a $120,000 grant from The Ross Trust that enabled the creation of the Maribyrnong River’s first dedicated carer and advocate.
“While there are many similarities in catchments, and they face similar threats, they also have unique attributes,” Nicole says. “There is a more diverse community in the west, culturally and demographically, as well as different geology and vegetation groups.”
When she started the new role, Nicole cycled the Maribyrnong from where it joins the Yarra in Newport to where Jackson and Deep Creek meet in Bulla.
“More recently, I’ve been exploring the upper catchment, navigating accessible regions along Jacksons and Deep Creeks, which are some of Melbourne’s most underrated sites of natural beauty,” she says. “A highlight has been climbing Mt Macedon and viewing the Cobaw Ranges, the source of the Maribyrnong River.”
Nicole has been incredibly busy since her appointment, working with First Nations people, community groups, agencies, and all levels of government to work towards systemic environmental change and greater investment into the enhancement of the river and surrounding waterways.
She has overseen the establishment of the Maribyrnong River and Waterways Association, an alliance of groups, individuals and agencies who share a passion for the river.
“The association advocates for the river and works to improve its health and the health of the wildlife, flora, and people whose lives are touched by the river,” she says.
Nicole was particularly busy during the disastrous flooding event in October 2022, when the river burst its banks and muddy water engulfed nearby buildings.
“This was an interesting time as it provided the opportunity to advocate to government and in the media for the river and the community,” Nicole says. “I’ve made a submission to the Melbourne Water inquiry into the event, as well as submission to the Victorian Parliament advocating for the protection of flood plains so they can function as natural ecological systems, as well as improved warning systems and controls.”
Nicole has also been focused on developing a new 2023-2026 strategy, website, and Maribyrnong catchment film, which will all be launched on June 7 at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.
“Looking at policies and procedures, engaging with the community, and seeing real changes, is the work that I love,” she says. “The future is looking positive for this role and the association. Thanks to the initial support of The Ross Trust, we have been successful with other grants, which may mean we can take on a couple of additional employees.”