History of Williamstown Wetlands

 A rifle range, later known as the Merrett Rifle Range, was established on the shore of Port Phillip at the western end of Williamstown in the late nineteenth century and gradually developed over the next hundred years.  Although it was the site for rifle shooting competitions and a wartime military encampment, from the 1930s there were persistent calls to close the range and develop the land for housing.  The history of the range is described in A Bullseye History of the Merrett Rifle Range: the story of the North Williamstown rifle ranges from their construction to their closure, 1878-1987 by Ross Graham.  A copy is held in the Williamstown Library.

By 1986 the Federal Government had marked the rifle range as an asset to be realised.  Extensive negotiations with Canberra by Williamstown councillors on behalf of the Williamstown community preceded the sale of the rifle range to establish conservation areas.  At that time it became clear that community support was essential to ensure that the conservation areas were established and maintained. 

When the sale of the rifle range was imminent, the Williamstown Conservation and Planning Society suggested that a Friends group be formed to support development of the conservation areas.  In May 1987 a pubic meeting was organised in Williamstown Town Hall with the support of the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) and the Friends of Williamstown Rifle Range Conservation Areas was formed with an initial membership of over 200 people and a committee of twenty.  The new Friends group was affiliated with the VNPA. 

The Commonwealth sold the rifle range to the state government of Victoria’s Ministry of Housing in 1987 for $12 million. Development of the site was placed in the hands of the Urban Land Authority (ULA), predecessor of Places Victoria.  As a condition of the sale, the purchasers were required to retain the saltmarsh spit (later named the Jawbone) and the intertidal mudflats as conservation areas and to eventually hand title over to the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands.  The western end of the site was designated as public open space. 

Design work proceeded for establishing the housing and the Jawbone Fauna and Flora Reserve.  The design included the construction of a marina at the western end of the site that involved the dredging of a 180 metre wide channel through intertidal mudflats.  This, despite the fact that the intertidal mudflats were, and still are, protected under international agreements, namely, the Japanese- Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (JAMBA) and the China-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (CAMBA).  Further information on these agreements can be found at the Australian Government website http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/migratory/waterbirds/bilateral.html

Following a two year effort by the Friends a decision by the Minister for Planning saw the marina proposal abandoned.  The Friends efforts included many public meetings, letters and articles in local and state newspapers, development of a photographic exhibition, guided walks on the rifle range, representation on the ULA consultative committee for the plan, participation in a consultation forum in 1989, a detailed response to the Environmental Effects Statement presented at a large public meeting, a presentation to Williamstown Council, meetings with the Minister for Conservation, Forests and land  and 1000 public submissions opposing the marina.  The range of tasks highlights the passion and commitment of the Friends.

The development plan was revised to include the construction of a stormwater lake between the wetlands and the grasslands that flanked the housing as well as to establish the Jawbone Fauna and Flora Reserve and retain the western end as open space. 

The rifle range itself disappeared – literally and visually as the lead-contaminated soil in the mounds was removed.  Work by the Friends group added considerably to the initial plantings on the mostly-bare soil that was the result of earthworks.   Plants were selected from local sources so that they could thrive in the highly alkaline soils, exposed to strong winds that carried salt from the bay.  Weed control was also important. 

In 1992 a boardwalk was constructed so that visitors could get a close look at the Jawbone and the wetlands.  Birdlife flourished in the new lakes and a bird hide was constructed to cater for dedicated birdwatchers. 

The name of the Friends group was changed to Friends of Williamstown Wetlands and it became an incorporated association in 1994.  By then some 200 houses had been constructed and the first sections of the lake, separated by a causeway, were being filled by stormwater runoff from the hard surfaces.

The title of land was transferred in 2002 from the state government agency to local bodies and that same year the area (over 100 Ha) was listed on the register of the National Estate (#007716).  The indigenous flora is characteristic of the basalt coast and the fauna includes a healthy population of tiger snakes that can be observed sunning themselves on the paths in early spring.  Hobsons Bay City Council gained responsibility for the grasslands and the lakes, and Parks Victoria for the wetlands and the coastal area.  The Friends group has worked closely with and received valuable support from both of these responsible bodies, and also with the Williamstown High School campus on the eastern end of the reserve, on Bayview Street.

To highlight the diversity of flora and their suitability for planting in this area, the Friends have developed an arboretum on the rise at the eastern end of the lake.  Selected plantings are grouped in the arboretum, and identified by their common and botanical names.  The arboretum was the centrepiece of the celebration by the Group in 2008 of twenty years of caring for the old rifle range. 

Housing development has continued steadily, with the last stage of construction ongoing in 2013 at the western end of the estate, bringing the total housing stock up to almost 1000 dwellings.  Planting was carried out not only on the north side of the lakes, but also in the conservation zone behind the lakes and on the islands that provide secure bird-breeding habitat in the second lake.  Further development ensued with the development of the western extension to the lakes, some excavated soil being used to construct a mound at the western end of the reserve, and the installation of the Round the Bay Path for walking and cycling.  

More recently, with the engineered reversion of the Paisley-Challis Wetland to something approaching its natural state and the creation of a new stormwater lake there, the Friends have extended their activities to include renovation of the old bird hide and pathways at the end of Maddox Road, near the mouth of the Kororoit Creek.