All the rivers run – or do they?


We know a lot about how gold mining helped fuel Victoria's prosperity and rapid population rise during the 19th century.

But little is known about the impact gold mining has had on our rivers.

As the State faces the possibility of yet another drought, La Trobe University archaeologist Professor Susan Lawrence, Albury-Wodonga Campus environmental chemist Dr Ewen Silvester and a group of co-researchers have just received an Australian Research Council grant of more than $650,000 to evaluate how gold mining has shaped Victoria's river systems.

Dr Lawrence, who is also Head of Archaeology and History, and Dr Silvester, Associate Professor of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, say this will be the first systematic study of the impact of historic mining on Australian rivers.

Their previous research indicates that 75% of Victoria's catchments were affected by mining waste.

Ovens River not so 'natural'

'Gold mining has led to extensive and long-lasting changes to waterways across the state,' said Professor Lawrence.

'For example, the Ovens River is often perceived as one of Victoria's few remaining "natural" rivers because it hasn't been dammed.  Yet it has one of the catchments most severely impacted by mining.'

The research team is using a wide range of scientific techniques, from landscape archaeology, physical geography and geomorphology to environmental chemistry.

It will identify and map the extent of changes, including increased sedimentation, erosion caused by the altered water flows, and how many contaminants from mining still remain.

Impacts to this day

'We aim demonstrate how historical mining continues to influence chemical and physical processes in Victorian streams to this day,' Professor Lawrence said.

For fifty years, from 1851 – 1914, gold mining was Victoria's biggest industry, producing 2,500 tonnes of gold.  Mines used a great deal of water, which was discharged as polluted sludge directly into rivers and streams.

'Despite considerable public discussion at the time, the impact of mining on Victoria's rivers has since been forgotten. A major area of research in many countries overseas, it is one in which Australia has lagged behind,' Professor Lawrence said.

'Documenting the types of landscapes that existed before and at the height of the mining boom, can contribute to the way our catchments and reservoirs are managed into the future,' Professor Lawrence said.

Watch Professor Lawrence talk about water use during the gold rush

Read about other new ARC grants: What makes workplace gender equality tick - and more

Contact:  Ernest Raetz, Media and Communications, 0412 261 919

Photo: Snags on the River Murray near Yarrawonga, by Jim Barrett