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Getting the treatment - the Werribee success

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Dr Will Steele, Senior Wildlife and Wetland Scientist with Melbourne Water, takes a look at the fascinating (and insightful) history of the Werribee Western Treatment Plant.    
With amazing foresight, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works began purchasing land at Werribee in the 1880s and the Werribee Sewage Farm was first connected to Melbourne in 1896. Werribee was found to be suitable for a number of reasons. First, Werribee is very flat, allowing water to trickle out over a wide area. The porous delta soils were another plus, as they acted like filters and the high evaporation rate of the site (in a rain shadow area of the Otway Ranges) meant that land filtration would be successful. The fact that Werribee was mostly all downhill from Melbourne (there is only need for one pumping station), was a further bonus.

Left: WTP lagoons. Photo from Melbourne Water

Below left: Shirley the spoonbill. Photo by Doug Blood

Below right: Pink-eared Duck. Photo by John Barkla

Bottom left: University students, drawing blood samples from resident swans, as part of one of the research programs at the WTP.  Photo from Will Steele

The Werribee plant has been a great success story. Initially raw sewage was taken out in a main sewer and, with the solids dropped out, was allowed to trickle out over the large land paddocks, before being discharged into Port Phillip Bay. The rapid evaporation rate (three times the average rainfall in the region) assisted the filtration effects.
By the 1920s however, other solutions were needed since Melbourne's population was growing and better filtration techniques were needed, especially in winter. Another technique was added to the Werribee plant, this one based on the use of clay soils that used bacterial slime to break down the sewage on top of the soil.
Finally, in the 1930s Werribee began using lagoon treatment. Here, the sewage flowed through a series of oxidation ponds, which were aerated to allow aerobic bacteria to break down the organic matter.
With recent upgrades, this lagoon treatment is the only technique used today, with some 174 constructed ponds making up the treatment plant.

But Werribee is no ordinary sewage farm and has a proud history as a wetland site, indeed one of Victoria's Ramsar wetland sites.    

The rich sewage sediments attract thousands of birds and there are plenty of frogs, most notably the Growling grass frog, a threatened species that seems to be thriving at Werribee. There is a discovery centre on site and visitors can take bus tours. Some 566 people have taken out a bird watching permit, which gives them access to some of the roads and wetlands. There is also a study permit system for university students and other researchers.


Werribee monitors the shorebirds and the Growling grass frog, as well as other wetland management issues, such as water levels and the effect of discharges on the shoreline. Dr Steele says that there are over 281 species of birds noted at the wetland, with around 18,000 migratory shorebirds using the site. Some 120,000 water fowl also use the wetlands, from ducks and swans to geese and grebe. It is also a home to the Great egret and the Australian bittern, not to mention the many White ibis and Straw-necked ibis that roost in the trees.

There is several sea bird colonies at the plant, including breeding colonies of Pied cormorants, some darters and other cormorants.  While there are many Whiskered tern at the plant they in fact breed much further north. This Ramsar site, listed in 1984, is a testament to planning and a reminder that creative solutions to environmental problems are not something new.
Where there's a will, there's a way.

Text: V.B. October 2008

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