FOND MEMORIES: Red Rock residents Graham Searl and Gwyn Austen reminisce on the town's fight against town water in the '80s, which is the subject of a new book.
FOND MEMORIES: Red Rock residents Graham Searl and Gwyn Austen reminisce on the town's fight against town water in the '80s, which is the subject of a new book. Clair Morton

The water war that divided and unified Red Rock

ON THE southern fringes of Yuraygir National Park is a small beach-side village with a rich history and a connection to the Clarence Valley that runs deep.

Once governed by Ulmarra Shire Council, and later Pristine Waters, Red Rock has always been a popular holiday destination for Grafton families.

While it is now part of the Coffs Harbour City Council area, author Graham Searl has ensured its shared history with the valley, and particularly one event in 1985, won't be forgotten.

With help from a number of residents, he has published a book; Red Rock: The Village That Said No to Town Water.

It details the residents' fight against reticulated water, which began when the Ulmarra Shire Council sent letters to Red Rock house-owners notifying them of a decision to supply town water to the region.

The trouble was, most of them didn't want it.

So began a year of petitions, letters to the editor, community meetings and the eventual emergence of the Red Rock Preservation Association.


ON A sunny spring morning in 1985, 60 residents converged on a street corner in Red Rock to discuss a letter.

Sent out by the Ulmarra Shire Council, and dated September 27, 1985, it outlined plans to introduced a reticulated water system to the village.

"Council feels that the provision of reticulated water will assist the area to grow, overcome any problems from water storage... and generally improve everyone's lifestyle," it read.

But Gwyn Austen, who owned a number of flats in Red Rock at the time, couldn't see the sense in it and found herself on that street corner with everyone else.

"Everybody met together and decided they didn't want it," she said.

"We were lucky we were on the tail-end. It was like a piece of spaghetti; just cut it off and bingo, that's your solution."

But despite letters and submissions from residents to the council, it looked as though nothing could stop progress.

Soon after the water announcement came whispers of a planned large scale development, including a 300 bed hotel,18 hole golf course and residential blocks.

Armed with an Olivetti typewriter and a second-hand photocopier, and later a computer, they kept the fight going.

"We had a cottage down here that somebody had said we could use as a base and we opened it every Monday," she said.

"Anybody that wanted to know how things were going could come down, but there were no formal meetings."

The fight became larger, and eventually gained attention from prominent politicians, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC show The Investigators.

Ms Austen said they had overwhelming local support, about 80 or 90%, but the Ulmarra Shire Council had them pegged as "ferals, blow-ins and greenies".

Even old Grafton families, who owned holiday houses at Red Rock, and the "greenies" formed an unlikely alliance.

It was an alliance which fell apart soon after the battle was won, but at the time they all had one thing in mind.

"They wanted to stop it, and when they found out somebody knew how to make that happen, they worked together," Ms Austen said.

"People on the other side used to say 'this is splitting the town', but the attitude we took was to just deal with one thing at a time," she said.

"At that stage in the game the important thing was to achieve the end, and once we'd done that honestly it all just fell into place.

"There was no blood on a wattle at all."

There was, however, a celebration when the plans for both the development and installation of reticulated water were finally revoked in October 1986, 30 years ago.

"It was right at the death knock really," Ms Austen said.

"We got the words through that told us we won from the state government, and had a celebration in Mike Graham's backyard with the champers and the whole bit."

And if the government ever tries to introduce reticulated water again, the 77-year-old said she though the residents would still mount a pretty good fight against it.

"It's never been suggested, so I don't think about it," she said.

"I don't think we'd have that trouble now."

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