Many Sydneysiders view rivers as extensions of our city’s stormwater system: unsafe and unsavoury. It hasn’t always been like this.
BY EMMA HARVEY
I’m ten years old and clinging to the white railing on the back of my dad’s Toyota Landcruiser. Flanked by two siblings, wind whistles past my ears and whips at my hair as we speed down the dirt track. I have my mouth open wide, saliva drying on my lips, making my tongue feel thick. Paddock tramlines flick past hypnotically, stretching out to meet a horizon of Cypress pine shimmering in the afternoon heat.
We arrived home from school less than an hour ago, dumped our backpacks and tugged faded cozzies from the Hills Hoist in the backyard. Our family farm is bordered by the Macquarie River, which runs through north-western New South Wales. During my childhood, we spent entire summers on its muddy banks, leaping off cliffs, careering from rope swings and trying to execute handstands against the tug of the current.
“I love the idea of kids being able to go and have a swim for free. Because, in this affluent city, not everyone’s affluent.”
We stuffed sticks into sand and called them wickets, ate pasta from plastic containers, argued, lit campfires and batted at mosquitoes. Mum and Dad would join us in the water, toss us from their shoulders and swim a few laps, before reclining on camp chairs with light beers. When it got dark, we would cocoon ourselves in damp towels, lie down on the tray of the ute, and stare up sleepily at the vast starry sky.
As we got older, the river became a place to bring friends, unload swags and eskies and bottles of sugary alcohol. We’d get up early, swim away the hangover and cook bacon and eggs on the remains of the campfire.
Now that I live in Sydney, I often jog down to the part of Parramatta River that snakes through the suburbs near my house. The surface is a sleek, metallic blue. On a humid January day, it looks almost irresistible. But then I pass a sign and the daydream quickly departs.
HAZARDOUS – NO SWIMMING – POOR WATER QUALITY
Australia is an iconic beach nation. Salt-crusted hair, sunscreen smeared onto sandy limbs, foam boogie-boards bubbling in the sun. For the 83 per cent of our population who live within 50 kilometres of the coast, beaches are cheap recreation and a welcome relief from the blistering summer heat. Sydney, in particular, is a city whose identity is inextricably tied to its yellow shores and sparkling harbour.
It’s hard to believe that as recently as the 1980s, Sydney’s beaches were far from the pristine coastlines featured in aerial shots for Tourism Australia. Before 1991, shoreline recession, coastal erosion, environmental monitoring and stormwater management were dire issues ruining Sydney’s coast. In fact, wastewater management was so poor that industrial effluent from treatment plants was being discharged directly into water just off the shores of Bondi, North Head and Malabar, through shallow cliff-face outfalls. This practice led to grease deposits on the sand, contaminants in seafood, severe impacts on the marine environment, and unsafe swimming sites all along the coastline.
Unsurprisingly, the public became dissatisfied. In response, a decision was made in the early 1980s to undertake extensive planning, studies and monitoring, with the intention of implementing new infrastructure and initiatives to restore Sydney’s beaches. In 1991, the Deepwater Ocean Outfall program was established at a total capital cost of $310 million (around $600 million today).
Almost every major Australian city sits on the banks of a large river, and yet there remains considerable public distaste when it comes to the idea of swimming in their waters.
Over the last 25 years, this program, along with other initiatives, has led to the decommissioning of the cliff-face outfalls, along with increases in wastewater treatment, enhanced trade waste policies and stormwater infrastructure, all of which have gradually improved water quality and marine biodiversity while generating economic and social value for the city.
In October 2018, the State of the Beaches report by the Office of Environment and Heritage revealed a staggering 98 per cent of ocean beaches were shown to be clean and safe, as were four out of five ocean baths. The harbour still isn’t perfect — many sources of pollution (such as contaminated sediment, leachate from landfill, stormwater, and sewage overflows) remain, but there has been significant effort, and finances, put towards its improvement.
Another less scientific marker of how far our beaches have come is the fact that North Palm Beach has been the proud film site of Home and Away’s Summer Bay Surf Club since 1988.
On a sweaty summer day, many Sydneysiders will gladly make the trek to their closest beach or bay, to spread their towels on the sand and cool off in the surf. But for all our championing of our city’s beaches, few of us would be so eager to take the plunge in our urban lakes and rivers.
Almost every major Australian city sits on the banks of a large river, and yet there remains considerable public distaste when it comes to the idea of swimming in their waters. Many of us view our rivers as extensions of our city’s stormwater system: unsafe and unsavoury.
It hasn’t always been like this.
For Indigenous Australians, Sydney’s main tributary, the Parramatta River, has been a centre of life, spirituality and sustainability for tens of thousands of years. It began as a small creek along the valley floor and gradually morphed into the impressive form we see running through the city today.
In the early 1900s, thousands of people would gather at the shores of Parramatta River for carnivals, swimming lessons and all types of recreation. Archival photographs from the 1920s and 30s capture families and children lounging on rocks, paddling in the shallows, broad-shouldered lifesavers looking on in their one-pieces.
From the 1940s, the Parramatta River catchment area was being used heavily for industry and as a result, many parts of the catchment were altered, reclaimed for development, and contaminated with heavy metals and other chemicals. By the early 1960s, the majority of swimming sites along the Parramatta were permanently closed due to poor water quality.
This has been the reality of Sydney’s rivers for decades since. Nowadays, a dip in the pool – even an over-chlorinated local pool teeming with snotty kids – is less repulsive to a lot of us than taking a dive in Sydney’s rivers.
Despite this, Chair of the Parramatta River Catchment Group (PRCG), Councillor Mark Drury, is optimistic. In October 2018, PRCG released ‘Duba, Budu, Barra – Ten Steps to a Living River – The Parramatta River Masterplan’, a product of more than a decade of advocacy, research and collaboration between the staff members, scientists and 36 local and state government organisations involved with the Our Living River initiative.
“Sydney began all about the Parramatta River, but then our identity became more about the harbour and the beach."
The Masterplan is a ten-step document that, among other objectives, proposes to make Parramatta River swimmable again by 2025. Three new swimming locations at Putney Park, McIlwaine Park in Rhodes East, and Bayview Park in Concord, are scheduled to be opened to the public sometime in the next six years, joining recent successes at Cabarita Park beach, Chiswick Baths, Dawn Fraser Baths in Balmain and Lake Parramatta.
“We’re going back to the future,” says Mark. “Sydney began all about the Parramatta River, but then our identity became more about the harbour and the beach. Paradoxically, the Parramatta goes into the harbour, and the water goes into those beaches.”
The response to the Masterplan has been overwhelmingly positive. “The public love it, the councils love it, the bureaucrats love it.” The biggest frontier is funding. The PRCG has requested around $7 million from the Federal Government for infrastructure funding and a Riverwatch Monitoring Program, to keep things moving.
“We’ve also been urging both political parties to actually have a policy about urban rivers because there’s the Darling and the dead fish, but a lot of us live in the city and there’s stuff we can do here too.”
In an unprecedented first step in 2019, then-opposition leader Bill Shorten pledged $200 million to restore urban rivers and waterways in an appeal to environmentally conscious voters. Mark says this is a pleasing step that comes on the back of years of grinding behind the scenes.
“I’m about that slow, persistent, push for change. Enthusing people, getting agreements, getting people around the table, finding the dough. None of that happens quickly.” He laughs. “I mean, eight years to get 10 steps!”
With 2019 on track to be among the five hottest years since records began 120 years ago, and the Bureau of Meteorology projecting the trend to continue, the aims of the organisation are preaching to the well-and-truly converted. Especially, says Mark, when it comes to a growing part of our population who don’t live within half-an-hour’s drive of the beach.
“I love the idea of kids being able to go and have a swim for free,” says Mark. “Because, in this affluent city, not everyone’s affluent.”
The impact of a NO SWIMMING sign goes far beyond the disappointment of a nostalgic country girl who wants to cool off after her January jog. And while a swimmable city river offers incredible opportunities to bring together communities in a stifling climate, there are obviously much broader benefits to reap.
According to Mark, ‘swimmability’ is an effective selling point that provides a vital gateway to environmental protection and sustainability.
“We talk about a living river, and we use the symbolism of people wanting to swim, because if the river is safe enough to swim in then it’s good enough for living critters, it’s good enough for ecosystems.”
Our regular, primary contact with our urban rivers can act to change the way our rivers are managed, helping both people and the environment to be healthier.
“There have been steps to improve our air quality, our beaches... I just see the rivers as part of that progression.”
Swim and the rest will follow.
This feature was published in Volume 1 of Sweaty City - buy the magazine now for more great environment writing and design!