Protecting the Yarra must be a priority

The Age Editorial

November 5, 2014
On visiting Melbourne in 1893, James Goudie wrote that, even after all he had seen in Europe, this was “one of the finest cities”. The Scottish traveller was much taken by the beauty and sophistication of the Botanic Gardens, by the fine civic buildings and ornate mansions of Melbourne, but he held grave reservations about the river that ran through it. The Yarra, he said, was “the filthiest piece of water I ever had the misfortune to be afloat on”.
Were he to return to this city now, Mr Goudie would scarcely know his way around. Certainly some of the most glorious boom-era buildings still line the streets, and treasures such as the Botanic Gardens have been lovingly curated through generations. The city’s skyline, though, has soared, its suburbs stretch forever and, importantly, the river has changed – so much for the better.
The Yarra today is healthier than it was 120 years ago, when bureaucracy, corruption and apathy left it a cesspool choked with sewage, weeds, animal carcasses, chemicals and heavy metals. It is still not “clean”; its waters should not be drunk, and swimmers risk contracting infections. But Melbourne has turned its face to the river. Its banks are now lined with parks and bicycle paths, and Melburnians are more aware of the need to care for this vital artery.
At The Age, we like to take some credit for this. Back in the 1860s, The Age issued a feisty call for “a pure Yarra in the interests of the Collingwood and Richmond working classes, and not from the viewpoint of the southside elite who live on the opposite bank”. And in 1980, we launched the Give the Yarra a Go campaign to restore the river to the people of Melbourne. We urged government and municipal authorities to recognise their responsibilities to clean the river and preserve it as a recreational gem for all citizens.
Today, the Yarra’s city banks are lined with arts venues and cafes, it is a place of walking, cycling, sitting, watching and being seen. The south bank is a great promenade. Barely 100 metres upstream, and the river becomes a haven for quiet contemplation. Venture further, and it becomes a thread of natural wonders, of small silences, with the scent of eucalyptus around every bend.
For all that, the river is at risk of being loved to death. Multistorey apartment blocks are being built close to the water’s edge in the inner eastern suburbs, and landowners on both riverbanks are grasping every possible metre for their own. The danger with such intense development is that hard surfaces, such as concrete and stone, plus access roads for cars, lead to increased stormwater run-off. Unless it is properly managed, there is an increased risk of pollutants, such as oil, zinc and copper, flowing into the river.
The not-for-profit Yarra Riverkeeper Association warns this is already happening. It wants proper environmental management of the areas around riverside apartment and housing complexes to ensure there is optimal filtration of stormwater before it flows into the river. Water quality is also jeopardised by faecal contamination from leaking septic systems upriver, and from premises in inner suburbs that have illegally connected sewerage systems to stormwater drains.
The Yarra Riverkeeper Association is urging political parties in this election to consider regulations for all new developments to recycle or infiltrate stormwater and reduce the risk of pollutants. It wants planning controls tightened to stop degradation of the river environment, and it wants parties to consider water management policies aimed at restoring the river’s natural flows. These proposals are worthy of consideration, especially mandatory stormwater filtration systems. While it is quaint that Melbourne has a riverkeeper, who patrols the Yarra by boat, the entire community must do much more to improve the Yarra. We owe it to future generations to be the best keepers of the river.

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