Yarra River: still badly polluted despite decades of talk about cleaning it up


Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly inspects the river in Docklands. Photo: Joe Armao

The Age – Clay Lucas

Despite decades of effort to clean up the Yarra, a report to be released at a forum on the river’s health on Wednesday shows high levels of pollution still flowing into its waters – these days largely as a result of urban development instead of industrial run-off.

And raw sewage is still pouring into the river during heavy rains.

But despite having promised, four months ago, to introduce a new Yarra River Protection Act and to establish a new trust to develop better planning controls around the river, the Andrews government still cannot say when or how it will follow through on the pledge.

On Wednesday, the Yarra Riverkeeper Association and not-for-profit group Environmental Justice Australia will convene a forum at the Abbotsford Convent, on the banks of the Yarra, to encourage the government to deliver on its promise.

Before it was elected last November, Labor said it would “introduce a Yarra River Protection Act to guard the river corridor from inappropriate development”, and set up a new trust to “standardise planning controls for the Yarra, and work with agencies to promote the river’s amenity and significance”.Neither have been enacted, and the government has had little to say on its plans to better protect the river.

On Monday, Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the legislation was critical and couldn’t be rushed. But he also said interim controls would be put in place “so the Yarra River can be protected while community consultation and work on this landmark legislation progresses”.

“Part of our commitment is making sure the community has a chance to have their say on this important legislation,” Mr Wynne said. “All Melburnians know the Yarra and we want all Melburnians to have a voice.”

The report to be released by Environmental Justice Australia on Wednesday says the complex web of laws and regulations that apply to the Yarra “are not working well, and this is contributing to ecological, land-use and water-quality problems”.

Industrial pollution no longer pours into the river from businesses such as the former Alphington paper mills or the Mobil dock at Coode Island.

Instead, it is the proliferation of hard surfaces from stormwater drains, development and roads surrounding the river that now provide much of the pollution.

There are 11 councils along the course of the Yarra responsible for planning on its banks, and at least three agencies – Melbourne Water, Parks Victoria and the Environment Protection Authority – that oversee its health.

The sheer number of bodies involved in overseeing the Yarra makes improving the river’s health far harder, Environmental Justice Australia’s advocacy and research director, Nicola Rivers, said.

“The Yarra is facing so many development pressures and its management is so fragmented that it’s just not a healthy river at the moment,” Ms Rivers said.

“Decisions about the [Yarra] need to consider the whole river and so it can be properly protected and managed from source to mouth.”

The report by her agency also finds that there are major problems in water quality in the river and its tributaries, increasingly because of urban stormwater run-offs.

“Such run-off problems are a product of high proportions of surfaces like roads and buildings, combined with high levels of litter, chemicals, and other materials flowing into stormwater systems,” the report finds.

Run-offs from roads and other hard surfaces that ultimately wash into the Yarra include heavy metals such as zinc, lead and copper, from car brakes and tyres.

Plastic also washed into the water gradually breaks down, causing increasing levels of particles in the river and Port Phillip Bay.

And sewage is still ending up in the Yarra, the new report finds: “Melbourne’s sewage system directs sewage to treatment plants. However, in very high rainfall events, stormwater enters the sewage system causing it to overflow, which results in diluted raw sewage entering the Yarra at designated emergency overflow points.”

Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly said high levels of zinc in particular, and litter and raw sewage flowing into river during storms, continued to be major problems.

Mr Kelly said he was glad Labor had promised the Yarra River Protection Act, but it was important there were no delays to introducing it. “We now have the task of making it happen – hopefully sooner rather than later so it doesn’t get bogged down,” he said.

Mr Kelly said there were numerous examples of over-development on the river’s banks he could point to that were reducing water quality.

The former Amcor site in Alphington, where there were once paper mills that spewed waste into the Yarra, was a prime example of development that would hurt the river, he said.

Currently a third of the 16-hectare site is open grasslands, but this will soon be replaced by 2500 houses and apartments for almost 5000 residents.

Mr Kelly said that while there were appropriate setbacks from the Yarra, planning laws were silent on the loss of open space – which would see far more water channelled off the site and directly into the river.

“A third of the site at the moment is trees and grass, and that will be turned into hard surfaces, so what was houses for birds will become houses for people,” he said.

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