Our plan to make the Parramatta River swimmable again is based on scientific studies of water quality, ecological health, swim site activation, waterway governance, and community consultation, to ensure we develop an evidence base for action and targets that can be realistically achieved by 2025.
The Parramatta River is one of the most modified waterways in Australia, due to a highly urbanised catchment and high population. Contamination of the river by chemical and microbial substances stretches back to European colonisation. Today, the river continues to be polluted from industry, municipal waste, urban stormwater and sewage systems.
When considering human contact with the water, there are varying risk levels, depending on the water quality. We have undertaken a series of technical studies to understand the:
- Contaminants we need to monitor to assess suitability for recreational contact.
- Condition of the river now and as it changes over time.
- Potential water quality improvement from local and catchment scale intervention.
What should we monitor?
We have scoped a comprehensive Riverwatch monitoring program for the Parramatta River, which outlines what, how and when we need to monitor.
We recommend monitoring be undertaken in a staged approach:
- Screening of heavy metals, dioxins, PAHs, PCBs, surfactants and pesticides in sediments, ground water and surface water.
- On sites that pass stage 1, performance monitoring over at least 2-3 years, using current Beachwatch approach (enterococci) as well as source tracking monitoring (Bacteroides and faecal bacteriophages).
- Routine monitoring and public reporting.
Read our literature review: How should water quality be assessed in the Parramatta River? A review of current literature.
What is the river like now?
There are four current swim sites along the Parramatta River that are monitored and publicly reported by Beachwatch. There has been little to no monitoring at other proposed swimming sites. However, our modelling work suggests that water quality is likely already suitable for swimming at many of these sites.
Initial sediment screening is underway at six proposed swimming sites. Further monitoring of other contaminants will then be required prior to any new sites being considered feasible for swimming.
Read our technical report: Strategic Analysis of Water Quality Monitoring in the Parramatta River Catchment – Technical Analysis Report.
Where can we swim in 2025?
Our water quality modelling shows that water quality can be improved, even with predicted development in the catchment. This will require additional planning controls for stormwater management, wastewater infrastructure and community education.
It is possible that more swim sites in the lower parts of the river could be opened for swimming by 2025.
Other sites in the upper river will need more innovative solutions to become swimmable.
Read our water quality modelling report: Where can we swim by 2025 – Water Quality Modelling Report.
A living river means many things. Our mission includes seeing the Parramatta River become a river that is packed with life and healthy ecosystems, where plants and animals can flourish in the water and surrounding environments.
We identified five iconic species from the Parramatta River catchment that were chosen by community, and whose presence and habitat requirements link to the goal to make the river swimmable.
These five iconic species represent the range of environmental domains in the catchment, terrestrial, riparian, freshwater and estuarine habitats, and the communities they are part of. These icons are the centre of ecological action in the Masterplan and will be used as indicators of the health of our local waterways and catchment and our progress to making more areas safe for natural swimming.
Read our detailed Parramatta River Catchment Ecological Health Project Report, with the action plans for each of our five iconic species.
We need to understand how the community feel about swimming in the Parramatta River and what it means to them, so we can establish active, well used swimming spots that meet community wants and needs.
We asked over 1100 residents from across the 11 local government areas in the Parramatta River catchment about their current behaviour around water, barriers to swimming in the river, preferences for swimming site activation and appetite for recreation in the Parramatta River.
The research confirmed that there is a high demand for a more convenient natural swimming location for people living in the catchment. Residents also highlight the importance of sites as more than places just to swim, but as recreational destinations.
Read our full Parramatta River Masterplan Community Research Report.
Or view our Community Research Infographic.
Swim Site Activation
Swimming Site Activation Framework
There are several characteristics that impact the feasibility and success of a location as an active swimming site. To understand the potential for activating swim sites along the river, and what options are available for each specific swim site, a decision framework has been developed.
This Swimming Site Activation Framework provides guidance on the potential for activation and what type of activation can be achieved at a site.
We have used this framework to assess 12 shortlisted sites along the Parramatta River in relation to their future swimming site activation potential. For an overview of these 12 assessments, read our Parramatta River Swim Site Activation Overview.
Swimming Site Feasibility
Feasibility criteria are used to determine what type of river site activation options are possible at different sites along the river. They include ecological restrictions, boat traffic, water quality, water depth and publicly available land.
Swimming Site Vulnerability
Vulnerability criteria are used to determine the risk at a site when considering activation. They are broadly based on the Guidelines for Managing Risks in Recreational Waters and include water quality, water clarity, river dynamics, river bed physical hazards, river bed and edge characteristics and heritage. To explore this risk in more detail, Royal Life Saving has conducted detailed risk assessments at two representative swimming sites along the river – Little Coogee and Kissing Point Park.
Swimming Site Desirability
Desirability relates to urban form elements which impact the overall swim site appeal and how often people are likely to visit and spend time at the site. Desirability characteristics include access and movement, adjacent open space, natural environment, built form and aesthetics, governance and implementation and community demand.
We have conducted community focus groups at each proposed new swimming site to have them assess each site for current and future desirability.
To successfully implement the Masterplan actions and achieve our mission, we will all need to do our part. There are many stakeholders involved in making the river swimmable again and the current governance can be confusing and complex.
To understand the current governance and inform our future approach, we worked with our partner agencies to map the existing governance structures around waterway management, ecological health and swimming site activation and identify gaps and issues in these structures. A key recommendation from the review was the need to establish a lead state agency with sufficient powers, funding and whole of government support to drive delivery of this Masterplan.
A major stakeholder workshop was held on March 2018, which was attended by 45 participants from 22 organisations. At this workshop, the ten recommendations underpinning this plan were agreed, along with who is responsible and how we will get there. Sydney Water was also agreed as the agency best placed to take the lead coordinating role with an emphasis that other agencies may lead individual projects where appropriate and the Parramatta River Catchment Group will continue to be the overarching body overseeing the Masterplan.
At the workshop, Aboriginal leadership was also recognised as a key gap that needs to be addressed in conversations around river knowledge, use and governance. We therefore commissioned a specific Aboriginal Leadership project to commence engagement on the appropriate inclusion of Aboriginal people within the governance framework.
Aboriginal leadership in waterway governance
The complex, intrinsic connection between Aboriginal culture and land and waterways is tied directly to belief systems that holds land and waterways as living entities with their own body, spirit and free will. This is a key starting point for all policy and decision making within Aboriginal communities as any changes must consider the effect on land and waterways and their ‘thoughts’ on this impact.
This creates some conflict in the modern era of policy making and needs to be considered in how Aboriginal people are included and take leadership in the future planning for the river. Decision making processes and parameters may not easily align with other members of the wider Australian community and will require translation and negotiation.
As the Traditional Custodians of the land and waterways, Aboriginal communities have the longest connection and working relationship with the area and therefore should be a priority for inclusion in any research, review or design of policy.
Some key considerations in relationship to Aboriginal leadership around this Masterplan include:
- the use of language in establishing the priority of values and inclusion,
- recognising Aboriginal people as a priority stakeholder in the protection, preservation and planning around the future use of the river and surrounding land,
- the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the design of legal representation and bodies to shape policy,
- the number of Aboriginal communities across the catchment and how representation is then balanced across areas of governance, policy, advisory and advocacy,
- having Aboriginal custom and culture at the core to ensure the continued connection and practice of culture that will build on modern techniques of water access, management, pollution and environment,
- supporting Aboriginal communities to continue their role as custodians and develop economic opportunities to support the protection of a healthy swimmable river (e.g. festivals, net making for swimming areas, information sign posting and tourism operations).
To inform our discussions of these and other elements, two contrasting models were explored in New Zealand and Australia. These are outlined in Parramatta River Aboriginal Leadership: Case Study Report.
The identification and inclusion of Aboriginal leadership is of significant importance to the overall success of this Masterplan. Continued work is needed to identify those responsible for different parts of the Parramatta River catchment to support the creation of collaborative leadership and Aboriginal custom through a balanced view of the entire catchment.