History of the River

The Parramatta River has had a long and complex history. From its origins as a dry valley over 15 million years ago, to its integral part of Aboriginal life and culture and significant industrial and urban development over the past 200 years, the river has experienced many changes. The purpose of the Parramatta River Masterplan is to protect this iconic river to ensure its future for many generations to come.

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Aboriginal History

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The Parramatta River Catchment Group (PRCG) acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional custodians of our land – Australia. We also pay our respects to Elders past and present.

Aboriginals have had a close connection with the Parramatta River for thousands of years. The river provided a rich source of food and transport and was the location for many significant cultural and social practices.

According to information obtained from council websites listed below, there are approximately 30 clan groups of the Sydney region, referred to collectively as Darug. Several clans lived along the Parramatta River and into Western Sydney. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Darug people who lived in the Greater Western Sydney area
  • Burramattagal people, a clan of the Darug, who first settled in what is known today as Parramatta
  • Cadigal and Wangal people who occupied Sydney’s inner west area
  • Toongagal who lived in the vicinity of Toongabbie
  • Wallumdegal who occupied what is now the Ryde and Hunters Hill areas
  • Wategora people who lived near Duck River.

The Parramatta River continues to be a place of cultural significance for Aboriginal people. There are many sites and objects along the river that people have a connection to, both physically and spiritually.

Find out about our ‘Designing with Country’ project for the Parramatta River catchment.


Learn more about Aboriginal history and culture in your local area of the Parramatta River catchment:

Blacktown City Council

Burwood Council

City of Canada Bay

City of Canterbury Bankstown

Cumberland Council

Hunters Hill Council

Inner West Council

City of Parramatta

City of Ryde

Find out more about Aboriginal places of significance, in and around Sydney:

NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment

Barani – Sydney’s Aboriginal History

European History

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The Parramatta River is the main tributary of Sydney Harbour and covers an area of 266 square kilometres that spans the local government areas of Blacktown, Burwood, Canada Bay, Canterbury Bankstown, Cumberland, Hunters Hill, Inner West, Parramatta, Ryde, Strathfield and The Hills Shire. A diverse and rapidly growing community of over 750,000 people live within the catchment area.

Parramatta is Australia’s second oldest settlement, established on 2 November 1788. The surrounding area was used to farm crops for the new colony as the poor soils around Port Jackson would not support stable food crops.

By the late 1850s Parramatta was the main metropolis of NSW placing considerable pressure on the natural environment. The River foreshore also became the site for heavy industry, resulting in extensive soil contamination, which still has a major impact on the estuary today.

Historically, most of the Parramatta River used to be swimmable and was the focal point for many social and recreational activities. However, by the 1950s, lack of regulation and rapid industrial development along the river caused substantial pollution and degradation of the water quality. With improved regulation, technology and community awareness over the last 20 years, the condition of the river has been improving.

European history timeline of the Parramatta River

Nov 1788: Settlement at Parramatta (second settlement back at ‘Rose Hill’ which was renamed Parramatta in June 1791.

1791: Commencement of river modification (Beginning of modification of riverine landscape including planting of Vineyards at Vineyard Creek, citrus trees and other plants.  First land granted to ‘free immigrants’ around Homebush Bay).

1830s: Wetlands impacted (Wetlands were drained and filled to create firm and arable land).

1850s: Parramatta main metropolis of NSW (the river foreshore became the site for heavy industry, resulting in extensive soil contamination which continues to impact on the estuary today).

1831: First paddle steamer built in the harbour services the Parramatta River.

1857: Parramatta Park open (Parramatta Park became a public place, previously on the grounds of Government House).

1866: First Ferry Service (ferry service began in 1866 but services often terminated at Rydalmere and ceases the trip to Parramatta in 1928 due to siltation and shallowing).

Early 1900s: Industrialisation (Homebush bay progressively filled with soil and rubbish for industries – 1907-1911 abattoirs, brickwork.  Industrialisation attracted illegal dumping and river referred to as an open sewer. By the end of the 1900s factories and industrial plants had been established on both sides of the river from Rhodes to Parramatta).

Until 1920s: Parramatta River was a popular holiday destination.

1904-1932: Six swimming and bathing locations were built along the estuary between 1904 and 1932 (rowing and sailing also very popular from the late 19th century).

1909: Lake Parramatta a recreational area (Lake Parramatta was provided as a recreational area in 1909 and a popular swimming hole between 1920 and 1940. By the late 1980s continued poor water quality resulted in the lake being unsuitable for swimming.  Lake was reopened in 2006 for limited swimming and on 24 January 2015 the Lake was officially opened as a designated swimming spot).

1950-60s: Swimming in river a health risk (despite attempts to address pollution in the river in the 1940s and 1950s, poor water quality in the river meant swimming was dangerous to human health).

Pre 1970: Significant Pollution to Parramatta River (Prior to 1970 210 sites which discharged untreated or poorly treated industrial wastewater into the Parramatta River, but by 1985 this had reduced to 19 sites).

1970: introduction of the Clean Waters Act (The Clean Waters Act of 1970 was introduced to improve water quality. Waterfront industries and port activities were relocated as a greater appreciation of the waterways aesthetic and recreational values developed.  Parameters for the River were developed to stimulate interest in improving degraded aspects of the river, its foreshores, landscapes, remnant vegetation, habitats and fauna).

Late 1980s: Lake Parramatta unsuitable for swimming.

Early 1990s: Dredging of Upper River (the Upper Parramatta River was dredged for future ferry access with the Rivercats commencing in 1993).

2006: No more commercial fishing (commercial fishing licences for the harbour were terminated due to transfer of sediment contaminants to fish species).

2008: Parramatta River Catchment Group formed (a consortium of local government and community organisations).

January 2015: Lake Parramatta officially open to swimming.

2025: Parramatta River open to swimming.

Learn more about the European history of the Parramatta River:

River Cycles – A History of the Parramatta River

City of Parramatta – History of Waterways

Natural History

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The Parramatta River has a long geological history stretching back thousands of years. Since European settlement the river has experienced significant change, primarily due to the impact of industrial and urban development along its shores.

In recent years, efforts have been made by government and community groups to redress the environmental damage that has occurred.

Our five iconic species represent the range of environmental domains in the catchment and the communities they are part of. These mascots are at the centre of ecological action in the Parramatta River 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. Learn more about our Mascots.

Watch the following video to find out more about the Parramatta River’s fascinating natural history.