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Protecting and improving the health and enjoyment of Sydney Harbour and the District's waterways

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Planning Priority E14

The Eastern City District's coast and waterways shape its landscape and character. They are natural assets, cultural resources and recreational destinations. As the District grows, greater housing density around waterways, and more people looking to use waterways for recreation, will mean that these assets will need to be carefully managed so they continue to support a wide range of activities. 

The waterways and rivers of the Eastern City District are part of an overall natural system and contribute to the green infrastructure that cools and greens the District. The District's waterways support coastal, marine and groundwater dependent ecosystems, which benefit from continuing protection and management. They support threatened ecological communities and accommodate the disposal of stormwater and wastewater. The District's catchments and waterways are shown on Figure 20.

The District's waterways support significant biodiversity, and include Sydney Harbour, Parramatta River, Botany Bay, the Cooks River, a small section of the Georges River estuary, and two nationally important wetlands: the Lachlan Swamps/Botany Wetlands corridor which runs from Centennial Park to Botany Bay, and the Rockdale Wetlands corridor which includes important open space. The Bronte-Coogee and Cape Banks aquatic reserves provide protection for fish, aquatic animals and marine vegetation. Land use planning controls play an important role in protecting environmentally sensitive coastlines, waterways and foreshores, and the health of catchments above these waterways. 

The Cooks River runs through some of the most urbanised suburbs in Australia. Many parts of the river and its foreshores offer beautiful riverside walkways and cycle paths, wonderful parks and facilities and habitat for native plants and animals. 

Many of the District's creeks have been channelised and hard-edged with concrete - such as Alexandria, Hawthorne and Dobroyd canals - and the city's first water-supply stream, the Tank Stream, is now completely channelised and enclosed. Seawalls have also reduced the habitat available for aquatic species. 

The Eastern City District's waterways play an integral role in creating a sense of place, providing recreational opportunities, and supporting economic and cultural activities. Sydney Harbour is an internationally celebrated tourism destination and continues to be a working harbour. The District's famous beaches, including Bondi and Coogee, also attract visitors and support a great lifestyle for residents. 

A legacy of historical land uses, contaminated land and groundwater, aged infrastructure and the pattern of urban development have impacted some of the District's waterways, including Alexandria Canal, Botany Bay, the Botany Bay Sand Bed Aquifer, Parramatta River and harbour sediments. Other waterways are in better health, provide habitat, are accessible and are popular settings for swimming. 

Urban development, the clearing of vegetation and the increase in impermeable surfaces have resulted in elevated run-off, reduced water quality and loss of habitat. Urban stormwater carries litter and contaminants into the District's waterways. The District's waterways often flow through more than one local government area and are managed by a number of agencies and stakeholders, so water quality and waterway health is best managed at a catchment and sub-catchment level.

Figure 20: Eastern City District catchments and waterways

A stylised map of the district showing the river catchments and waterways, including Georges River Basin, Cooks River Basin, Parramatta River Basin, Port Jackson Basin, Botany Bay Basin, the coastal catchment and river flow direction.
Download this image eastern_figure_20.jpg (format PNG / 662 KB )

New development and investment in infrastructure provide an opportunity to improve the necessary health and quality of the District's waterways, foreshores and riparian corridors, through improving public access to, and along, the foreshores; providing connected green space around the foreshores; conserving cultural heritage; protecting and enhancing flora, fauna, and urban bushland; reducing erosion and sedimentation; which improves bank stabilisation; promoting pervious surfaces; providing riparian vegetation buffers; and recovering and reinstating more natural conditions in highly modified waterways.

Enhancing community access to the coast and waterways within the District and, in particular, the foreshores of Sydney Harbour should be prioritised. This includes access for pedestrians as well as boats and other watercraft. The delivery of the Greater Sydney Green Grid will enhance connections to Sydney Harbour, the Parramatta River and the coastline from Botany Bay to Watsons Bay. Further information on delivering the Green Grid is outlined in Planning Priority E17.

Legislation, policies and plans are in place to improve the health of waterways and to manage water resources. For example, the Coastal Management Act 2016 integrates coastal management and land use planning, and the Fisheries Management Act 1994 protects aquatic biodiversity. The NSW Water Quality and River Flow Objectives identify high-level goals for several catchments in the District. NSW Government agencies and councils also manage the health of waterways through planning and development decisions, environmental programs and through the management of public land.

The Metropolitan Water Plan 2017 is the NSW Government's plan to ensure there is sufficient water to meet the needs of the people and environment of the Greater Sydney region, now and for the future. It established the WaterSmart Cities Program, which will explore new ways to supply drinking water, and manage stormwater and wastewater in a more integrated, cost-effective and sustainable way.

The Marine Estate Management Authority has prepared the draft Marine Estate Management Strategy 2018-28 which, when finalised, will support a clean, healthy and productive marine environment.

This District Plan aims to protect and improve the environmental health of waterways. Many councils have identified and mapped environmentally sensitive areas of waterways that are important to the local community and use additional local provisions and natural waterways and environment zones to protect these areas.

For local waterways, where governance and ownership of the waterway can be highly fragmented, a green infrastructure approach, which values waterways as infrastructure, can lead to more innovative management of waterways with outcomes that better reflect community expectations.

An integrated approach to the protection and management of waterways will also rely on more comprehensive approaches to the monitoring and reporting of water quality and waterway health. Councils monitor water quality and waterway health, implement sustainable urban water management approaches and encourage water-sensitive urban design.

The District Plan aims to integrate the objectives for waterways that are set out in legislation, policies and plans, by prioritising the management of waterways as green infrastructure. This involves:

  • reconceptualising waterways as an infrastructure asset that provides environmental, social and economic benefits to communities
  • integrating approaches to protecting environmentally sensitive waterways within a larger network of green infrastructure
  • addressing the cumulative impacts of development and land management decisions across catchments in a way that improves water quality and waterway health.

Collaboration and coordination across levels of government and with the community is needed to deliver the green space, urban cooling and integrated water management outcomes needed to support the Eastern City District.

Future work will apply the lessons from previous management of the District's rivers notably the Parramatta River Catchment Group and the Cooks River Alliance that facilitate a coordinated approach to the management of the Parramatta and Cooks rivers.

Managing water quality and waterway health continues to be a significant challenge, given the highly urbanised nature of the catchments, the changes to the shoreline following reclamation for infrastructure, and the legacy of groundwater contamination from historical industrial activity.

Bore water usage needs consideration of how it impacts on aquifers and groundwater dependent ecosystems and how it supports efficient use of water resources.

Catchment-scale management and coordination can:

  • solve multiple problems - for example, catchment condition and water scarcity, or addressing water quality impacts on aquifers, estuaries and the marine estate
  • set objectives for the District's waterways and enable them to be achieved in innovative and cost-effective ways
  • enable both public and private benefits to be achieved - for example, stormwater from private land could provide a benefit to public management of green space and urban waterways
  • promote integrated water cycle management and investment in sustainable water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

Strategic planning needs to manage the cumulative impact of activities and associated infrastructure such as moorings, marinas and boat launching facilities while ensuring public access to the waterways and opportunities for swimming, and small boat and kayak launching from publicly owned land. Access to waterways should not compromise the integrity of environmentally sensitive aquatic and riparian habitats.

Sydney Harbour

Sydney Harbour is one of Greater Sydney's most recognised and valuable assets - it is part of what makes Sydney one of the most attractive and recognisable cities in the world. The Harbour and its tributaries also act as a major transport corridor, flora and fauna habitat and recreation area. It is a significant natural scenic feature with its many tributaries, estuaries, beaches and bays providing abundant biodiversity. Associated with the Harbour is a rich environmental heritage including natural, Aboriginal and built heritage.

Public access to Sydney Harbour and its foreshore is important for water-based activities, especially where adjacent to public open space. To ensure access to Sydney Harbour foreshores should be maintained and increased wherever possible.

Sydney Harbour is a major economic asset and makes a significant contribution to tourism as a place for major cultural events, including New Year's Eve, Vivid and Australia Day celebrations. It is also a working waterway, supporting defence and military operations, cruise ships, commercial shipping, recreational watercraft industries, ferries and water taxis. There are port facilities at Glebe Island/White Bay and refined fuel is imported at Gore Cove.

Cruise ship activity has grown rapidly and future growth will need to be managed carefully to avoid conflicts with other harbour users and nearby residential areas. Planning Priority E9 sets out actions to help manage working waterways. Collaboration is required to resolve conflicts between recreational, residential and industry users.

Currently, Sydney Regional Environmental Plan (Sydney Harbour Catchment) 2005 provides a framework to maintain, protect and enhance the catchment, foreshores, waterways and islands of Sydney Harbour. There may be opportunities to take a more comprehensive view as to how major waterways and their foreshore across Greater Sydney are managed and protected.

Photo of the historic Customs Tower La-Perouse Botany Bay.

La-Perouse, Botany Bay

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Botany Bay

Botany Bay is recognised for its significant economic, environmental and cultural assets. Kamay Botany Bay National Park, Towra Point Nature Reserve and Cape Banks Aquatic Reserve have been established in recognition of Botany Bay's environmental and cultural significance, while other waterway and foreshore areas also contain valuable biodiversity and scenic coastal landscapes.

The land adjacent to Botany Bay was settled for thousands of years by the Eora and Tharawal people and Aboriginal people continue to have a strong association with Botany Bay. Botany Bay was the scene of the first European landfall on the east coast of Australia, (in 1770) and Captain Cook's landing place at Kurnell has become a popular tourist attraction.

As home to Sydney Airport and Port Botany, Botany Bay is Greater Sydney's main international passenger and trade gateway. The waters around La Perouse are renowned for snorkelling and scuba diving, while the beaches and extensive foreshore parklands along the Grand Parade provide attractive settings for recreation.

Councils around both the Eastern City and South districts are working together to improve water quality in the Georges and Cooks rivers which both flow into Botany Bay. Managing water quality and waterway health continues to be a significant challenge, given the highly urbanised nature of the catchments, the changes to the shoreline of the bay following reclamation for infrastructure, and the legacy of groundwater contamination from historical industrial activity.

The Cooks River Alliance is a partnership of Bayside, Canterbury-Bankstown, Inner West and Strathfield Councils, which has been in place since 1997. The Alliance works with communities for a healthy Cooks River catchment. In 2018, the Alliance, with funding from the NSW Government, will begin a scoping study for the first Cooks River Catchment Coastal Management Plan. It will be developed under the NSW coastal management framework with priorities and actions for the Cooks River.

Parramatta River

Parramatta River is central to Greater Sydney's Aboriginal and colonial history and the development of modern Sydney. Its foreshore is the focal point for an enhanced network of open spaces, walkways and cycleways.

In the past, Parramatta River and its tributaries have suffered from degradation and contamination. There have been gradual improvements to water quality in recent decades, although recent modelling has predicted water quality in the river will worsen unless additional management interventions are implemented.

The NSW Government is working with councils and the community to develop the Parramatta River masterplan, a blueprint for making selected sites along the Parramatta River swimmable. Four sites, including Dawn Fraser Pool, Chiswick Baths and Cabarita Beach are already open for swimming and a number of potential swimming sites have been identified for further investigation. The masterplan adopts the Office of Environment and Heritage and the Environment Protection Authority's risk-based decision framework. Proactive management and improvements to wastewater and stormwater systems, including state-of-the-art water quality analysis and modelling, will provide the foundation of a healthy river.

Making more sites along the Parramatta River swimmable will require improvements to the water quality and waterway health in the upstream catchment. This will take time to implement.

Measures which slow the flow of stormwater into waterways and create bio-retention systems along streets, where water can be filtered and soak into the soil, will help make the river swimmable.


Protect environmentally sensitive areas of waterways and thecoastal environment area.

Councils, other planning authorities, State agencies and State-owned corporations


Enhance sustainability and liveability by improving andmanaging access to waterways, foreshores and the coast for recreation, tourism, cultural events and water-based transport.

Councils, other planning authorities, State agencies and State-owned corporations


Improve the health of catchments and waterways through a risk-based approach to managing the cumulative impacts of development including coordinated monitoring of outcomes.

Councils, other planning authorities, State agencies and State-owned corporations


Work towards reinstating more natural conditions in highly modified urban waterways.

Councils, other planning authorities, State agencies and State-owned corporations