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River issues

Yrka has summarised five issues concerning the Yarra River, and developed its “position” on each of them.

(i) Riverside development and planning

The natural corridor of the Yarra is vital to Melbourne’s amenity and liveability. It provides some of the most popular green open spaces for recreating and enjoying a natural setting, and hence is vital to community well-being. It is also rich habitat for native plants and animals, and for many species the continuity and vegetation of the river corridor are vital for their survival.

But the green environs of the Yarra continue to shrink from the pressure of urban growth and encroaching development. In the Lower Yarra the erection of huge apartment buildings is the most obvious problem, but just as damaging is the cumulative impact of many developments on single home sites. In the upper reaches of the river, the problem is that indigenous vegetation is being cleared to make way for expanding suburbia, infrastructure, new golf courses and the like.

Healthy river environs

Healthy river environs

Building encroaching onto the riverine landscape

Building encroaching onto the riverine landscape


(ii) River flows and water supply

The health and values of the Yarra are closely linked to its water flows – both the quantity and the variability/pattern of flows. The native plants and animals that live in and by the river have evolved in sympathy with its flows. Many aspects of their lives (and thus the biodiversity) are dependent on different flow levels and flow “events”. Examples are – a short period of high flows to trigger Macquarie Perch spawning – inundation of a wetlands for nesting water fowl– alternating high and low water levels as needed by River Red Gums.

But the capture and extraction of the Yarra’s water (by dams and pumps) to supply residences, factories and farms in the Greater Melbourne area has significantly altered both the quantity and pattern of river flows.

The program to release environmental flows down the Yarra which commenced in September 2011 is helping restore some of the natural flow pattern; but not all of the natural flows (eg inundation of floodplains) can be so restored.

In contrast no effort is being made to restore the natural quantity/level of flows, or size of the river. The river’s size governs the abundance of species, and has social values, being a factor in the river’s heritage, and water based recreation such as paddling. (NB We are not advocating big floods that would damage property or assets above the natural floodplain.)

Healthy river flows

Healthy river flows

Dangerously low flows

Dangerously low flows

(iii) Water quality and pollution

As widely acknowledged, the ecological and social values of the Yarra are dependent on it being pollution-free. The different forms and sources of water pollution include:

  • litter and solid waste (so-called gross pollution) which has either been dropped or spilt in the catchment,
  • disease-causing bacteria, coming mainly from leaking/overflowing sewerage systems but also contaminated stormwater, and organic waste,
  • sediments contained in stormwater and runoff from cleared land, construction sites and dirt roads,
  • nutrients coming mainly from sewage treatment plant effluent, cleared land, parks and gardens,
  • other damaging chemicals (eg hydrocarbons, heavy metals and pesticides) coming mainly from stormwater run-off in urban streets and agricultural land. Heavy metals are also present in the river sediments and a legacy of past practices.

Some pollutants are directly harmful to animals and humans. Other pollutants will trigger unnaturally high levels of turbidity and algae, and low dissolved oxygen, which in turn are harmful.


Stormwater pollution

Litter caught in a litter trap

Litter caught in a litter trap

(iv) Flora and fauna

The environmental and social values of the Yarra are related to it being home for a wide variety of plants and animals, especially indigenous species. However, the number and population of native species are severely affected by the spread of introduced species, notably weeds, exotic fish, domestic stock and feral animals. Nonetheless the circumstances vary widely along the river and across the catchment. In the older urban areas exotic garden plants and pet animals are valued by the community. On sporting fields and golf links, open mowed exotic grass is the norm. In agricultural areas, stock animals and food crops are intended. It is in the parks, bushland and the waterway itself where the objective is for only indigenous species.

Revegetation with indigenous plant species is being undertaken by many community groups and most local authorities, and there are numerous success stories. But the attractiveness of exotic plants and animals, and the fact that many out-compete native species are formidable barriers, such that it is doubtful whether the overall situation is improving.

(v) Other social values

The community values the Yarra in ways beyond those described above. These social values include its rich human heritage (both aboriginal and post-European settlement); the many forms of recreation beside and on the river; its inspiration to artists, photographers, authors and poets; the personal stories and associations with it; and the role the Yarra plays in civic and cultural events and celebrations.

Furthermore, the extent to which the community values the river has an important impact on its environmental values, because “people protect what they love.”

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River health

The State Government published (September 2013) its latest Index of Stream Conditions for the Yarra. Five aspects of river condition – hydrology, streamside zone, physical form, water quality and aquatic life – are combined to give an overall measure of environmental condition. The results show that only a small proportion of the Yarra and its tributaries (12% of their length) is in good or better condition and over half (57%) is in poor or worse condition.

River healthThere are two qualifications. Firstly the data relates to 2010 just before the end of the last drought. Secondly the benchmark for “excellent” is what the river’s condition would be if undisturbed by human settlement. This benchmark, whilst useful, is not an appropriate long-term aim (or vision) for Melbourne’s major waterway, but the government has not defined another. Yrka has proposed a vision of the Yarra we want, and urges the government to do likewise (with input from the community) as a means of guiding needed river improvements. For more information, download a copy of the Index of Stream Condition for the Yarra.

As the official caretaker of the Yarra, Melbourne Water reports on compliance with the State environment protection policies (SEPPs). For more information, download a copy of the relevant extract from Melbourne Water’s Environment Compliance report Q3 (2012/13).

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The Yarra River is Melbourne’s most important natural asset, and all Melburnians are dependent on it. It provides 70% of our piped water and its valley is world renowned for its vineyards and natural beauty. It is the centrepiece of many city cultural events and plays host to sports, recreational and nature-based activities.

images of the Yarra 20Oct13-17The Yarra rises east of Melbourne near Mt Baw Baw and flows 240 km to Port Phillip Bay. Its environs are not just our home, they are home for hundreds of different plants and animals, including platypus, koalas, lyrebirds and native fish.

However, the impact of our large city is putting the Yarra’s health under stress. Most of the river’s water is taken to supply our homes and industry, and river flows are significantly reduced. The Yarra is polluted with litter and a cocktail of urban wastes and its water quality falls well short of legal standards. The Yarra’s wetlands, floodplains and banks are damaged by weeds, and continue to shrink from the pressure of urban growth. Many wildlife species are now endangered. State Government research shows that only 36% of the Yarra and tributaries are in good condition.

General Facts

Length: 242 kilometres

Source: About 40 kilometres east of Warburton on the flanks of Mt Baw Baw

Mouth: Port Phillip Bay at Newport

Colour: Brown in the lower reaches because of suspended silt carried downstream

Catchment: Covers 4078 square kilometres, includes 24 tributaries and is home to about two million people

The Yarra catchment covers 4078 square kilometres to the north and east of Melbourne. The forested upper reaches of the river – the source of most of the city’s precious, high quality drinking water – are in good condition, but water quality declines downstream because of agricultural and urban run-off.

Much of the middle and lower reaches has been cleared for agriculture or urban development, but significant areas have been created as parkland for community use. About 21 per cent of the catchment retains its natural vegetation, 57 per cent is agricultural and 22 per cent is urbanised.

History of its name

Indigenous people called the river Birrarrung – “Place of Mists and Shadows” and it was the dreaming path they followed and camped beside through the calendar of countless seasons

The first documented sighting of “the great river” by white explorers occurred in 1803 when NSW Surveyor-General Charles Grimes, sent south by Governor King to map the Port Phillip district, rowed upstream as far as Dights Falls. He named it “Freshwater River” and proclaimed the valley “the most eligible place for a settlement that I have seen”.

In 1835 John Wedge called the river Yarra Yarra, which means ‘ever flowing’ in the Wurundjeri language.

Books about the Yarra River

Cover image

Yarra: A diverting history of Melbourne’s murky river, by Kristin Otto

Book cover image

The Place for a Village: how nature has shaped the city of Melbourne, by Gary Presland

The comfort of water: a river pilgrimage, by Maya Ward

The comfort of water: a river pilgrimage, by Maya Ward

Book cover image

Explore the Yarra, by Ron Amor

The Yarra in song

My Brown Yarra

Artists: The Whirling Furphies
Writer: Frank Jones
Album: Lizard Tree, 1991

There’s a part of me that’ll always be
Flowin slowly to the sea
And when I’m far from home I get a shiver
Whenever I think of that river
I had a dream that every city
In the world was just as pretty
And through each town there flowed a stream
Just like the river of my dreams
When I die put me in a barra
Wheel me down to the banks of the Yarra
Dig a hole both deep and narra
Bury me by my brown Yarra

Yarra Song

Artist: Billy Bragg and the Blokes
Written By: Billy Bragg
Album: England, Half English, 2002

There’s a chill tonight on the Yarra
Winter is creeping in
While far away my loved ones
Wake up in England’s spring

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