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

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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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