This maligned waterway has long been Melbourne’s dumping ground, but the Greens have backed a plan to make the Yarra swimmable once more.
Despite pollution, runoff, sediment from deforestation upstream and discarded furniture – more on that later – people still swim in sections of the Yarra, including at Warrandyte and Deep Rock. But if the Yarra River Strategic Plan comes to fruition, many more people will be able to swim greater lengths of the river.
Victorian Greens MP Ellen Sandell, Yarra riverkeeper Charlotte Sterrett, federal Greens MP Adam Bandt and Richmond hopeful Gabrielle de Vietri.Credit:Julian Meehan
Ahead of Saturday’s state election, the Greens promised $40 million to realising the plan, with the eventual goal of making the river swimmable again.
In February, the Labor government released the strategic plan, which has been endorsed by eight local councils, seven state government agencies and six committees of management that collectively committed to implementing it.
Melbourne Greens MP Ellen Sandell said the strategic plan laid out a pragmatic approach for revitalising the Yarra and bringing it back to being a healthy, thriving ecosystem.
“The Labor government just hasn’t put the investment in, and the money that’s needed to actually fund that. So without the funding that’s needed, that plan is just a report sitting on a shelf.”
In April 2021, then-planning minister Richard Wynne announced permanent planning controls along the Yarra from Richmond to Warrandyte, including height restrictions on buildings to prevent overshadowing, and setbacks to protect the river from inappropriate development.
Labor also passed the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017, which makes a declaration treating the Yarra Birrarung as one living, interconnected, entity.
The Yarra’s riverkeeper, Charlotte Sterrett, said the legislation was a “really good first step”, but she wanted to see more action.
“We are very pleased with the Greens’ commitment to the health and protection of our beautiful, resilient, yet under-threat, Yarra Birrarung River,” she said.
The Yarra River featured in the AFL grand final parade for the first time this year.Credit:Getty Images
“It builds on the work already done by the Victorian government for river protection by providing a much-needed injection of $40 million to deliver on the Yarra Strategic Plan.
“Make no mistake; the climate crisis is a water crisis, and we need massive changes to ensure rivers like the Yarra Birrarung not only survive but thrive.”
Sterrett called on the government to issue a moratorium on new water licences and release more water for the river to fulfil its ecological functions.
“Despite the recent floods, our rivers are in decline with a warming climate and population growth increasing pressure on this living entity.”
The push to improve the Yarra’s health has been a lengthy one, including a similar policy announcement by the Greens at the last election.
Richmond Greens candidate Gabrielle de Vietri has swum with the Yarra Yabbies, a hardy bunch of people who take part in early-morning swims at Deep Rock.
“It was wonderful, but also it felt like it was a little bit hairy,” she said.
The Yarra and Bay 2017-2018 report card found water quality in the Yarra catchment was poor. It said water quality deteriorated as it passed through more urbanised areas with nutrients and pollutants in run-off coming from roads and other hard surfaces.
In September, a team of divers retrieved more than 100 e-scooters and e-bikes, from the river, as well as dozens of road bikes and shopping trolleys, more than a dozen chairs and tables, tyres, signage, wire, rope, trolleys, and tables and chairs from Crown casino.
In addition to $40 million for the Yarra Strategic Plan, the Greens are calling for: $12 million over four years for environmental organisations working along the Yarra; a review of the EPA’s Yarra Watch Program and its efficacy as pollution regulator of the Yarra Birrarung; an end to native forest logging to protect river catchments and reduce erosion and runoff; a moratorium on new water licenses and a plan to return more water back into the river system.
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