Sydney Harbour: Impact of contamination studies

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Sydney Harbour, its catchment and local government areas.

Many have written on the beauty and values of Sydney Harbour. Perhaps no one has captured this better than Kenneth Slessor in his poem “Five Bells”. He also wrote of the waterways perpetual pleasures, its “dazzle”. He is quoted in that marvellous history of the Harbour by Ian Hoskin (2009, Sydney Harbour. A history, UNSW Press, p.viii) as saying: “For the pleasures that have gone there are the pleasures that renew themselves each time the wind shifts or the clouds move or the moon rises. They are to be had free of charge by looking out of a window”. Well I have such a privilege as each day I look out across the outer Harbour in wonder and try to share its moods and enjoy the opportunities of living close by.

In Chapter Six of his book Hoskin wrote about “A harbour of wonder, a harbour of filth”. There are vivid descriptions of dumping waste, reclaiming foreshore properties with rubbish, and of “huge amounts of refuse, sand and silt from the streets [that] were washing down drains and straight out into the harbour” (p. 174). But turning now to the research of Gavin Birch and colleagues over the last few decades we see that what is old remains new today for Sydney Harbour. Serena Lee and Gavin in 2014 wrote: “increasing population, higher housing density and more infrastructure have enhanced the generation of contaminants in the Sydney Estuary catchment, as well as the supply of contaminants to the adjacent receiving basin. Increased contaminant loading via stormwater to the adjoining estuary has reduced water and sediment quality over the past 100 years and stormwater remains a major source of concern” (S. Lee and G. Birch, in Estuaries of Australia in 2050 and Beyond, E. Wolanski, ed., Springer, 2014, p. 27; my emphasis).

What Gavin and his team, plus other water health scientists, have done is continue to bring to the attention of politicians, waterway managers and communities consequences of continual supply of contaminants, including new ones like microplastics and pharmaceuticals. They form part of present-day management challenges which must be addressed. Lee and Birch conclude: “The results of these studies may provide the impetus required to justify implementing an effective stormwater remediation strategy” (2014, p. 28).

Back in 2004, Gavin and his colleague Stuart Taylor had already recognised that a factor in the environmental degradation of the Harbour system is “a lack of a centralised body responsible for environmental health and effective management of this valuable resource” (G. Birch and S. Taylor, The Contamination Status of Sydney Harbour Sediments, Geol. Soc. Aust., Public Education and Information Monograph, 2004, p.82). This work was written as a Handbook for the public and professionals at a time when the NSW Government was considering the establishment of the Office of the Sydney Harbour Manager and Sydney Harbour Executive. Birch and Taylor made a compelling case back then for a specialist technical body to advise on environmental issues. Quite pointedly and somewhat prophetically they add: “It would be beneficial to have a coordinated approach to future environmental research in order that priority areas can be identified and an inter-disciplinary approach to investigation and remediation can be adopted” (Birch and Taylor, 2004, p. 83).

Sadly, despite enormous efforts by Jeremy Dawkins and others, a “Sydney Harbour Manager” who could oversee these and other challenges confronting Sydney Harbour, failed to eventuate. Dawkins has written of the “experiment” (or “model”) as an application of a governance framework that could bring together many government bodies and other organisations. It would have no powers to direct, and no resources beyond those to run an office, but it would be given much scope to seek coordination (J. Dawkins and H. Colebatch, 2006, “Governing through institutionalised networks: the governance of Sydney Harbour”, Land Use Policy, 23, 333-343).  Table 1 (p.337) in this paper shows seven bodies each with a “foundation document” that would comprise the Sydney Harbour model.

This was both an ambitious and complex undertaking involving 14 state agencies, separate Maritime, Indigenous, Environment and Research Forums and the Sydney Harbour Catchment Management Board. This is where Gavin’s research interests could somehow be incorporated. Many problems were identified in making this model operational not the least of which was the role of local councils. Complexities arose midway through the work on the “experiment” with network building due to the establishment of the Sydney Harbour Catchment Management Board. This Board consisted of 20 people from diverse and conflicting interests “who were expected to submerge their differences in a consensual planning document” (p.337). The authors saw “a divergent array of networks, showing varying degrees of organisation, distinct agendas of concern and differing ways of orienting themselves to Sydney Harbour” (p.339). This Board no longer exists.

Lessons learnt from this experiment also come from similar efforts overseas. I have just finished a review of the recently published Coastal Atlas of Ireland (Cork University Press, 2021). This weighty tome (4.5 kgs) contains many stories. One is of the attempt to formally apply ICZM with EU funds at Bantry Bay in County Cork. It failed for several reasons including trying to meet the agendas of many contesting interests. The author of this essay, Val Cummins, noted there was scope in future for “a more simplified, focussed and issue-oriented approach” (p. 804).

The opportunity has now arisen to see if a more focussed and issue-oriented approach to Sydney Harbour management is feasible. On 4 September, the Minister for Local Government, Hon Shelley Hancock MP, announced the award of a grant to support 20 local councils to assess the processes of managing urban stormwater runoff from their catchments into the Harbour (see more information here). This project is led by the Sydney Coastal Councils Group in conjunction with the Parramatta River Catchment Group working with various state agencies. For the first time an initiative has come from a large group of councils responsible for drainage of 480 square kilometres to see what can be done to improve waterway health of their catchments and the Harbour. This endeavour has a clear focus and will open up the prospect of establishing a structure that can offer more effective coordination of actions to sustain the environmental, social, and economic well-being of this iconic water body. Clearly it will build on the vision and knowledge of Gavin Birch and colleagues who two decades were providing the scientific rationale for coordinated management action.

A note of thanks: this is Blog No 200. I am extremely grateful to ACS for giving me the opportunity to publish these blogs. In particular I wish to thank Naomi Edwards for getting me started and to John Hudson for ensuring that the flame stays alight.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2021. For correspondence about this blog post please email