From the moment he first felt the water around his ankles when his family filled his new pool, to his hesitant first steps in Sydney Harbor, Pete Magner has always been swimming.
The 47-year-old says the water is where he feels most free.
“For me, going in and being underwater is really calming,” he says.
“It’s a beautiful thing in the port. You are not really bound by the walls of a swimming pool. We just have the impression of being more part of nature.
As the pandemic has resulted in travel restrictions, Magner says her family quickly discovered Chiswick Baths, a small, netting splash area along the Parramatta River – along with a host of others.
“It was weird going to a suburban park when it looked like they were at the beach,” says Magner. “People were there for the sun, there were people in bikinis outside.”
“It looks like a mini adventure. Finding a place to swim on your doorstep, you feel like exploring which is pretty good for kids to have fun right where they are.
The baths are part of a growing list of sites across Australia that are helping reconnect swimmers with urban rivers and cleaning up polluted waterways once thought to be permanently lost.
In recent months, Sydney City Mayor Clover Moore has proposed a floating swimming pool in Sydney Harbor, a filtered swimming pool in the Torrens in South Australia and a “friendly with sea creatures”Swimming pool in East Fremantle, Western Australia.
In Melbourne, talks about building a river pool on the banks of the Yarra began ten years ago, with the latest iteration of the design. including an artificial wetland. The city of Melbourne is currently studying the feasibility of a river basin as part of a $ 300 million plan to transform the north shore of the Yarra into a series of parks.
New South Wales Minister for Planning and Public Spaces Rob Stokes on Thursday pledged $ 50 million in part to help keep the state’s waterways clean enough for swimming.
“One of the lessons [from the recent lockdown] we really learned… was that our parks and our opportunities to have places to walk, places to swim or places to play are not distributed evenly across town, ”said Stokes.
These proposals are a local variation of a global movement already underway in cities like Copenhagen, Portland, Berlin, new York and Boston – one which, according to Marco Amati, associate professor at the school of global, urban and social studies of the RMIT, represents “a form of subversive environmental activism”.
“It’s a way of getting people used to the idea that the river can be clean and swimmable again,” says Amati. “When people don’t have much contact with the river, people don’t care if it’s polluted. If it’s something people want to swim in, you need to make sure it’s clean.
‘The river once stank’
Suggesting a dip in the Torrens or a dive in the Yarra may be greeted with a look of horror or disgust today, but the cultural prejudice against river swimming is a relatively recent development among Australians.
Colonial authorities may have sought to brutally alter the rivers near major urban settlements from the point of colonization – a waterfall near the Queen’s Bridge in Melbourne has been today dynamite and the course of the Yarra straightened to avoid flooding – but people always maintained a connection with the waterways.
Urban rivers have remained a place to swim and play. The Yarra itself housed a famous three mile swim race which began in 1913 at a time when swimming was considered an extreme sport.
This link would be severed with the advent of heavy industry and a growing population, which meant that rivers were seen as cheap and convenient ways to dispose of waste.
Today, factories may have disappeared from most capital cities, but the toxic legacy of 30 years of manufacturing without real environmental regulations remains.
In 2005, up to 60 eels were found floating death in the Yarra while the Torrens – formerly the platypus house – contained a “astonishing”Level of heavy metal contamination. Even beautiful Sydney Harbor itself is home to several dead spots around storm and sewage outlets, with a few fixes still polluted decades of industrial and commercial activity.
“As our native friends like to say, for about 30,000 years before we came, everything was really ridiculous,” says Mark Drury.
Drury is a councilor on the board of the Inner West and chairman of the Parramatta River Catchment Group, an alliance of nine local councils, three state government agencies and a “myriad” of community groups that, in 2008, undertook the cleanup work. from the river.
To bolster their support, they set a goal of making the river swimmable by 2025 – an achievement unimaginable to many who remembered the factories that once operated in Homebush Bay and made gasoline, batteries, pesticides and paint.
But Drury says breaking down prejudices was an essential first step.
“He plants the seed so that people can imagine it,” he says.
After that, the next step was to learn the magnitude of the challenge. Upon investigation, however, they quickly learned that the river had already started to heal, allowing the councils to focus on speeding up the process.
Since then, the quality of the water in the Parramatta has improved considerably. Four river pools are open to the public and more are planned to be created as the first water quality tests show new areas are safe.
As this monitoring has improved, the communication of water quality information to the public has also improved to enable them to swim safely. While this is not currently posted in a central location, an interactive map is in development.
While there is still a long way to go, Jerome Laxale, Ryde city councilor and former chairman of the Parramatta River Catchment Group, says the impact has already been felt.
“The river used to stink,” says Laxale. “It doesn’t smell anymore. It’s awesome.”
Laxale says houses in areas like Melrose Park were once built facing the water, a sign that people had literally turned their backs on the river.
This is changing as people and wildlife like the Critically Endangered Bar-tailed Godwit, return to the banks of the river.
“It’s also egalitarian,” Laxale says. “The river does not belong to anyone, it belongs to everyone. This whole process drew everyone’s attention to this incredible natural resource that has been used by people here for millennia.
“Beautiful until you test the water”
If industrialization has moved rivers away from rivers in the last century, the new threat is urbanization.
Ian Wright, a water specialist at the University of Western Sydney and a river swimmer himself, says cleaning up a river system is only half the battle. The next challenge is to keep it clean.
Growing populations mean the residue of humanity – oil dripping from car engines, pet droppings, runoff from construction sites and farms, leaking sewer lines – All flow into stormwater systems, which overflow untreated into rivers.
“Regardless of the level of human activity, you can pretty much predict the resulting degradation in water quality,” says Wright.
Solving the problem means hijacking these systems in the same way they were restructured in the 90s to protect Sydney beach swimmers from sewage.
But Wright says there are threats of blocked industrial operations in some areas as well.
One example is the Bargo River, a tributary of the Nepean River west of Sydney that feeds the Mermaid Pool, a spectacular natural waterhole in Tahmoor Gorge, which is a prime swimming spot for residents who live far from the beach.
“It’s beautiful until you test the water and see what’s in it,” says Wright. ‘
A nearby 40-year-old underground coal mine that supplies high-quality coking coal to the Whyalla steel plant in South Australia and dumps 5.3 megalitres – about two Olympic-sized pools – of water into the river each day.
Wright says that this water contains a “complex cocktail of contaminantsAnd is on average two-thirds of the river’s flow – although most who swim in it have no idea.
This is why he believes that regular and detailed reporting on contamination levels is important for public safety and a necessary step in building support for cleaning up river systems.
“We only measure the things that matter to us,” says Wright. “Rivers are great for swimming, but it is a huge leap of faith to jump into a river – and really, it shouldn’t be faith. It should be motivated by facts.