Media Releases | 20th Jan, 2005

Yarra River health concerns

Thursday, 20 January 2005

The Victorian Government must thoroughly analyse Yarra River water quality, following the illnesses of three kayakers and the recent deaths of 100 eels, said the state’s peak green group.

Environment Victoria said the Government needed to improve stormwater and sewage systems in Melbourne, to prevent the large amounts of pollution in suburban streets from flowing directly into the river. The group also called for the Government to assure the future of the river by guaranteeing healthy environmental flows.

The Yarra River has received considerable media attention over the past week, after two kayakers were hospitalised with leptospirosis following contact with Yarra river water. Another kayaker was reportedly admitted suffering similar symptoms. The bacteria which causes the illness is thought to be sourced from urine.

These incidents were followed by reports of the deaths of about 100 eels in the Yarra at Clifton Hill. According to The Age newspaper, Ecoli counts in the Yarra were over 20 times the recommended level for safe swimming during 2004. Ecoli is found in faecal matter and can cause gastroenteritis.

Marcus Godinho, Executive Director of Environment Victoria, said the Yarra’s high levels of bacteria showed there was a pressing need for a more detailed analysis of the river. “The State Government must ensure sewage systems are able to cope with our waste – even in times of high rainfall,” said Mr Godinho.

“Likewise the Government must ensure that water-sensitive urban design supports improved storm water systems. These should minimise the impact on the Yarra from cigarette butts, dog turds and rubbish that hurl through drains in times of rain.”

Yarra Riverkeepers President, David Redfearn, said Melbournians needed to look after their future water supply and continue to cut back on the amount of water they used. “The Yarra is stressed, as demonstrated this week. It therefore needs more water. For this reason Melbourne must immediately increase its water savings target to at least 25 per cent to protect the river and its flows,” said Mr Redfearn.

The State Government is currently undertaking an environmental flow study of the Yarra, below the Upper Yarra Dam and the Yarra Estuary.

At the same time, the Government is set to cap Melbourne’s share of water taken from the Yarra at approximately 420 billion litres, a major step in assuring the Yarra will get the water it needs.

Environment Victoria Healthy Rivers Campaigner, Sue Phillips, said the flow study is an opportunity to ensure the Yarra and its people have a healthy future. “We urge the Government to ensure this study is comprehensive and uses best available science to ensure we can be confident in its results,” said Ms Phillips

“The study must feed into any future decisions made for the Yarra. Since we don’t fully understand the river’s condition and what it needs to be healthy, we should tread cautiously until we do. If we set a cap on Melbourne’s share of water and make decisions on the future of the Yarra blindly then we may end up bleeding the river dry.”

Ms Phillips also warned that the Government must take an precautionary approach when considering plans to dredge parts of the Yarra River, currently the subject of a Parks Victoria study. The effects of the disturbance of contaminants trapped in sediments and high turbidity that would be caused by the dredging remain unknown.

“No decisions should be made regarding management of the Yarra until we know what is best for the health of our river.”