action-story | 17th May, 2016

Ian Penrose: Yarra Riverkeeper, “A Voice for the River”

Modestly describing himself as “a failed retiree”, Ian, riverkeeper and spokesperson for the Yarra Riverkeeper Association (YRKA) has quietly achieved a great deal for the Yarra.

ActionStory_ian penrose storySince his uni days where he studied maths and science, Ian was always interested in the environment. “I knew the way we used the Earth’s resources wasn’t sustainable then and it still isn’t now.”

After working for Shell for almost three decades, Ian capped off his formal working life in a senior government role to return flows to the Snowy River. In retirement, wanting to continue making a contribution to nature, he decided to focus on the river that runs past his back door in Warrandyte, the Yarra.

YRKA was formed in 2004, aiming to protect and restore the Yarra and its tributaries, from source to mouth, for current and future generations. River flows, water quality and encroaching development are among their key issues.

“We tell the river’s ‘story’,” says Ian, “monitor its health and activities affecting it.” He’s keen for the community – the millions of people who live in the river’s catchment – to further their understanding of the river. YRKA has a big focus on education, with regular events including walks and riverside bike and bus tours.

He’s also given 300 river talks to schools, universities, community groups, business and government. “We work closely with government bodies, advocating for river care,” he says. YRKA’s patrol boat, acquired for on-water inspections, is also a nifty tool for advocacy. “It’s great to get a politician into the boat,” says Ian. “No-one can hide in a small boat. It’s perfect for an advocate!”

Since 2004, YRKA has earned the reputation of being the pre-eminent voice of the Yarra, playing an instrumental role in the state government’s decision to provide the river with environmental flows. In 2010, Ian was awarded the Melbourne Award for contribution to the environment by an individual.

When YRKA formed, the Yarra was suffering prolonged drought. Says Ian,

“Recent high rainfall has brought dramatic changes to the Yarra River not experienced for over a decade.”

The last 13 years were the driest since rainfall records began. By 2009, the Yarra was flowing at a fraction of natural levels. “But the river suffered a double whammy,” says Ian. “It’s the main water source for Melbourne.

During 2007 to 2009 we diverted so much water that the river was left with less than 30 percent of the available inflows, its lowest share ever.”

Welcome rains arrived in August 2010 and barely took a break. The bush responded dramatically, with lush growth not seen for years. Ian explains, “The higher flows are good news for river health and vital for native plants and animals. Silt is dispersed, fallen logs provide fresh habitat, changes in flow trigger fish spawning, and the Yarra’s many wetlands and billabongs have been inundated. These valuable ecological processes have been missing for a long time.”

But the heavy rain also caused erosion of gullies and banks, with areas in the upper catchment burnt in the 2009 bushfires particularly affected. The river is now carrying huge quantities of eroded clay and silt; a reminder of the old jibe that the Yarra is the river that flows upside down.

“It’s too early to tell whether the increased turbidity is harming life in the river,” says Ian. “What I do believe, though, is the recent rains are a godsend for the Yarra, and a reminder of the dynamic and fascinating nature of the riverine environment.”

He says, “My hope is that all Melburnians come to appreciate fully our vital connection with the wonderful river, which literally flows in our veins, and that we all become, in effect, Yarra Riverkeepers.”

For more on YRKA and their river talks and tours, visit

Story by Sue Williams