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Providing our Yarra with a voice

14 Dec 2014

Providing our Yarra with a voice Image

After actively standing up for Melbourne’s much-loved waterway for more than a decade, Ian Penrose of the Yarra Riverkeepers Association says it is vital to give the Yarra a voice.

“It’s apart of Melbourne’s life, the river is under a lot of pressure from Melbourne’s situation here and it needs a voice to speak up for it and protect it,” he said.

“It’s important to our lives as a source of water. It’s the main source of our drinking water. It’s the source of recreation for urban dwellers. It’s a beautiful part of Melbourne.”

Formed in 2004, The Yarra Riverkeepers Association is a not-for-profit organisation, which is part of an international water keeper movement of community groups caring for their local waterways.

Having only just retired in October, Mr Penrose had held the organisation’s top role of riverkeeper for nine years and still continues to lobby policy-makers and campaign publicly on behalf of the river.

The 68-year-old is still as passionate as ever about the river and its history and said it was a shame that more people were not aware of its historical significance in the establishment of Melbourne.

“That history is not well known and I would love for Melburnians to understand that history of their place around the river, which adds richness to our lives and living in this place,” he said.

“The Yarra is always a source of water for Melbourne and the first settlers would drink straight from the river, it was central to their lives.”

However, it wasn’t long before the river was too dirty to drink from or even swim in with the growth of industry causing widespread pollution.

While water quality has improved since those days, pollution from the storm water and sewerage systems continue to have a negative impact on the river environment, particularly around Southbank.

Recent data from the Centre for Aquatic Pollution Identification and Management revealed levels of toxic E.coli bacteria more than 21 times what is considered safe just for rowing, which Ian said was simply unacceptable.

“The major source of pollution in the lower part of the Yarra is coming from the storm water system,” he said. “The river is a drain for our streets and, as a consequence, the river is highly polluted with street run off.”

“There are sewerage spills and there is a lot of bacteria in the water because of it. In a modern city like Melbourne and a wealthy city, it’s our view, that it’s unacceptable to have human waste in the river.”

While Mr Penrose and his group are actively lobbying politicians to better manage the city’s drainage system, he said encroaching development and overshadowing were also concerning for wildlife and those who enjoy the river at Southbank.

“One of the benefits of having the river for people living in Southbank is having a natural space there where there is grass, trees a little bit of nature,” he said.

“There’s an amazing amount of wildlife down here and every time we destroy some of those natural areas, we’re destroying the wildlife habitat and reducing the space for the animals and we don’t think that’s good.”

The newly-elected Labor government has committed to implementing a Yarra River Protection Act primarily focused on reducing pollution and preventing encroaching development.

While Ian has received the news positively, he said he and his group would continue to fight for the river long and hard until further steps were taken.

“It’s a very noisy world out there and you have advocates like us, who need to compete for space in this noisy world and so we advocate loudly,” he said.

“We’ve spoken with that office and they recognise the encroaching development is taking away some of the values of the river and it (Labor) has stated an intention to put the Act in place.”

To find out more information or to get involved visit

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