February 27, 2024

Sewerage outflows, old pipes and pollution stand between Sydneysiders and the installation of more netted spots to swim in the city’s iconic harbour, according to the City of Sydney.

The council has pledged to install more nets across the inner city for swimming including possibly at Elizabeth Bay near where Lauren O’Neill was bitten by a shark last week, but only when water quality was good enough.

The young woman was swimming in the harbour near her home when the suspected bull shark struck her right leg shortly before sunset, prompting calls for more places to safely swim around the harbour.

Caroline Clements, a keen salt water swimmer and the author of Places We Swim, said there was a huge desire from Sydneysiders to get into the harbour, which was often calmer and more accessible than ocean beaches.

“Certainly there is an appetite for these things to be accessible all over the city and into the cracks and crevices of the harbour,” she said.

“If we have the ability to maximise its potential without harming the environment then I think that’s a great thing.”

Despite the installation of a new harbour swimming spot at Marrinawi Cove in Barangaroo last year, the City of Sydney said water testing had indicated a similar approach would not be possible yet for Elizabeth Bay, nor in Glebe.

The council had a “long-term vision to make our world-renowned harbour more accessible to the community for swimming” but water quality remained the “biggest obstacle”.

“Given the significant hurdles presented by harbour pollution and sewage pipe outflows, making the harbour swimmable will require a whole of government approach,” a council spokesperson said.

The city said it had been working with Sydney Water to improve the water quality but it was an expensive task and called on the state government to stump up more cash.

“The city has committed to installing infrastructure that facilitates and encourages harbour swimming, including nets, once water quality reaches acceptable levels,” the spokesperson said.

Sydney Water has an in-principal agreement with the City of Sydney to “assist them in the development of future swim spots in the harbour”, a spokesperson confirmed.

Ian Wright, a water researcher and an associate professor at Western Sydney University, said water quality in the harbour had improved greatly over the past 30 years but there were still areas that needed work, including further investment in water testing.

“It’s an environmental health 101,” he said. “If we get it wrong, it’s a fantastic way of picking up waterborne diseases.”

Water quality across the city’s beaches and harbour is monitored by the state environment department and published by Beachwatch so swimmers can make informed decisions.

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Wright said water quality was generally worse further from the heads and there were regular quality drops after heavy rains when even netted spots should be avoided.

“If the city has had heavy rain, you don’t really need Beachwatch to tell you that discolouration, that muddy brown colour is the horrible detritus of human society,” he said.

“Just about everywhere is really poor quality after heavy rain and it’s just flushing off the car park, dog poop, brake dust … overflowing sewerage is huge issue.”

Wright said that while it would take serious commitments from the government and local councils to imrpove water quality across the city, he was confident it was possible from what he had seen at Lake Parramatta.

The water minister, Rose Jackson, said she understood the interest from residents “in enjoying a splash in our iconic harbour” but that it needed to be done safely.

“We work closely with local councils who are responsible for enclosed swimming areas on beaches or in harbours,” she said.

“Water quality is only one consideration in activating a site, but to the extent it is a concern we are very dedicated to ensuring it is resolved where possible.”

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