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Protecting and improving the health and enjoyment of Sydney Harbour and the District's waterways

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Planning Priority N15

The North District's coast and waterways shape its landscape and character. They are natural assets, cultural resources and recreational destinations. As the District grows, greater housing density around waterways, and more people looking to use waterways for recreation, will mean that these assets will need to be carefully managed so they continue to support a wide range of activities.

The waterways and rivers of the North District are part of an overall natural system and contribute to the green infrastructure that cools and greens the District. The District's waterways support coastal, marine and groundwater-dependent ecosystems, which benefit from continuing protection and management. They support threatened ecological communities and accommodate the disposal of stormwater and wastewater. The District's catchments and waterways are shown on Figure 19.

Waterways within the North District include Sydney Harbour and the Parramatta River, the Lane Cover River, Middle Harbour, Narrabeen Lagoon, Pittwater and the Hawkesbury rivers.

The North District's waterways support significant biodiversity. Five aquatic reserves -Barrenjoey Head, Narrabeen Head, Long Reef, Cabbage Tree Bay and North Harbour at Manly - have been created to protect fish, aquatic animals and marine vegetation.

The North District's protected waterways play an integral role in creating a sense of place, providing recreational opportunities, and supporting economic and cultural activities. Sydney Harbour is an internationally celebrated tourism destination and continues to be a working harbour.

The District's famous beaches, including Manly Beach and Palm Beach, also attract visitors and support an active lifestyle for residents.

Pittwater's foreshore is a spectacular natural resource with visitors and residents using the foreshore for leisure and recreation. Many recreational activities including water skiing, fishing and canoeing are located on the Hawkesbury River.

A legacy of historical land uses, contaminated land and groundwater, aged infrastructure and the pattern of urban development have impacted some of the District's waterways. Other waterways, such as Middle Harbour at Balmoral Beach, are in better health, provide habitat, are accessible and are popular for swimming.

Urban development, the clearing of vegetation, and the increase in impermeable surfaces have resulted in large quantities of stormwater run-off, reduced water quality and loss of habitat. Urban stormwater carries litter and contaminants into the District's waterways. The District's waterways often flow through more than one local government area and are managed by a number of State agencies and stakeholders, so water quality and waterway health is best managed at a catchment and sub-catchment level.

New development and investment in infrastructure provides an opportunity to improve the necessary health and quality of the District's waterways, foreshores and riparian corridors, through improving public access to and along the foreshores; providing connected green space around the foreshores; conserving cultural heritage; protecting and enhancing flora, fauna and urban bushland; reducing erosion and sedimentation; improving bank stabilisation; promoting pervious surfaces; providing vegetation buffers, and recovering and reinstating more natural conditions in highly modified waterways.

Enhancing community access to the coast and waterways within the District and, in particular, the foreshores of Sydney Harbour, should be prioritised. This includes access for pedestrians as well as boats and other watercraft. The delivery of the Greater Sydney Green Grid (refer to Planning Priority N19) will enhance connections to Sydney Harbour, the Parramatta River and the coastline from Palm Beach to Manly.

Figure 19: North District catchments and waterways

A stylised map of the district showing the river catchments and waterways river flow direction, the coastal catchment as well as District boundary and strategic centres.
Download this image north_figure_19.jpg (format PNG / 722 KB )

Legislation, policies and plans, are in place to improve the health of waterways and to manage water resources. For example, the Coastal Management Act 2016 integrates coastal management and land use planning, the Fisheries Management Act 1994 protects aquatic biodiversity, and the Sydney Regional Environmental Plan (Sydney Harbour Catchment) 2005 coordinates development decisions for Sydney Harbour and its tributaries. The NSW Water Quality and River Flow Objectives identify the high-level goals for several catchments in the District. State agencies and councils also manage the health of waterways through planning and development decisions, environmental programs and through the management of public land.

The 2017 Metropolitan Water Plan is the NSW Government's plan to ensure there is sufficient water to meet the needs of the people and environment of Greater Sydney, now and for the future. The NSW Government's WaterSmart Cities Program will explore new ways to supply drinking water, and manage stormwater and wastewater in a more integrated, cost-effective and sustainable way.

The Marine Estate Management Authority has prepared the draft Marine Estate Management Strategy 2018-28 which when finalised, will support a clean, healthy and productive marine environment.

This District Plan aims to protect and improve the environmental health of waterways. Many councils have identified and mapped environmentally sensitive areas of waterways that are important to the local community, and use additional local provisions and natural waterways and environment zones to protect these areas.

For local waterways, where governance and ownership of the waterway can be highly fragmented, a green infrastructure approach, which values waterways as infrastructure, can lead to more innovative management of waterways with outcomes that better reflect community expectations.

An integrated approach to the protection and management of waterways will also rely on more comprehensive approaches to the monitoring and reporting of water quality and waterway health. Councils monitor water quality and waterway health, implement sustainable urban water management and encourage water-sensitive urban design.

The District Plan aims to integrate the objectives for waterways that are set out in legislation, policies and plans, by prioritising the management of waterways as green infrastructure. This involves:

  • reconceptualising waterways as an infrastructure asset that provide environmental, social and economic benefits to communities
  • integrating approaches to protecting environmentally sensitive waterways within a network of green infrastructure
  • addressing the cumulative impacts of development and land management decisions across catchments to improve water quality andwaterway health.

Collaboration and coordination across all levels of government and with the community are needed to deliver the green space, urban cooling and integrated water management outcomes needed to support the North District.

Future work will apply the lessons from previous management of the District's rivers, notably the Parramatta River Catchment Group which coordinates the management of the Parramatta River.

Catchment-scale management and coordination can:

  • solve multiple problems - for example, catchment condition and water scarcity, or water quality impacts on aquifers, estuaries and the marine estate
  • set objectives for the District's waterways andenable them to be achieved in innovative and cost-effective ways
  • achieve both public and private benefits for example, stormwater from private land could support the management of public green spaceand urban waterways
  • promote integrated water cycle management andinvestment in sustainable water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

Strategic planning needs to manage the cumulative impacts of activities and associated infrastructure (such as moorings, marinas and boat launching facilities) while ensuring public access and opportunities for swimming, and small boat and kayak launching from publicly owned land. Access to waterways should not compromise the integrity of environmentally sensitive aquatic and riparian habitats.

The planning and design of neighbourhoods can also enhance community access to the coast and waterways of the District, prioritising the foreshores of Sydney Harbour, Parramatta River and Pittwater.

Sydney Harbour

Sydney Harbour is one of Greater Sydney's most recognised and valuable assets - it is part of what makes Sydney one of the most attractive and recognisable cities in the world.

It is a significant natural scenic feature with its many tributaries, estuaries, beaches and bays providing abundant biodiversity. There is a rich Aboriginal and colonial heritage associated with the Harbour. The Harbour and its tributaries are major transport corridors, flora and fauna habitat and recreation areas.

Public access to Sydney Harbour and its foreshore is important for water-based activities, especially where these are adjacent to public open space. Access to Sydney Harbour foreshore should be maintained and increased wherever possible.

Sydney Harbour is a major economic asset which makes a significant contribution to tourism and provides a place for major cultural events, including New Year's Eve and Australia Day celebrations. It is a working waterway, with defence and military operations, cruise ships, commercial shipping, recreational watercraft industries, ferries and water taxis. Collaboration is required to resolve conflicts between recreational, residential and industry users.

Currently, Sydney Regional Environmental Plan (Sydney Harbour Catchment) 2005 provides a framework to maintain, protect and enhance the catchment, foreshores, waterways and islands of Sydney Harbour. There may be opportunities to take a more comprehensive view as to how major waterways and their foreshores across Greater Sydney are managed and protected.

Hawkesbury River

The Hawkesbury-Nepean River has a 21,400 square kilometre catchment - one of the State's largest catchments east of the Great Dividing Range. The river system, including the Nepean River, extends beyond the boundaries of Greater Sydney, stretching from south of Goulburn, and west of Lithgow, to the Brooklyn Bridge in the north. The river and its tributaries flow through remote bushland and mountainous terrain, fertile agricultural land and urbanised areas, and it joins the ocean at a spectacular estuary.

In the North District, the Hawkesbury River flows past semi-rural land, waterfront villages and bushland before meeting Pittwater and the Pacific Ocean at Broken Bay. Most of the District's regional open space is located along the Hawkesbury River and its tributaries in large national parks and reserves such as the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and Berowra Valley National Park.

The Hawkesbury River provides opportunities for fishing and recreational boating, including house boats, as well as a fishing and oyster farming industry. Maintaining the health of the river is essential for the future of these industries and to support recreation.

Pittwater is a significant body of water within the Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment which is an important natural heritage area, comprising wetlands, lagoons and lagoons with adjacent bushland. It is a popular water recreation location.

The land adjacent to waterways to the north of Sydney Harbour was settled for thousands of years by the Guringai people, and Aboriginal people continue to have a strong association with these important waterways.

The most significant change to the Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment will occur around South Creek in the Western City and Central City districts, where rapid and sustained urban growth will transform the landscape over the next few decades. Maintaining water quality and waterway health will be a significant challenge that will be carefully managed as South Creek catchment becomes more urbanised.

Parramatta River

Parramatta River is central to Greater Sydney's Aboriginal and colonial history and the development of modern Sydney. Its foreshore has an enhanced network of open spaces, walkways and cycleways.

In the past, Parramatta River and its tributaries have suffered from degradation and contamination. There have been gradual improvements to water quality in recent decades, although recent modelling has predicted water quality in the river will worsen unless additional management interventions are implemented.

The NSW Government is working with councils and the community to develop the Parramatta River Masterplan, a blueprint for making selected sites along the Parramatta River swimmable. Four sites are already open for swimming, and a number of other sites have been identified for further investigation including Meadowbank, Kissing Point Park and Putney. The masterplan adopts the Office of Environment and Heritage and the Environment Protection Authority's risk-based decision framework. Proactive management and improvements to wastewater and stormwater systems, including state-of-the-art water quality analysis and modelling, will provide the foundation of a healthy river24.

Making more sites along the Parramatta River swimmable requires improvements to the water quality and waterway health in the upstream catchment. This will take time to implement. Measures which slow the flow of stormwater into waterways and create bio-retention systems along streets, where water can be filtered and soak into the soil, will help make the river swimmable.


Protect environmentally sensitive areas of waterways and the coastal environment areas.

Councils, other planning authorities, State agencies and State-owned corporations


Enhance sustainability and liveability by improving and managing access to waterways, foreshores and the coast for recreation, tourism, cultural events and water-based transport.

Councils, other planning authorities, State agencies and State-owned corporations


Improve the health of catchments and waterways through a risk-based approach to managing the cumulative impacts of development including coordinated monitoring of outcomes.

Councils, other planning authorities, State agencies and State-owned corporations


Work towards reinstating more natural conditions in highly modified urban waterways

Councils, other planning authorities, State agencies and State-owned corporations