A river runs through it

Review: River Dreams: The people and landscape of the Cooks River

Author: Ian Tyrrell

The Cooks River in Sydney’s southern suburbs lacks the grandeur of Sydney Harbour, the Hawkesbury or even the Georges. Historically, it doesn’t have the significance of the Nile or the Thames. In Australian history one hardly hears of it, unlike the Parramatta or the Murray, even though it features at the arrival of Europeans in Australia. Unlike Sydney Harbour, which seems to cast a spell on those who take to its waters, the Cooks has never quite lived up to the dreams of those more recent arrivals who called its banks home. Much of its recent history has been a nightmare.

It has been both over-used and neglected, and over time even the apostrophe from its name has been lost. (It was named Cook’s River by Europeans in honour of Captain Cook.) It has infamy as Australia’s most polluted and altered stream. Historian Ian Tyrrell suggests it could be called ‘the river that died of shame’. Although its tale of decline might not initially seem appealing, the Cooks’ status as a little Aussie battler says much about the role of, and our attitude to, nature in the midst of a dense, urban environment.

When James Cook arrived in Botany Bay, into which the Cooks flows, he praised its fresh water and ‘meadows’, but Governor Arthur Phillip quickly decided that Port Jackson would be a better site for settlement. Phillip noticed the Cooks’ intermittent flow, and the settlers, in keeping with European prejudice against swamps, thought the muddy, marshy tidal flats ‘monotonous’ wasteland. They couldn’t see what was seen by Indigenous people, who fed off the rich plant, sea and animal life, though the Europeans did harvest seafood in the Cooks estuary for the first decades of colonisation.

Although Phillip ignored the Botany Bay region because it didn’t fit his desire for English-style farmland, in the nineteenth century the area was eyed by the colonial landed gentry as a potential place for large estates, and the area did subsequently take on the character of a pastoral ideal, though there were already plans to engineer the river for commerce, including damming and turning it into a canal, thereby threatening the colonial arcadia. Soon enough, too, the growing city meant the river was polluted by human and animal waste, and new, low-lying suburbs were threatened by naturally periodic flooding.

The early 1900s saw a change from farming to industry, with all sorts of factory wastes fouling the river. Oyster colonies were decimated not only by their over-harvesting for food, but also from being burned for lime. Damming killed off mangroves and saltmarshes, which had naturally filtered the water, though, says Tyrrell, at least the damming also stopped pollution from downriver industries flooding upstream with the tide.

There were grander plans for canals to link the river to Sydney Harbour at Iron Cove and Homebush, though they didn’t eventuate. Extensive work on banks and dredging was done to control floods exacerbated by urban build-up, the straightening of the river’s meanderings and the removal of wetlands that had naturally soaked up the abundance of water. Upstream the river was turned into a concrete drain, which remains today. (Although there has been a program in recent years to soften the drain with plants and boulders, the plans, as has always been the case with the Cooks, have been only half-heartedly and inconsistently actioned.)

By the 1960s and 70s the Cooks was fast becoming the little river that couldn’t, with organic wastes been overtaken by toxic inorganic ones, with mass fish deaths the result. A further ignominy was the rerouting of the river’s mouth to accommodate Sydney Airport’s expansion. The arrival of ubiquitous plastic packaging coincided with the encroachment upriver of mangroves, the combination of the two being unhealthy, as mangroves trap plastics, toxifying the mud and inhibiting river creatures and other plant growth.

In the 1990s the Clean Up Australia campaign, which originally targeted waterways, shed light on the Cooks’ plight and, along with local groups, made some environmental progress. Not just plastic bags, but also car bodies, tyres and fridges were pulled from the river. There was a decline also of industrial pollutants. The entanglement of bureaucratic red tape was less easy to clean up. Councils and local resident groups have varying visions. The complex needs of businesses, sporting clubs, drivers, recreational river users and the river itself often conflict. In the past two decades the river itself and its edges have been cleaned and made more aesthetically pleasing through the removal of concrete and steel reinforcements, and through the planting of native trees, though Tyrrell argues that the river is now ‘not natural in any meaningful sense’.

Tyrrell is reluctant to suggest the story is all bad, but the Cooks’ largely negative case glaringly displays our responsibility to care for our waterways. While Indigenous people had to deal with what the Cooks gave them, mostly for the good, in the last two centuries the river has had to deal with what people throw at it, overwhelmingly for the bad. While, as Tyrrell notes, we cannot now re-naturalise the river, understanding its story may help in making some redress.

Nick Mattiske




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