Would you swim in the Yarra River?

Train line running along the Yarra river.

Larissa Dubecki

Posted December 03, 2019

Ambitious $50 million plans to build swimming pools in the Yarra unveiled.

When it comes to the idea of swimming in the Yarra River, Melburnians tend to fall into two categories: some shudder in revulsion, while others fall about laughing.

European settlement has not been kind to the ribbon of water snaking 242 kilometres from the Yarra Ranges to Port Phillip Bay. The river was instrumental in John Batman’s 1835 diary entry that “this will be the place for a village”, but by the 1880s the Birrarung – which had sustained the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people for time immemorial – had been reduced to a smelly drain subject to regular complaints in The Argus newspaper.

Fast-forward 100 years and, while polluting industry was in retreat, the river was still not in top shape – as discovered by American tennis star Jim Courier, who was allegedly sick for a week after jumping into its brown waters to celebrate winning the 1992 Australian Open.

But now a river renaissance is upon us. From the 1990s when Melbourne began to embrace the Yarra – or the land around it at least – with Southbank and the casino precinct followed by Birrarung Marr and South Wharf, the Yarra has slowly inserted itself back into cultural life. Bicycle and walking tracks and hip-to-the-max bars such as Arbory Afloat, Ponyfish Island and Riverland have made it a pleasant place to be. And now, most radical of all, comes the suggestion that Melburnians should take the plunge and immerse themselves in their river once more.  

“People come back from places like Paris and say, why haven't we got anything like their swimming pools in the Seine here?” says Michael O’Neill, co-founder of Yarra Pools, the not-for-profit visionaries advocating a swimming pool on the Yarra.

First announced in 2016, Yarra Pools’ collaboration with local architecture firm WOWOWA  has yielded a design that includes a 50-metre lap pool using filtered river water, two smaller lagoon pools and native wetlands. “The Yarra Pool is not just a place to swim laps,” says Monique Woodward of WOWOWA. “It has places to fish, to launch a kayak. It’s really showing there’s life in the river you can do active recreation around.”

Currently finalising their business case, Michael estimates that at least 350,000 people would use the pool each year. And their earmarked site at Enterprize Park on the river’s northern bank next to the Melbourne Aquarium would revitalise what is currently a civic eyesore. 

Estimated to cost $30 to $50 million, the project takes Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen as inspiration. Yet it is about more than a pool. It’s an environmental stalking horse to get people talking about the river, and to work towards one day having a swimmable Yarra.

“I did a lot of work around water-sensitive urban design, urban greening, water quality and stormwater harvesting,” says Michael, an environmental scientist. “One day it just clicked in my head that the swimmable river is the community hook for people to say, let’s invest in water-sensitive urban design.”

The plan for a Yarra Pool has been “floating around for six years as a concept”, says Michael, and has some way to go yet. A political champion needs to be found, and the City of Melbourne remains equivocal about the plan. A spokesperson called it “an ambitious concept that presents a number of issues yet to be properly considered or resolved. We don’t know whether the proposal is feasible, both logistically and from a business case perspective”. 

Yet the Yarra’s opaque waters are drawing interest. The City of Melbourne also has its eye on boosting the health of the Yarra through its draft City River Strategy. Released in May, the first-ever master plan for the Yarra’s city section aims to “significantly raise the quality of the Birrarung environs in this central city stretch to be the centrepiece of Melbourne’s economy, culture and liveability” through measures such as greening and increasing pedestrian connectivity. Melbourne Water is also developing a Yarra Strategic Plan which will present a blueprint for the next 50 years of waterway health. 

And judging by the popularity of River Swim, an event held as part of Melbourne Design Week earlier this year, the interest in rehabilitating the Yarra runs deep in the public mind. Several hundred people packed a river cruise boat for a tour of the city’s much-forgotten aquatic history, past areas where entrepreneurs established baths in the early days of settlement and under Queens Bridge, from which Harry Houdini leapt with his hands cuffed behind his back in 1910. (“Maybe the water quality was more dangerous than the shackles,” suggested the event moderator).

Michael estimates it may take a decade before the first swimmer dives into the Yarra Pool. Until then, swimming will remain illegal in the Yarra south of Gipps Street in Abbotsford, where it becomes a designated boating channel. Above that, the river is fair game. But just because you could, does it mean you should? 

The State of the Yarra report, released by the Commissioner of Environmental Sustainability earlier this year, rated the river’s health as “poor” in 18 of 25 environmental indicators. 

Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly admits he has “immersed myself safely in the river on occasion” but believes it’s also a risky time for the Yarra. 

“We’ve done a pretty good job of protecting it in the face of significant pressure,” he says. “In many ways it’s a cultural cringe that we see the river as dirty and polluted. There are dolphins in the river now that we haven’t seen for five years or so, and there are reports of kingfish in Victoria Harbour. But all the housing development in the city’s north-east as well as the North East Link, which will create so many more impermeable surfaces and run-off, will create a huge strain.”

Stormwater run-off can dramatically raise e-coli levels, even in popular swimming sections of the Yarra such as Pound Bend in Warrandyte. In summer, the Environmental Protection Agency tests the water in four locations and publishes the results (at yarraandbay.vic.gov.au). 

But will we ever see a river where a quick dip doesn’t involve weighing up the pros and cons? “We’ve always seen achieving a swimmable river as a 30-year journey,” says Yarra Pools’ Michael O’Neill. “We’ve got to redouble our efforts and invest more in green infrastructure. But it’s been done in other cities so it’s not impossible.”

Older man stands in front of boat on the Yarra River.

Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly. Photo: Shannon Morris

Why is it brown?

The Yarra is often derided as an ‘upside-down’ river, but don’t be so quick to judge its brown murk. While it probably ran clear before European settlement and now is most politely described as coffee coloured, this isn’t necessarily an indicator of pollution. As Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly explains, “One side of the river is basalt, the other is siltstone. The result of erosion on the waterway, small particles – fine granules of soil, really – become loose and float suspended in the water.” The bottom line is, the brown colour is caused by silt. The rest is prejudice. 

Five reasons to love the Yarra


In its city stretches the Yarra is crossed by pedestrian bridges, each with its own story to tell. Resembling a woven Aboriginal eel trap, the curved metal hoops of the Webb Bridge in Docklands have become a city landmark.

Herring Island Sculpture Park

This three-hectare manmade island in the Yarra between South Yarra and Richmond houses a sculpture trail and art gallery. Get there on the Parks Victoria-operated punt, only in the summer months. 

Laughing Waters Swimming Hole 

A series of shallow swimming holes surrounded by native bushland, word is getting out about this Eltham secret. 

Studley Park Boathouse

The oldest boathouse on the Yarra is a vision splendid of Victorian-era architecture and century-old elm trees. Grab lunch in the cafe, then take a rowboat or kayak for an on-water adventure. 

Arbory Afloat 

pontoon bar floating on the Yarra in the shadow of Flinders Street Station? During the warmer months, this vision of Amalfi coast striped umbrellas and Aperol spritzes brings la dolce vita to Melbourne. In winter, head a short way along to the gas heaters and craft beer of Riverland Bar.