The Riverkeeper

Every day I walk my dog to one of the parks along the Yarra. These short bursts of nature create a sense of calm and escape from the city.  But we can’t take the river for granted. Dramatic increases in population, overdevelopment and climate change threaten the things that make our river special. It is good to learn Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly is leading community voices to ensure the Yarra remains a vibrant, iconic river for generations to come.

Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly 

As a child, the river was always a place of excitement and drama. I grew up in South Yarra in Domain Road with the Yarra just below us. We’d roam along the banks after school and on weekends. As a 10-year old, I used to think that the homeless men who lived under the mirror bushes on banks of the river had a great life, perpetually camped out. Once my friend Phil and I crossed the river illegally on the railway bridge to Cremorne and that was exciting.

Becoming a publisher really suited my butterfly like approach to knowledge. I could flutter around here and there, learning a little bit about this and that. When my wife and I sold Black Dog Books to Walker Books, I had time my hands. I had always been interested in the environment and decided I wanted to learn about water and rivers in depth. The Murray Darling Basin was too big. Cape York’s too far away. The only place I was ever likely to come to grips with was the one I would cross every day which was the Yarra.

The Yarra is unique in that it brings the country so far into the city. That’s what we are defending. When the City of Melbourne created their river strategy, they found 97% of people valued the river for its role in creating a natural environment in the city. The great thing about the Yarra is there is rural life very close to the centre of the city, with vineyards in Kew and cattle around Rosanna Golf Club.

The Riverkeeper role is about engaging with the community and being a channel for community views. I speak for the river. I am the community voice for the river, and I am also the spokesperson for a group of citizen advocates. We give talks, make submissions to government, run public events and write carefully researched, well-respected reports. We have an advantage in that, unlike government, we don’t have to ask someone ‘is it alright if we say this?’ We can freelance as independent citizens. Community needs to be involved because it’s our river.

What I do is tell stories. That’s where my publishing background comes in. I take things that are difficult to express and distil them down to something that is easy to understand. The river has many stories, so there’s a plenitude to choose from. One of the stories that intrigues me is how do we manage our relationship with the natural world? How do you make understandable the story that the wearing away of our car tyres is contributing to the deterioration of the health of waterways? It seems a long bow to draw from worn-out tyres to a lack of fish. As tyres wear away, a residue of copper and other heavy metals is left on our roads. The residue washes into our waterways when it rains. Then you start learning from scientists about copepods, tiny little micro invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain that live in the mouths of our rivers. If you put copper into the water, you start to kill them off and then there’s nothing for the fish larvae to eat and no fish means a much-depleted river.

I feel privileged to be out there telling stories about how we have transformed parts of Melbourne in the past 50 years. Herring Island, Westgate Park, Merri Creek, Darebin Creek. Herring Island was built up by soil dredged up from the river. I remember going past on the way to school and the dredge would be at work dragging up sediment full of toxic nasties from the factories further up the river. The mud would be dumped on the island. Now the Friends of Herring Island have turned it in to an exquisite sanctuary with 60 or 70 different types of birds.

I am excited about the Yarra Strategic Plan; we have to deliver on that. Melbourne Water are working with the Traditional Owners, the Wurundjeri Woi wurrung people, and 15 other agencies such as councils to come up with a plan to manage the Yarra as one living entity. It’s never been done before and we need to acknowledge it’s special and we are doing something transformative, but we won’t pull it off unless everyone pulls together and brings the community behind it.

There are a lot of pressures on the Yarra, but of all the places in the world, I think Melbourne is one of best places to do something about rivers. We have been really fortunate here to have a spacious landscape that faces plenty of challenges, but we have the prosperity to do something about those challenges and a willingness to recognise we need to do better.

Visit to learn more about the Yarra Riverkeeper Association.

© Matilda Bowra 2019