Riders on the Stormwater
Growing up in Bondi in the ‘80s you still lived with the scourge of the major sewerage outlet that was located just to the north of the beach, around the corner from Ben Buckler point. When a northerly swell was running a frightful brown slick would creep around the corner into ‘Beautiful Bondi Beach’. In addition to being ripe with the smell of human waste it also added an unsavoury texture to the water’s surface.
When the raw sewerage flowed into the bay most of us stayed out in the surf, kept our mouths tightly shut and joked that E.coli overload would only strengthen our immune systems. Some parents were stricter and insisted that their little grommets avoid the chocolate coating and exit the water at the first sighting of the infamous Bondi cigar. Most of us got our hepatitis C shots when a couple of beachgoers contracted the condition and local doctors deduced that the fetid salt water was the most likely cause.
One year, a big sewerage spill coincided with an international surfing event at Bondi. The world’s best boardriders spent a week slashing and carving through rank-smelling, brown-flecked foam. After the weekend finals all the local grommets huddled into the press conference, held beneath a big-top tent, on the hill at the southern end. We’d hoped to hear our heroes drop pearls of surfing wisdom; instead they complained about competing in the poo and never came back again.
In 1992 the sewerage problem at Bondi was solved in part by pumping the treated effluent several kilometres offshore. The move laid the way for the gentrification of Bondi and real estate prices went vertical almost immediately. Some pined for the days of the pong because at least they could afford the rent, but there’s no doubt that the new offshore sewerage pipes dramatically improved the quality of the water at Bondi.
However, while the by-products of the North Bondi treatment plant may have been put out of sight and out of mind, stormwater run-off remains a very visible problem. The severity of the stormwater issue was pungently apparent when a group of surfers were clustered on the hill at the southern end of Bondi for the final boardriders event of the season. An afternoon thunderstorm brought welcome rain, but it also ensured that whatever foul substances and debris had been curdling in the drain system for weeks were flushed directly into the southern corner of Bondi Beach via the gaping stormwater outlet situated near the iconic Icebergs pool.
As the stormwater roared like a dragon with foul breath, a vile cocktail washed directly into the shoreline in the southern corner of the beach – its contents including everything from condoms, oil, dog faeces and dead animals to fertilisers and heavy chemicals. It’s well documented that in heavy rain, leaky sewer systems flow into stormwater drains, creating a diabolical double-act that sends bacteria and fecal matter spewing directly into Sydney’s beaches, harbour and river systems.
While many of the most offensive elements of the effluent would require a chemistry kit to detect, the filthy cocktail appeared as a raging torrent of brown-black water that poured into Bondi like a river of broken dreams. Parents watched on in horror as their little grommets paddled into the Sunday afternoon slick.
“Looks like a trip to the decontamination lab afterwards,” joked one parent who was trying to make light of an ugly situation.
For most of the day the water had been freezing, but one kid exited the water and announced loudly that the fresh run-off was “strangely warm”. Everyone in earshot winced and moaned at the thought of the queasy brown sludge. The stench was also horrific – a tangy, nose-tickling blend of something distinctly chemical mixed with a myriad of unseemly organic matter. When another kid found a frog that had been flushed out, someone suggested it was most likely destined to become a mutant ninja frog.
Hunkered below tents, which sagged with the heavy rain, we watched the southern wave zone become divided into two distinct colour strands – the stormwater following the currents and stretching into the ocean-blue like evil, dark tentacles. Standing beside me was a local real estate agent, who had done extremely well out of the Bondi market in a post-sewer outlet era. I asked how he would gloss over the obvious (and reoccurring) environmental catastrophe if he happened to be showing a beachside apartment at such a moment. He immediately produced an enthusiastic satire of his role, “Oh, would you look at that wonderful contrast in the water colour.” He obviously realised how ridiculously unappealing the brown-stained sea would be to anyone dreaming of a beachside purchase.
As it was the last event of the year, there were numerous titles up for grabs in different divisions and the decision was made to persevere with the contest. We all paddled out into the poo-coloured water, telling ourselves that this was the rightful response of a Bondi true-believer. A certain stoicism may be part of the Australian psyche, but surely in a land ‘girt by sea’ (one of our national anthem’s more infamous lines) ocean-goers deserve better. We may be up to our armpits in iron ore but one could reasonably argue that our coastline is our greatest natural resource. Our boast should be ‘Cleanest Beaches in the World.’ That would certainly give Kylie something to chirp about in a national tourism campaign.
For our beaches to be treated with the level of political clout they warrant, we really need a Federal Coastal Act. Invoking such a major political step would require time and resources, but in the interim the wealthy Eastern Suburbs of Sydney seems like a good place to take initiative.
As I write, it’s been weeks without solid rain in Sydney and the drains are set to pour forth their filth again. Failure by both Waverley and Randwick Councils to address the stormwater issue means that Sydney’s Eastern Beaches will forever be known as that glorious stretch of coast where every time it rains the affluent ride high on the city’s effluent.