History of Sydney's water

Tank Stream underground channel built of sandstone blocks

The Tank Stream was Sydney's first water source. It now plays an important role as a stormwater drain in the city.

We have a long history of managing Sydney's water supply.

We've responded to droughts and floods, population growth, industry and recreational water needs and protected both environmental and public health.

Since the time of the Tank Stream, Sydney's first water supply, our values about water have changed.

Learn more about The history of Sydney Water.

Drinking water

At the time of European arrival in Australia, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation lived around the area we now know as the City of Sydney. These original custodians had a close relationship with both fresh and saltwater. These waterways provided transport routes, drinking water, food and resources.

At times when water was scarce due to drought, they dug for groundwater and filtered it with grass and bark to remove sediments.

The Gadigal people used landscape features, plants and animals as markers to find water. They managed water sustainably for thousands of years and were careful not to pollute their water supplies.
 

image of a sandstone based freshwater creek surrounded by native vegetation

What the Tank Stream may have looked like before 1788.

In 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived, it was an unusually cool and wet summer. The landing site, where Sydney is now located, was selected as it had '... the finest spring of water', according to Phillip's diary.

The streamlet, as it was first called, was the only source of fresh water. Unfortunately, within five years of the new colony a drought dried up the water supply.

Tanks were dug into the sandstone near the stream to capture the limited flow of water. This is how the Tank Stream got its name.
 
Painting of the landing at Port Jackson by Captain Arthur Phillip

First Fleet landing at Port Jackson. Source: State Library NSW.

Other early sources of water include:

As Sydney has grown, we've searched for new sources of water to meet the demand. Historically, our drinking water supply has relied on rainfall alone, collected from creeks, freshwater wetlands and later constructed dams.

Most of Sydney's drinking water supply is distributed using gravity feed pipes. This means we use the natural slope of the environment to get water to our homes.

The Upper Nepean Scheme was a major engineering project that channelled water from the Avon, Cordeaux and Nepean dams, to a reservoir at Prospect to be distributed throughout Sydney.

In some cases, we need to pump water uphill to reservoirs. West Ryde Pumping Station was completed in 1921. This allowed water to be pumped to the northern suburbs of Sydney. 
industrial building pumping station boiler house heritage photo

The West Ryde Pumping Station allowed Sydney's northern suburbs to receive drinking water from Prospect.

As Sydney grew into a global city, we had to look for new ways to meet increased water demand.

Over the course of 50 years from 1960–2010, we experienced three major drought periods, each of them influencing a major development in water capture for the city:

Today WaterNSW manages 21 dams and reservoirs in Greater Sydney.

Warragamba

Warragamba Dam.

Sydney is a dynamic and growing city and we are working to make sure that we have a reliable supply of water for the future.

We're helping to make sure Greater Sydney is resilient to our variable climate and a great place to live with:

We'll help you love water, don't waste it

We work with others to secure Sydney's water future:

Drinking water station

Enjoying drinking water.

Wastewater and stormwater

The Tank Stream was Sydney’s first supply of water. As the settlement grew along the stream, land was cleared, animals had direct access to the water and humans dumped their waste, polluting the stream.

To protect the water supply:

  • Governor Philip banned building within 150 metres of the stream
  • Governor Hunter charged polluters with public floggings, fines and even losing their houses
  • many polluting industries were forced out of the city under the Slaughter House Act of 1849
  • by the 1850’s the Tank Stream had become an open sewer and had to be covered over
  • in 1857, the first planned wastewater system was built sending wastewater from the city to Bennelong Point.
    The Tank Stream painting by Frank Garling

    'The Tank Stream' painting by Fredrick Garling is in the State Library of NSW.

Wastewater (sewage) from houses and buildings, industrial waste and stormwater all flowed to the harbour. The public were not happy about the pollution.

To separate the wastewater from the stormwater:

  • the South Western Suburbs Ocean Outfall Sewer at Malabar was built in 1916
  • the Wollongong Sewerage Scheme in 1929 
  • the Northern Suburbs Ocean Outfall Sewer in 1930
  • in 1936, Bondi Wastewater Treatment Plant was built
  • the first inland schemes were built in 1938 at Fairfield, Campbelltown and Camden
  • Port Kembla Wastewater Scheme began in 1958
  • 1959 the Cronulla Wastewater System began.
Aqueduct

Aqueduct over Johnstons Creek in Glebe sending wastewater to Bondi.


As Sydney grew into a global city, we had to look for new ways to remove increased amounts of wastewater.

Our coastal plants increased capacity and more inland plants were constructed to treat the wastewater being created by a growing population.

From 1984 to 1990, we built deep water ocean outfalls at Bondi, North Head and Malabar.

These plants released the treated effluent about four kilometres offshore. This resulted in large scale improvement of water quality on Sydney’s beaches.

North Head wastewater treatment plant

North Head Wastewater Treatment Plant is on the coast near Manly.

Today, greater Sydney has 30 wastewater treatment plants and water recycling plants. These plants treat a total of about 1.5 billion litres of wastewater a day.

There’s growing awareness of the environmental impacts of human activities. We’ve responded by improving wastewater services. Wastewater treatment plants are constantly improved and upgraded to separate waste from the water before going back into the environment or being used as recycled water.

We are always coming up with new ways to use the highly treated recycled water.

Learn more about water recycling
 

St Marys recycled water

Highly treated recycled water has many uses.

It is great when the community helps as well. We can all reduce our impact on the environment by being aware of what we put down our drains at home.

Learn how to clean up not down
 

Sydney is a dynamic and growing city and we are working to make sure that we manage our wastewater and protect the environment for the future.

We are helping to make sure Greater Sydney is resilient to our variable climate and a great place to live. Read more about:

Alexandria canal

Parklands near water add to the liveability of a city.

Self-guide excursions

Self-guide

These excursions are designed for teachers to deliver.

We'll provide a resource pack that includes lesson plans, worksheets and PowerPoint presentations.

Learn more about our self-guide excursions.

Heritage conservation

Ryde pumping station number 2 - Turbine Hall

Heritage connects our past with our future and includes buildings, objects and relics and our natural living landscapes.

Learn more about our heritage conservation.