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Cooks River Timeline videoplayer Timeline of history since since European settlement

The Cooks River has deteriorated greatly since the days when it was inhabited by the traditional Koori (Australian Aboriginal) inhabitants of the Sydney Region - the Darug people. The Cooks River is only approximately 23 km long, yet the relatively small catchment area contains a human population of almost 400,000 people in approximately 130,000 dwellings and over 100,000 commercial and industrial premises.

These changes have brought with them all the typical water catchment management problems characteristic of heavily developed areas, including:

  • Removal of native vegetation and habitat destruction both directly and indirectly as a result of urban development;
  • Dramatically increased run-off rates due to covering of land with hard surfaces, concreting of creeks to form "storm water canals" and general re-routing of water courses;
  • Pollution from motor vehicles, litter, sewage, illegal dumping, industrial, commercial and domestic activities; and
  • Nutrient enrichment resulting in increased algal levels in the water and large changes to its biochemistry and ecology.

1770 - James Cook went almost to the head of the inlet of Cooks River. The river presented an idyllic scene to Cook who was quite impressed.

1788 - In January, the first exploration of Cooks River by Phillip Gidley King but no name was given to it.

1788 - In September, John Hunter explored the Cooks River and his description was, "having gone to the head of the river (Georges) and returned to the bay again (Botany), we entered a small river (Cooks). As far as I went up, which was 5 miles, is all shoal water. In short these rivers were with me no objects at this time to throw away time upon. I therefore made no further survey".

1793 - First granting of land along the Cooks River valley.

1810 - Bridge erected at Tempe gave access to the southern bank for picnicking, timber getting, boating and some swimming.

1830's - Cooks River began being used as a water supply. (The Tank Stream was abandoned in 1826).

1840 - A dam at Tempe was completed but it proved a considerable nuisance to both floods and pollution. The site was where the Princes Highway is today. Also, Pouts Bridge was erected over the river at Canterbury Road.

1841 - Canterbury is established with first streets and housing.

1870 - A deputation of citizens met John Sutherland (then Minister for Public Works) regarding upgrading of recreational facilities and sanitary disposal of rubbish and sewage. The Government promised a survey (which was never made). A description of the river at the time was "flowing dreamily between banks of cool green rushes and winding around little verdant inlets that break the water in the pleasentest relief".

1879 - Municipal District of Canterbury proclaimed on 17th March.

1889 - There was severe flooding in May. A horse drawn omnibus was swept off Canterbury bridge, drowning the four horses and the fare boy (Herbert Price). The rainfall for the week was 20.37 inches. The river was 10 feet above the dam at Tempe.

1896 - Mayor of Canterbury, Sydney Lorking, told a government committee that the arch villain was the Tempe Dam. It was the chief cause of silting, encouraged the growth of weeds and allowed floating refuse to accumulate. The "Sugar House Dam" at Canterbury was almost as bad by keeping fresh water in a stagnant condition which was often offensive.

Frederick Davis (Council Inspector) referred to sewage from streets entering the river and an outbreak of typhoid fever among children swimming in the river.

The "Cooks River Improvement Bill" with an estimated expenditure of 56,000 pounds, was presented to Parliament. The money was to be spent on lowering the sills on Tempe Dam and dredging the river and Wolli Creek.

1897 - The "Cooks River Improvement Bill" becomes law with the amount to be spent, reduced to 41,000 pounds. However, pollution problems continue to worsen.

1920 - The dredge "Tempe" begins work at Unwins Bridge.

1924 - Formation of the Cooks River Improvement League.

1928 - The questions of dredging, reclaiming and improving the Cooks River referred to the Public Works Department (PWD). This led to a government agreement to undertake the concreting of the upper reaches of the river as "depression relief" work.

1929 - The Cooks River Improvement League released details of a Cooks River Canal proposal that would link the Parramatta River and Cooks River.

1943 - Work began below the "Huttons Factory" at Canterbury on dredging the section towards Wardell Road. Sheet steel piling erected by PWD along Ewen Park for flood mitigation.

1946 - A quote from A.B. Distefano & S.J. Richards, The Environment Situation Around Sydney Airport, "the Cooks River system is heavily polluted, with large portions of it incapable of sustaining aquatic life. It is not suitable for bathing and needs a massive clean-up campaign to restore it to a tolerable level, not to mention a respectable level".

1948 - Expressway easements are recommended in the Cumberland Plan along Wolli Creek (now known as the M5 Motorway) and along Cooks River (now known as the County Road).

Construction work at Mascot airport involved the river entrance being relocated 1.6km further west. This destroyed most of the remaining wetlands.

The "Rivers and Foreshores Improvement Act" is passed by the State Government, to be administered by the PWD.

1952 - In July, Canterbury Council expressed concern over the state of the river and wrote to the Chief Secretary, Department of Public Works, to request river closure to fishing.

In October, oil was detected in the river, coming from Enfield Railway Yards.

1956 - Control of the river from Water Street bridge to Canterbury Road bridge formally given to the Water Board (now known as Sydney Water).

1957 - In March, a notice was served on the Marshalls Battery factory for discharging acid into the river at Canterbury.

1961 - The Electricity Commission (now known as Pacific Power) obtained an easement for overhead electricity lines along the river between Enfield and Canterbury.

1967 - In January, Canterbury Council's Chief Health Inspector reported that bottom sludge between Fifth Avenue bridge and Brighton Avenue bridge was removed at low tide with front-end loaders and other vehicles.

In March, a letter from the Minister for Public Transport to Canterbury Council regarding oil pollution from railway yards said, "the problem of the Cooks River pollution was being aggravated by diesel leaking from Chullora railway workshops, the matter was being investigated".

1968 - In December, $33,000 was allocated by the PWD for the dredging of the river downstream from Wardell Road bridge. It was anticipated that the work would be completed by the end of July the following year.

1970 - The PWD finally completed dredging downstream from Wardell Road.

The State Government passes the "Clean Waters Act" to be implemented by the State pollution Control Commission (now known as the Environment Protection Authority).

1972 - A "fish kill" in the river is due to a break in the sewer main which allows the discharge of raw sewage into the river.

1973 - A "fish kill" in December is due to a leak of cyanide from the Sunbeam factory at Campsie.

1975 - In July, a grant of $81,000 is made to the Total Environment Centre (TEC) to conduct a study of the river under a Commonwealth Government, Regional Employment Development Scheme.

1988 - A minor landslip near Punchbowl Road bridge during heavy rain in April causes the collapse of 40m of concrete embankment and the rupture of a sewer main. This caused a large "fish kill". The Water Board pumped sewage into tankers while repairs were carried out and the site was treated with chlorine (to kill germs) and peroxide (to add oxygen to the river). Tests by the Board and the SPCC indicated the river was stabilised by 25th June.

1989 - A "fish kill" in February in the river. An illegal dumping of toxic chemicals (possibly cyanide) was the most likely cause.

Another "fish kill" in March. This time, illegal dumping of a chromium-ammonia compound into Cup & Saucer Creek was the most likely cause.

In September, the Canterbury Urban Runoff Taskforce was formed between Canterbury Council and the Water Board. Funded by the Board's Special Environment Levy, the Taskforce was to investigate the Orissa Street catchment (55ha) which flows into the river at Fifth Avenue at Campsie.

In November, an accidental overnight oil spill from the Natural Gas Company site in Madeline Street, Enfield allows approximately 20,000 litres of an oil/phenol/coal tar/water mixture to flow into the river. The Natural Gas Company was later fined $25,000 in the Land & Environment Court in February 1991.

1990 - In July, the State Government introduced the "Environmental Offences & penalties Act" with fines of up to $1 million for pollution incidents.

In August, the Water Board complete construction of a "trash rack" to intercept litter in Cup & Saucer Creek at Canterbury which has a catchment area of 510ha. The rack cost $60,000 and collected 66.4 tonnes of silt and litter in its first year.

In December, large "fish kills" occur along the length of the river. Newspaper headlines at the time claimed "Death of a river" and "The river that died of shame". The incident lasted two months with the river having a thick dark colour and foul odour despite the adding of fresh water from a nearby water main at Strathfield and 1.8 tonnes of peroxide at Campsie. The cause was later suspected to be a combination of record low rainfall, hot temperatures and large tidal movement.

1991 - The Cooks River Catchment Management Committee (CRCMC) was formed in March with representatives from local Councils, state government agencies and the community. This followed the passing of the "Catchment Management Act, 1989".

An accidental discharge of diesel oil from Enfield Railway yards on 10th March made its way into the river. The State Rail Authority (SRA) was later fined $6,000 for the incident. This led to a study by the SPCC and the State Rail Authority into pollution improvements for the site.

In May, the Water Board commenced work on a gross pollutant trap (GPT) for the Orissa Street drain at Fifth Avenue, Campsie as a major recommendation of the Urban Runoff Taskforce at an estimated cost of $400,000. The work is completed in October and in its first 5 months of operation the GPT collects 12.5m3 of litter and 2 tonnes of silt.

In November, the water Board complete construction of a "trash rack" Mackey Park, Marrickville where a large stormwater channel drains a catchment of 91ha.

1992 - In February, the Water Board install automatic water sampling and analysing equipment in the river and the GPT at Fifth Avenue, Campsie at a cost of $100,000. They also commence construction of a large GPT on Wolli Creek at Kingsgrove.

In April, the SRA complete extensive stormwater and pollution control work at the Enfield railway yard. This followed the prosecution for a pollution incident in March 1991.

1995 - On 4th March, the CRCMC organised at boat tour of the river for 30 local candidates in the upcoming State election.

In June, the Cooks River Valley Association (CRVA) received a "Rivers Reborn" grant to install a floating boom across the river at Fifth Avenue, Campsie.

In October, the TEC release a comprehensive report "Environmental Condition of the Cooks River and Community Vision Strategy. The production of the report was funded by a Rivers Reborn grant.

1996 - A video "Cooks River Coming Clean" is released by the CRCMC which documents how "the committed actions and involvement of ordinary people, working individually, in groups and with government agencies, are making a difference to help clean up one of Sydney's most polluted rivers". The video was funded by a Rivers Reborn grant.

In July and August, Canterbury and Marrickville Councils supported the CRCMC to conduct the "Kids, Companies & Creeks" project, which involved local high school students analysing water samples at various locations in the catchment and then presenting their findings to local businesses who have a potential to pollute.

In November, Canterbury Council installed a "Pollutec" litter trap device in the park adjacent to Belmore Rugby League fields. The installation cost of $80,000 was provided under a Rivers Reborn grant. The device uses a fine screen and a unique circular flow to trap litter and silt in the "first flush" of rain water in the stormwater drain.

1997 - In April, a "Foreshores Strategic Plan" was launched by the Environment Minister. It was funded by the State Government, Greening Australia and Canterbury, Strathfield and Marrickville Councils.


CRCMC - Cooks River Catchment Management Committee

CRVA - Cooks River Valley Association (a community based environment group)

EPA - Environment Protection Authority (a State Government Department)

GPT - gross pollutant trap (a device that collects litter and silt)

PWD - Public Works Department (a State Government Department now part of Conservation & Land Management)

SRA - State Rail Authority

TEC - Total Environment Centre (a non-profit community based environmental organisation)


Last Updated 17-Dec-2008