History of Sydney Water

Sydney was home to a number of Aboriginal communities before the arrival of Europeans. The local indigenous people got their drinking water from natural sources like rivers, creeks and wetlands.

Australia's first colonial settlement in Port Jackson relied on a creek known as the Tank Stream for its:

  •  first water supply
  •  wastewater removal.
British landing at Port Jackson

The British colony landed on the shores of Port Jackson.

Sydney grew up around the Tank Stream is now a global city of over 4.8 million people. 

Our city relies on a range of water supply and wastewater removal systems to keep us hydrated and healthy.

Drinking water supply and wastewater management timeline

About 34 Aboriginal groups lived in the Sydney region at the time of European settlement. At this time, Aboriginal people had a close relationship to both fresh and saltwater.

They lived close to waterways like the Parramatta River. The waterways provided drinking water and food like shellfish, fish and birds.

At times, when water was scarce, they dug for groundwater and filtered it to remove sediments. When they needed to travel a long distance from a water source, they carried water in bags made from animal skins.

Aboriginal people used the landscape, birdlife, plants and animals as markers to find water. They managed water sustainably for thousands of years and were careful not to pollute water supplies.

Water is also important in Aboriginal dreamtime stories, particularly those about the Rainbow Serpent. The Rainbow Serpent created the landscape and was in control of water - one of life's most precious resources. 

Water supply

At the beginning of Australia's first colony, fresh water for drinking was collected in holding tanks cut into the Tank Stream.

This stream flowed through the settlement into Sydney Harbour, at Circular Quay. 
By 1826, the Tank Stream was so polluted with wastewater (sewage) and rubbish that people had to stop using it for drinking water.

People started using water from Busby’s Bore, a convict built tunnel from the Lachlan Swamps to Hyde Park. The water was delivered throughout the city in water carts.

The Tank Stream painting by Frank Garling

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


In 1857, the first planned sewerage system was built.

This included a network of sewer pipes leading to five large pipes that put raw wastewater into Sydney Harbour. This made the harbour very polluted.

Learn more about the The history of Sydney Water.

Water supply

A new water supply scheme from Botany Swamps began supplying water for Sydney in 1859. This was prompted by a severe drought in 1852.

The Upper Nepean Scheme followed in 1888. Water was pumped from the Nepean, Cataract, Cordeaux and Avon Rivers to Sydney through 64 km of canals and pipes to the reservoir at Prospect.

Wastewater system

The first attempts at sewage treatment began during this time at Botany Sewage Farm. The sewage farm released treated wastewater into Botany Bay.

Learn more about the The history of Sydney Water.

Water supply

Another drought in 1901-1902 led to the building of the Cataract, Cordeaux, Avon and Nepean Dams between 1907 and 1935.

Dams were also built to serve Sydney’s south and the Blue Mountains.

There was a severe drought again between 1934 and 1942. This prompted the building of Warragamba Dam, which began in 1948 and was completed in 1960.

Wastewater system

Bondi in the 1930s

Bondi Wastewater Treatment Plant was built in 1936.

The sewerage system was extended in the southern suburbs with sewage flowing to Botany Sewage Farm.

Sewage from the northern suburbs flowed to Folly Point Treatment Works.

The South Western Suburbs Ocean Outfall Sewer at Malabar was built in 1916, the Wollongong Sewerage Scheme in 1929 and the Northern Suburbs Ocean Outfall Sewer in 1930. These schemes gave very little treatment to the wastewater before it was released to the environment.

In 1936, Bondi Sewage Treatment Plant was built. This started a period of better wastewater treatment for the area.

The first inland schemes were built in 1938 at:

  • Fairfield
  • Campbelltown
  • Camden.

Port Kembla Sewerage Scheme began in 1958 and in 1959, the Cronulla Sewage System and Malabar Sewage Treatment Plant began.

Learn more about The history of Sydney Water.

Water supply

The Shoalhaven Scheme was started because people were concerned that Warragamba Dam couldn’t provide enough water.

The scheme involved pumping water from Tallowa Dam, Fitzroy Falls Reservoir and Wingecarribee Dam into Warragamba Dam and the Upper Nepean Dams. This provided a top-up for our water supply systems.

The scheme was completed in 1977.

Wastewater system 

During this period, there was growing awareness of the environmental impacts of human activities. We responded by improving wastewater services. 

North Head Sewage Treatment Plant was completed in 1972.

From 1984 to1990, we built deepwater ocean outfalls at:

  • Bondi
  • North Head
  • Malabar.

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

Learn more about The history of Sydney Water.

Aerial view of the coastline near Manly

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

Water supply

Today WaterNSW manages 21 dams and reservoirs in greater Sydney. 

Sydney experienced a severe drought between 1996 and 2010. Water levels in Warragamba Dam dropped to about 32% in 2006. The NSW Government developed the Metropolitan Water Plan to make sure we had a strong and clear plan for enough water now and in the future.

This plan is always being reviewed in response to:

  • changes in water demand and supply
  • new data
  • emerging technologies.

There are four main aspects to make sure we have enough water now and in the future:

  1. Dams will continue to be our main water source.
  2. Water recycling re-uses highly cleaned wastewater in gardens, businesses, sports fields and waterways.
  3. Desalination provides an extra source of water than doesn't rely on rain.
  4. Water efficiency makes sure we're all using water wisely and making every drop count.

Wastewater system

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.

We increasingly treat and recycle wastewater for non-drinking purposes. Up to 43 billion litres of wastewater is being recycled every year. This is around 8% of Sydney’s water needs.

We are always coming up with new ways to use the treated wastewater. This saves our drinking water so it can be used in the best way.

Learn more about The history of Sydney Water.