Heritage conservation

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

Our built landscapes such as cities, buildings, objects and relics, and our natural living landscapes and ecosystems, are all part of our heritage.

Heritage connects our past with our future and is passed from one generation to the next in our liveable cities.

Our heritage items

Crown street underground heritage water reservoir

The Crown Street Reservoir.

We protect over 200 heritage listed assets for future generations. They have local or state heritage significance.

You can use our Heritage and Conservation Register (S170 Register) to learn about our assets. You can also investigate the State Heritage Inventory and check your local council's Local Environment Plans.

We collect historic photographs, drawings and general research to capture the history and use of state heritage assets. We write conservation management plans to help us maintain the heritage value for the future.

Did you know?
Heritage items are grouped into four categories of significance -  local, state, national and world. 

Our wastewater pumping station No. 2 built in 1904 has local significance and our Crown Street Reservoir has state significance.

Captain Cook’s landing place Kurnell, Botany Bay, holds  national significance and the Blue Mountains Wilderness Area has  world heritage significance.

We protect and conserve Aboriginal cultural heritage by respecting its presence in the landscape. This includes:

  • Aboriginal sites (objects) with artefacts
  • rock art
  • scarred trees
  • grinding grooves
  • engravings
  • middens
  • occupation deposits
  • Aboriginal Places. 

We recognise that these sites provide Aboriginal people with a direct link to their traditional culture.

We carefully consider how to minimise or avoid impact on Aboriginal cultural heritage by:

  • diverting pipelines around Aboriginal sites and/or underboring
  • limiting works to areas that have been previously disturbed wherever possible.

We openly consult throughout our projects to ensure we consider and respect the views of Aboriginal people about their cultural heritage.

There over 160 natural heritage sites in our operating area and we value conserving them for present and future generations.

These sites feature physical and biological formations that have outstanding aesthetic or scientific values. They include:

  • geological formations 
  • paleontological (fossil) sites
  • habitat of threatened species of animals and plants
  • natural sites of outstanding value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty. 

We own three sites with natural heritage. They're also listed on the State Heritage Inventory.

  • Bombo Quarry - geological formation 
  • Botany Wetlands - Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub
  • Potts Hill Reservoirs & Site - remnant Cumberland Plain Woodland.

We consider natural heritage values in environmental assessments before projects begin, in line with legislative and policy frameworks.

We maintain the Sydney Water/WaterNSW Historical Research Archive at West Ryde, located in the former Boiler House offices.

Our collection dates back to the beginning of the Board of Water Supply & Sewerage in 1888. 

We have photographs dating from 1890s to 1993. We’ve scanned over 70,000 negatives to preserve them for the future. 

The archive also has an extensive historical document collection and many small moveable heritage items.

Email our Archivist for more information.

History of Sydney's water

Tank Stream

The Tank Stream

A lot has changed since the time of the Tank Stream, Sydney's first water supply.

Sydney's faced droughts and floods, population growth, industry and recreational water needs and protected both environmental and public health. Our needs and values about water have changed.

Learn more about our history with the Sydney Water timeline.

Original custodians

McCarrs Creek Tank Stream

What the tank stream may have originally looked like.

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.

Colonial water supply

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.

Building a city

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.

Managing urban growth

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 Dam.

Polluting our environment

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.

The Tank Stream painting by Frank Garling

'The Tank Stream' painting by Fredrick Garling. Select the image to see a larger version.

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.

Separating the system

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 over Johnstons Creek in Glebe sending wastewater to Bondi.

Managing the volume

North Head wastewater treatment plant

North Head Wastewater Treatment Plant near Manly.

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 resulted in large scale improvement of water quality on Sydney’s beaches.

Caring for the environment

St Marys recycled water

Highly treated recycled water has many uses.

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 and other by-products, such as solids recycling and generating renewable energy.

Learn more about water recycling.

A liveable city

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

Alexandria canal

Parklands near water add to the liveability of a city.