Heritage conservation

Conserving our assets for the future

We have a long history of managing Sydney's water supply, which means we contribute to a significant part of Greater Sydney's heritage through our built landscapes, including buildings, objects and relics, and our natural living landscapes and ecosystems. They're all part of our heritage. Our heritage connects our past with our future, from one generation to the next.

Our heritage items

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

Recording for the future

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

Use our Heritage and Conservation Register (S170 Register) to search for and learn about our heritage assets. Investigate the State Heritage Inventory. You can also check out your council's local environment plans (LEPs).

Crown Street Reservoir has state significance.

Did you know?
Heritage items are grouped into 4 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.

Respect and consultation

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 traditional culture.

We carefully consider how to minimise or avoid impact on Aboriginal cultural heritage by diverting pipelines around Aboriginal sites or underboring, and wherever possible limiting works to areas that have been previously disturbed.

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

Heritage sites in nature

There are more than 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.

These 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.

Bombo Headland, Kiama, site of the heritage-listed Bombo Quarry

We own 3 sites with natural heritage, which are also listed on the State Heritage Inventory:

  • Bombo Quarry – geological formation, also known as 'Bombo Headland Quarry Geological Site'
  • Botany Wetlands – Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub, also known as 'Botany Water Reserves'
  • Potts Hill Reservoirs & Site – remnant Cumberland Plain Woodland, which is protected through a Voluntary Conservation Agreement with the Office of Environment and Heritage.

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

Our archives

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 the 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. We even have a complete set of Board minutes dating back to 1888.

You're welcome to email our archivist for more information at archiverequests@sydneywater.com.au.

History of Sydney's water

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

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

You can learn more about our history from our Sydney Water timeline.

Original custodians

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. The original custodians had a close relationship with freshwater 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.


What the Tank Stream may have looked like.

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

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 5 years of the new colony's establishment 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.

Busby's Bore was Sydney's second water supply. Built from 1827 to 1837, it was a tunnel that brought water from the Lachlan Swamp (now Centennial Park) to Hyde Park.

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-fed 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 to 2010, we experienced 3 major drought periods. Each influenced a major development in water capture for the city:

Today, WaterNSW manages 21 dams and reservoirs in Greater Sydney.

Warragamba Dam was opened in 1960.

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.

To protect the water supply:

  • Governor Philip banned building within 150 metres of the stream.
  • Governor Hunter punished 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 1850s, the Tank Stream had become an open sewer and had to be covered over.
  • In 1857, the first planned wastewater system was built. It sent wastewater from the city to Bennelong Point.

'The Tank Stream', painting by Fredrick Garling.

Aqueduct over Johnstons Creek in Glebe sending wastewater to Bondi.

Separating the system

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

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

Managing the volume

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.

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

Highly treated recycled water has many uses.

Caring for the environment

Today, Greater Sydney has around 30 water resource recovery facilities. These facilities treat 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. Water resource treatment facilities are constantly improved and upgraded to separate waste from the water before going back into the environment or being used as recycled water.

We're 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.

Creating liveable cities

Sydney is a dynamic and growing city, and we're 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:

Parklands near water add to the liveability of a city.