As a surfer, I know how important it is to keep our beaches clean.
Today, the water at Sydney’s eastern beaches is some of the world’s most pristine, but that hasn’t always been the case. The story of Bondi’s pioneering ocean outfall sewer and its notorious ‘nostril’ stormwater drains reveals how we turned it around.
The beginnings of the Bondi sewer
Back in 1859, all of Sydney’s sewage drained straight into Sydney Harbour. No surprise then that by the 1870s, the harbour had become heavily polluted. The powers-that-be began searching for an alternative method of dealing with the city’s sewage, and the Bondi ocean outfall sewer was born.
Designed and built between 1880 and 1889, with an extension to Newtown and Balmain added in the late 1890s, the Bondi sewer was the first ocean outfall system built in Australia. The sewer line, which is still in operation, descends towards North Bondi from its main junction chamber at Oxford, Liverpool and College Streets in Darlinghurst, taking sewage from the city, inner west, east Sydney, Paddington, Woollahra and Waverley to Ben Buckler Point, from where it is ultimately discharged into the Tasman Sea.
When it was first built in 1889, the Bondi sewer relied solely on gravity to propel its contents to its discharge point, and so it could only serve the land directly above itself. That meant a good deal of sewage continued to flow into Sydney Harbour even after being built. Over time, however, pumping stations were added to collect sewage from these areas and pump it into the Bondi sewer. By reducing the amount of pollution entering Sydney Harbour, the Bondi sewer had a significant impact on the city’s public health.
The sewer was one of the early colony’s most significant engineering achievements. Notably, it is the only oviform (egg-shaped) sewer outfall to discharge into the ocean in NSW. Most of the sewer is underground, but sections can be seen at the Bondi Sewage Treatment Plant entrance and at Lough Reserve in Double Bay, where a high level of craftsmanship is evident in the brickwork. The Bondi ocean outfall sewer achieved heritage listing in 2002.
The North Bondi sewer vent at Ben Buckler Point and a brick vent at Bellevue Hill are the most visible signs of the sewer’s presence. The Bondi vent was initially built from brick in 1888, but after developing cracks, it was replaced in 1910 with the iconic reinforced concrete vent that still stands today. Both the Bondi and Bellevue Hill vents are now heritage listed.
Blair Street in North Bondi, underneath which the sewer runs to its outfall point, was originally known as Sewer Road. In 1914, two residents of nearby Old South Head Road wrote to Waverley Council, suggesting it be given a new, more appealing name. The Council agreed and renamed it Blair Street, after one of the letter writers, Joseph Blair.
Cleaning up Bondi Beach
When the Bondi sewer was built, Bondi was a remote area of scrub, sandhills and a lagoon, and swimming in the surf was banned between 8am and 8pm. In those days, discharging raw sewage at Ben Buckler Point, 500m from Bondi Beach, was a perfectly acceptable practice.
Over time, of course, that changed. Bondi became a residential area, and our beach and surf culture grew. This prompted the construction of the Bondi Sewage Treatment Plant, which opened in 1962, to treat the sewage before it was discharged into the ocean. Even though the sewage was now treated, it still poured into the sea from the cliffs at North Bondi, just a few metres below sea level. The wind would frequently carry it into the bay at Bondi, and the resultant pollution at Bondi Beach became infamous. The answer? A deep ocean outfall. By the end of 1992, the Bondi deep ocean outfall was in action, pumping treated sewage from the treatment plant 2.2km out to sea, 63 metres below sea level. The deep ocean outfalls at Bondi, Malabar and North Head were the first of their kind in Australia and some of the deepest in the world, and they made a vast improvement to the water quality at Sydney’s beaches.
In 2018 the state government announced that Sydney’s last three untreated sewage outfalls, at Diamond Bay and Vaucluse, would be diverted to Bondi Sewage Treatment Plant and the Bondi deep ocean outfall.
What about stormwater?
Sewage has not been the only threat to water quality at Bondi Beach over the years. Stormwater has also caused plenty of issues.
It’s hard to believe now, but for more than 70 years, two huge stormwater drains delivered polluted water and rubbish straight onto Bondi Beach. The stormwater outlets pumped a cocktail of pollution, including sewage overflow and garbage, onto the beach whenever there was heavy rain. Children often played in the pools of dirty water left on the beach, which the locals knew as ‘Hogan’s Hole’ (after Mayor Thomas Hogan) or ‘the Polio Pit’.
Nicknamed ‘the binoculars’ and then ‘the nostrils’ after an opportunistic artist painted a face on the wall around them, the twin Bondi stormwater drains even starred in a movie. The climactic final scene of the 1977 Australian film The Last Wave, directed by Peter Weir, featured the main character (played by Richard Chamberlain) emerging from one of the stormwater pipes and collapsing on the sand of Bondi Beach before (spoiler alert!) a shot of a tsunami fills the screen, and the film ends.
With both the effluent they pumped onto the beach and the pipes themselves posing a threat to public health and safety, the ‘nostrils’ were permanently blocked in 1995. The stormwater runoff was diverted to the main headland outfalls managed by Sydney Water. In 2012 Waverley Council built the Bondi Stormwater Scheme, which diverts 50 million litres of stormwater from being discharged into the ocean every year and treats it so it can be re-used for public cleaning, toilets and irrigation.
The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment says that today, stormwater is the leading cause of beach water pollution in Sydney, and unfortunately, the water quality at all our beaches can suffer after heavy rains. But thanks to the Bondi deep ocean outfall and the Bondi Stormwater Scheme, the water at Bondi Beach is the cleanest it has been for more than a century.
Thinking of buying or selling in Bondi or the eastern suburbs? Get in touch with my team today.