Cities, by and large, are bad for the soul.
Motorways, office buildings, shopping centres, apartment buildings and housing estates play an important economic role but are usually not places which inspire imagination or creativity.
However, among the city fabric, there are many magical, hidden places which do provide nourishment for the soul. You just need to spend time looking for them.
Vanessa Berry has a made a habit of exposing and celebrating these places, in her blog and book Mirror Sydney. The places that others float past or see as odd or inconsequential – such as historic stores and malls, abandoned funparks and old and faded wall signs – are celebrated by Berry as places which add to the character and richness of our city.
Inevitably, these places are vulnerable and transient – land in waiting to be transformed by the next property boom, infrastructure fad or town planning fashion. Or simply likely to disappear due to ongoing neglect or mismanagement.
Sydney’s Inner West has one such magical, hidden place – it’s the Dibble Avenue waterhole.
As this post will show, excessive secrecy is currently undermining a push to improve and preserve the waterhole so it can be enjoyed by future generations.
History of the waterhole
The waterhole started life as a brickpit, although it’s not exactly clear when this was. Given this history of Marrickville states most brickpits began in the 1880s to service the area’s housing boom, it’s safe to assume it was around this time.
By the 1930s, clay supplies were exhausted and the brickpits were abandoned and filled with water.
Given the dangerous situation this presented, most of the brickpits around Marrickville were filled and turned into public parks (such as Henson Park).
However, the Dibble Avenue brickpit was spared this fate, because it is located only 100m from the Marrickville Golf Course. In the late 1930s, Marrickville Council acquired the waterhole so that the Marrickville Golf Club could use the water in it to irrigate the club’s greens, via a pipe which runs under Riverside Crescent. No limits were placed on the club’s water extraction.
Historical photos released as part of a plan of management now on exhibition by Inner West Council show that, over time, development began to encroach on the waterhole, including the construction of a unit block ridiculously close to the northern edge of the waterhole in the 1960s.
Over the next 30 years, it’s fair to say that the waterhole (which is 50m wide and up to 6m deep) became forgotten and ignored.
This is hardly surprising, given that the waterhole can only be viewed (by the public) from a tiny public reserve and cannot be seen from the street. Even when you’re in the reserve, you need to clamber to the top of a children’s play fort to get a view of the waterhole over a security fence.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that there was an emerging consciousness that the waterhole was more than a water source and in fact was a place that should be cherished.
Marrickville Council prepared a plan of management for the waterhole in 1997, which sought to protect and enhance its environmental features, and then was successful in listing it as a local heritage item in 1999.
This recognition reflected the fact that over 63 native fauna species call the waterhole home, including birds such as the Tawny Frogmouth and Collared Kingfisher and bats such as the threatened Eastern Bentwing bat and Grey-headed Flying Fox species.
During summer, the waterhole hosts a raucous frog chorus, including from the Eastern Dwarf Tree Frog, Peron’s Tree Frog and Striped Marsh Frog.
However, while the understanding of the waterhole’s environmental value has improved, there are concerns that, at the same time, its environmental health has declined.
Living alongside the waterhole
Liz Krupinski has lived alongside the waterhole since 1990. In fact, Liz also owns a small section of the waterhole, where she has built a rear deck.
Ms Krupinski is an important repository of knowledge about the waterhole. She knows for instance, that its surface is a sea of green during summer, as duck weed blooms. The same weed disappears almost overnight during cooler months.
Ms Krupinski believes that, in the past three years, the waterhole has degraded. She has kept a book of the waterhole over the decades, and the photos from the 2000s seem to show the waterhole in a lush and pristine condition, compared to the muddier and less impressive place it is today.
This has happened, she believes, because of what appears to be increased extraction by the golf course leading to low water levels, along with increased development around its fringe leading to silt run-off and vegetation removal.
The waterhole also suffered a significant blow in February 2017, when part of its northern wall collapsed following heavy rain, leading to the 1960s unit block being evacuated because of fears it would collapse. News crews scrambled to the site, camping out on Ms Krupinski’s back deck.
Today, the water is a bit of a sorry sight.
The water level appears to be low, exposing its muddy banks. The landslide has removed vegetation from its northern bank, replaced by an ugly temporary rock wall. New development is increasingly crowding the waterhole’s perimeter.
And a wharf recently built near the public reserve (though not accessible to the public) has become overgrown and virtually unusable.
Hope for the waterhole
However, there is finally hope for the waterhole.
Inner West Council has placed a plan of management on public exhibition, which seeks to stop Marrickville Golf Course from using the waterhole for irrigation, which the plan says “will allow the waterhole to be restored and managed sustainably.”
Instead, the golf club “will be encouraged to work with the council on medium to long term solutions for irrigation including underground water tanks and stormwater harvesting.”
This ban on ongoing extraction is part of a broader move by the council staff to reduce the size of the golf course, to help better meet the open space and environmental needs of the Inner West.
The golf club has issued a Facebook post opposing this outcome, saying continued access to the water hole is “imperative to its survival”.
However, while the council proposal is a good start, one suspects it is not enough.
Just as the public has difficulty finding and seeing the waterhole, it could also have greater opportunity to learn about and participate in its ongoing management and decisions about its future.
For instance, there is no publicly-available information about water or extraction levels, to confirm Ms Krupinski’s suspicions about increased extraction and resultant low water levels.
A range of other key documents are also being kept out of public view.
For instance, the plan of management states that it has an appendix called “Minimum Water Level Recommendation and Ecological Rehabilitation Advice at the Dibble Avenue Waterhole”. However, this appendix cannot be found online.
This sounds like an interesting document, not the least because it suggests the possibility of ongoing water extraction from the waterhole, but this being limited (contrary to the staff recommendation).
I asked the council for this document. In response, the relevant council officer did not provide this document (if it exists), instead stating: “In terms of the Minimum Water Level Recommendation and Ecological Rehabilitation Advice at the Dibble Avenue Waterhole at the present time we have not set a minimum level. No future extraction of water is currently advocated.”
Equally so, the council officer refused access to an independent geotechnical review commissioned by the council in 2017 (and referred to in public meeting papers) to “review the Waterhole and provide any recommendations for the ongoing management of this land” following the landslide.
This review, potentially, may have shed some light on the detailed reasons for the landslide.
The officer stated that “The document which you are referring to is an internal document only which has been superseded by additional works which our engineers are undertaking with regards to the waterhole improvement design.”
The consultation process for the plan of management itself also has an air of mystery. The plan of management never went to the elected council for endorsement, before going on exhibition. A third consultation option was added (“no change to the 18 hole golf course”) a few days after the consultation period began.
It’s time for the community to reclaim the Dibble Avenue waterhole.
The Inner West community should be given the opportunity to participate in decision-making about this important resource, through the creation of a site-specific working group which has access to council information.
Such an outcome is likely to improve the public’s understanding and access to this fascinating place, and help hold the council to account.
By throwing some light on the waterhole, it will inevitably shine for the world.
And, in doing this, it will become a little more magical – and far less hidden.
UPDATE JANUARY 2022: It is good news that Inner West Council has undertaken bank stabilisation and revegetation works at the site, with the waterhole now looking a lot better.