Meet our new Yarra Riverkeeper
by Sandi Miller
6th December 2021
Photo: Bill McAuley
WHEN CHARLOTTE Sterrett came to Australia at the age of 19, she fell in love with the Yarra River.
She has now been appointed its keeper.
Melbourne’s “upside-down river” is a unique ecosystem that brings nature, culture, and people together.
It wends its way 242 kilometres from near Mt Baw Baw, through the Yarra Valley and finishes in the Port Phillip Bay.
It is an important part of Warrandyte’s identity.
This is why the Diary is delighted that Warrandyte resident, Charlotte takes up her mantle as Melbourne’s third Yarra Riverkeeper in January.
Working with the Yarra Riverkeepers Association (YRKA), she will continue her lifelong work as an advocate for the environment. Warrandyte Diary caught up with Charlotte following the announcement of her appointment.
WD: Firstly, what is a Riverkeeper?
CS: The Riverkeeper, along with the Birrarung Council is there to be a voice for the Birrarung — a voice for the Yarra — to tell the story of the river from source to sea.
There are lots of stories there, historical stories, stories of now, stories of people and all the creatures.
And to educate people about the problems facing the Birrarung, which we know are litter, pollution from chemical waste, unsustainable development, water flow, and climate change — to educate people about those issues but also work together on the solutions.
There are lots of people who use the river and are involved with the river. There are 16 Councils that the river runs through, plus Melbourne Water. But this role is very much about educating people about those problems and working on the solutions together.
The YRKA also does a lot of the clean-up work as well as work with community groups to clean up the river.
The Association has done a lot of research on the types of plastic pollution — polystyrene balls being the number one — and then there are about eight regeneration sites along the river, including Westerfolds, where YRKA does that regeneration work. So, my role as Riverkeeper is to really talk about all the things that the organisation is doing, and connect people with the river, whether they are a politician or local community group, school, or local council.
I will be the third Yarra Riverkeeper, Ian Penrose was the inaugural one, he used to live on my street, and started the Yarra Riverkeepers Association as a volunteer group, and then Andrew Kelly took over about six years ago. YRKA CEO Warwick Leeson is also from Warrandyte, he became involved a couple of years after it started. Warrandyte has got some amazing people.
WD: Why is the Yarra special to you?
CS: When I first came to Australia I found the Australian environment very different to the English countryside. When I first came to Warrandyte, doing some volunteer work with a local Landcare group, it was on Hamilton Road near where I live now, I remember seeing the river and it was so different, the colours, the smells, the trees, just the natural environment was so different, so captivating.
Nature sometimes does this — it makes you feel a different way, it makes you feel calm and peaceful and relaxed, I love being surrounded by nature, and I remember thinking at the time I really wanted to live here. I love being on the river canoeing, I do that quite a lot, and we are very fortunate in Warrandyte that we can swim in the river, which you don’t get to do farther downstream.
You can be at the waterhole down near the end of our street, you feel like you are really out in the bush in a big way, and you can really feel why the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people see the river as part of their identity.
I would love for other people to feel that way too, that they really see the river as part of their identity.
WD: What was your journey to this point?
CS: I used to work in outdoor education for schools and that was part of the journey, I used to take kids out into the bush canoeing, rafting, lots of bushwalking, some rock climbing, so I have always liked nature.
I then worked with Oxfam in southern Africa, and very soon after that, I became interested in Climate Change. I have been working in International Development for about 17 years.
I have worked in about 20 countries worldwide including lots of countries in the Pacific.
My most recent role was working with World Vision providing support to countries that are trying to adapt to Climate Change.
Locally, I have been with Warrandyte Climate Action Now (Warrandyte CAN), and Osborne Peninsular Landcare Group.
This role helps me combine all these roles that I love – working on environmental issues, working with local communities, working on solutions, and advocating for the right kinds of solutions, that are good for people and the planet.
I guess COVID has shaken things up a bit and I decided I would like to do something more local.
I think being at home has really helped me reconnect with the area and the Yarra has been somewhere that has really helped lots of people, and myself included, to get through the various lockdowns.
I have really come to appreciate it, which is why I want to do this work. We are very lucky in Warrandyte to have the river right there.
WD: What are you looking forward to in this role?
CS: I am excited to learn more about the work that is happening to protect not only the Birrarung but the other waterways that come into the Birrarung, like the Maribyrnong, there is a Riverkeeper for that river too, and a Port Phillip Bay Keeper.
In fact, in Australia, there are about seven waterway keepers and over 300 around the world, so I am really interested to learn about what are the issues that all these people have been working on with their communities.
The river to me is like a living breathing entity, the lifeblood of Melbourne, so it is a real honour to speak for the river.
Since it was announced I was the riverkeeper, people have contacted me out of the blue like a lady up in Millgrove talking about the regeneration work they are doing alongside the river, and Port Phillip Eco Centre spoke to me about the things they are doing at the mouth of the river.
I have worked a lot internationally on some of the international transboundary issues like the Mekong or the Brahmaputra that comes off the Himalayas, and now I get to work on this river, so it doesn’t feel like a job, it is something I would do anyway, so I am very excited about that.
I will be working with the government as well, there is a whole bunch of Yarra River planning controls and a Strategic Plan, including a 50-year Community Vision.
I’ll be working with Government and Melbourne Water to implement that, but also hold them to account.
As well as working with the Birrarung Council and the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Corporation.
I am really excited about working with First Nations people.
I have worked with First Nations groups overseas, so to be able to do that in Melbourne is fantastic.
I look forward to educating people in a way that they learn more about the river and the river’s history — and it is a fascinating history, especially since white man came and really changed it, diverted it, it is a very different river downstream than it used to be.
WD: What can we all do to help the Yarra?
CS: Looking after the river is everyone’s responsibility, I might have the title of the Yarra Riverkeeper, but we are all riverkeepers.
We love the river, we love where we live, and it is our responsibility to look after it.
It is a personal responsibility to treat the river with respect, not dropping litter and not polluting the river, but it is also talking to people about the issues that face the river.
I think we are very lucky in Warrandyte that we have quite a strong community that has been able to keep the character of Warrandyte alive for a long period of time.
But urban development along the river corridor is a big issue, obviously closer to the city we see more of this issue.
Until recently, Warrandyte had septic running into the river, and there are fertilisers running into the river from people’s gardens, and broader issues of Climate Change, and people becoming educated about the impacts of Climate Change on water flow — the river doesn’t have enough flow for it to be fully healthy — so people recognising that and talking to local and state government about those issues.
One thing that has been interesting during COVID was that people have been more connected to their local environment.
It is important that we don’t take these areas of natural beauty for granted.
The Yarra/Birrarung provides 70 per cent of Melbourne’s drinking water, so while people might see their river as being a brown river, they might not realise the catchment provides our drinking water, so we need to protect that.
WD: What is your favourite part of the river?
CS: I have a couple of favourite spots, at the bottom of Osborne Road, just off the path on the right-hand side, just below one of the rapids, where Jumping Creek comes out, you can swim there, depending on the river level, I love going down there.
Not far from there is a beautiful spot with a massive rock that in the morning gets all the sun on it and the whole side lights up with beautiful orange light and it is just glorious.