The Alexandra canal could have been Sydney’s Little Venice. Photo: Supplied

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By Georgia Clark

Sydney’s historic Alexandra Canal has been repurposed as a sustainable depot for council staff powered entirely by industrial-sized renewable batteries, but the canal’s legacy of pollution has been swept under the carpet.

The canal, once at the centre of a grand plan to create a European-style canal system in the heart of Sydney, is part of the city’s larger tributary and like most of its counterparts, has, since the 19th century, been riddled with sewerage and industry waste.

The Alexandria canal has a vast inner city catchment area covering the suburbs of Alexandria, Rosebery, Erskineville, Beaconsfield, Zetland, Waterloo, Redfern, Newtown, Surry Hills and Moore Park.

The original proposal for the canal was to create a waterway stretching from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour large enough to transport barges for coal, road building and building materials more cheaply than could be done by rail.

The heritage canal is now at the centre of plans to repurpose the foreshore as a council depot. City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore launched the new depot last week, which is powered by 1600 solar panels and a battery capable of storing 500-kilowatt hours of  energy, but there was little talk of the decades of pollution plaguing the canal nearby.

Dredging commenced in 1887 and continued until around 1900, with the work being done mainly by unemployed workers engaged in relief work as a result of the 1890s depression..

The new depot at 67C Bourke Road, Alexandria replaces three existing depots based in Zetland, Redfern and Alexandria.

The Lord Mayor said that the history of the area is long and varied, initially as a salt marsh and subsequently as a navigable channel and today, with the land being used as an industrial area.

“While the working wharves of the 1940s have long since disappeared, the canal is now central to a $40m naturalisation project by Sydney Water, and the industrial area surrounding the canal, now hosts new forms of business and enterprise, such as high tech industry, creative spaces and retail, distribution facilities and of course our new state-of-the-art depot,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore said.

In the 19th century pollution in the canal became so serious that the NSW Government was forced to introduce legislation to ban pollutants from entering the water, but this was to no avail, with many industries setting up shop and continuing to empty waste into the canal.

The canal was listed for refurbishment by the South Sydney Council in 1997 as a response to large parts of the area being transformed from industrial to residential use.

Sydney Water launched a $4 million cleanup a year later but this plan was soon abandoned,

The South Sydney Redevelopment Corporation, a body created to oversee Green Square, then granted students from the University  of New South Wales $5,000 to create designs that would transform the canal into a “stunning water and green recreational corridor”.

By 1999 a $300 million plan was announced that would place 25,000 residents, cafes and boating facilities along the canal to create the “Venice of Sydney”.

By 2008, due to costs and difficulties with the remediation of the waterways and land sites the plans were placed in the too hard basket.

One recent grasp to keep the canal dreams alive came in 2011 there were calls for coal seam gas exploration to be carried out on the adjacent industrial land.

Today, the water continues to be riddled with pollution and the EPA has erected signs warning locals of the severity of the contamination prohibiting both fishing and disturbance of sediments in the canal.

A management order is currently in place with Sydney Water that requires sediments to not be disturbed, with any work potentially disturbing such sediments requiring Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) approval, according to the EPA.

The depot’s opening has been touted as a win for the City of Sydney’s plans to make half of the city’s energy renewable, with the depot marking the first time solar energy is combined with large-scale batteries.

“Our new depot has the facilities to host 150 City staff and 40 vehicles, previously dispersed in depots on Marian Street in Redfern, Epsom Road in Zetland and Gerard Street in Alexandria,” the Lord Mayor said.

“This depot helps deliver on our sustainability commitments, with 1663 solar panels and a huge Tesla battery powering the whole site.”

“It is a truly sustainable depot – a five green star building, meeting our Sustainable Sydney 2030 aims with its environmental credentials and modern amenities,”

The canal is just one of Sydney’s sullied waterways at the heart of Sydney Water’s $40 million naturalisation project which aims to replenish local waterways.

But it’s not clear how much of this money will go into restoring Alexandra Canal to its former health, despite significant regeneration work being undertaken on its shores.

One day the dream of Sydney’s “Venice”may come alive, but in the meantime let the sunshine on the Bourke Road depot.