What is a Waterway?

I just completed a longish walk today in sector B, documenting all the waterways between the southern end of Stanwell Park and Clifton.  It was raining so all the creeks and minor watercourses were running.  There were even small waterfalls beneath the Sea Cliff Bridge.  This experience suggests the need to consider how we define a waterway.

We are deliberately vague.  We adopt a circular definition.  A waterway is whatever we regard as a waterway.  Most obviously a waterway is a permanent creek.  It will appear as lagoon on a beach.  It will wind away from the coast in a visible creek-like manner.  While these iconic waterways are fairly common, in actually walking a sector we discover all manner of more uncertain waterways – minor tributaries flowing into larger creeks, drains beneath railway lines, trickles of water down rocky cliffs.  Are these also waterways?  Do they also deserve to be numbered, explored and documented fully?  The problem here is in attempting to combine both a humanly legible conception of a waterway and a more nuanced, accurate and open ended one.

Not everything appears as a waterway, but in fact everything within a particular catchment area is at least potentially a waterway.  The smallest dripping leaf is a waterway.  Catchment areas are fields, not lines, yet we are searching for lines – both obvious and neglected ones.  For my purposes, I will focus on the more apparent waterways.  Where these appear minor, I will deal with them in groups as a collection.  Rather than obtaining a distinct number they will be designated via the overall collection number plus a unique alphabetical suffix ( I am hoping that I will not find more than 26 minor waterways in a group, but who knows).  Particularly minor waterways will not be recorded at all.  Today, for instance, I encountered a number of long retaining walls with many small drainage holes.  Each of these holes could be regarded as a distinct watercourse, but this is to veer too far from our common sense understanding of the term.  It is to simply make the point, once again, that catchment areas are fields, not lines – nonetheless it is lines that concern us.

These intermittently water-filled lines are discontinuous, hybrid things – in places scribbling down to the sea and at other times focused into  concrete spillways and drains. Roads and railway lines transect the waterways.  Industrial and suburban development renders them as repressed things, hidden away out of view.  Yet despite this, water must somehow find a way down from the escarpment to the sea.  In order to control this flow waterways are abstracted and materially reconstructed.  Portions of them are rendered as tunnels, pipes and drains.  When this happens there is no longer such confusion about what is and what is not a waterway.  These artificial waterways are exclusively waterways.  Linear, tubular, constructed of steel, concrete and brick, they are oriented entirely towards directing water efficiently towards the sea.

We willingly explore all manner of waterway.  We do not privilege the natural or disparage the artificial.  We recognise that every waterway is an assemblage.  All we request is that we can follow a waterway – that we can pass along or beside it.  We leave it to the next generation of WOTI practitioners to crawl and squirm through more inhospitable lines.

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