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No More Excuses

09, August 2006

ONCE upon a time, when there was drought, communities could only dance or pray in the hope that it would rain. That was before desalination plants were invented.

The first water supply service in southeast Queensland involved private operators carrying barrelled water in the back of carts. In Ipswich, the first public water supply was created when a spring was bricked and slabbed in 1861.

In 1892 the first reticulated water system was built from a pumping station at Mt Crosby.

During the 1900s dams were built to shore up supply. Somerset Dam was completed in 1959, North Pine in 1976 and Wivenhoe in 1985.

There are plans to build more dams including the Mary River Traveston Dam. But more sophisticated options are now also available. According to the Australian Water Association, up to half of southeast Queensland's water needs could be met through recycling.

We also have the technology to create drinking water on a large scale from seawater through desalination.

Recycling enables communities to reuse water that fell before the drought and, of course, a desalination plant manufactures fresh water whether it rains or not.

Given we are a rich society, living beside the sea with engineers willing and able to build these water factories, how can Premier Peter Beattie claim there is a water crisis?

Malcolm Turnbull, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, recently told a gathering at the Brisbane Institute that: In the final analysis we can desalinate anywhere on the coast for a cost of between $1 and $1.50 a kilolitre at the factory gate – not much more than the retail price in Sydney.

Recycled drinking water should be a bit cheaper because less energy is used in its production. But it may cost $1 a kilolitre to distribute.

The Australian Water Association has suggested an all-up cost for recycled water for the southeast of about $1.50 a kilolitre and desalinated water at about $2 a kilolitre.

The average Brisbane household uses 268 litres a person each day, so the average household could be paying $196 a person a year for their household water needs at $2 a kilolitre. That's less than many women spend at the hairdresser and less than my electricity bill last winter.

There is a Regional Drought Strategy Contingency Supply Plan for southeast Queensland and it includes a Gold Coast regional desalination plant and a recycled water substitution to industries plan. There is no plan for recycled drinking water except as a last resort.

The last resort could apparently be easily implemented once the Western Corridor Recycled Water Scheme, which will take recycled water from Brisbane to the Tarong and Swanbank power stations, is in place.

The pipeline to Swanbank is due for completion in July 2007 and the desalination plant in June 2008 – that's just before we are due to run out of water completely if it doesn't rain this summer. But surely both projects can be fast-tracked?

Caboolture already has its own water recycling plant and it was built in just nine months, seven years ago, and produces nine megalitres of water a day. That's 25 per cent of Caboolture's total water needs.

But the people of Caboolture don't have the privilege of drinking the recycled water, not because the water doesn't taste OK, but because a percentage of local residents oppose the concept of drinking recycled water. We've all heard that 62 per cent of Toowoomba's residents voted against drinking recycled water. But I'm still trying to work out why Beattie promised $23 million for water recycling in Toowoomba, but didn't publicly back the plan until just a few days before the referendum which was forced on the local council by the Federal Government.

Our dams may be in a catchment where it hasn't rained for some time, but this is no excuse for a water crisis. Like the health crisis, the water crisis is a creation of government and can be fixed, but it will require the fast-tracking of some proven technologies.

We don't have time for a referendum on recycling. It is simply time the State Government got on with the job of building the necessary infrastructure to avert a real water crisis – whether it rains or not.

By Jennifer Marohasy, AEF Director and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

Published in The Courier Mail

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