Desal insanity will cripple us (NOV 2010)

Recent events make this report topical for the present


Desal insanity will cripple us

Tugun desal plant

Desal plants are not the way forward says Miranda Devine. Source: The Courier-Mail

SERIOUSLY, which genius decided to build a desalination plant to suck water from the ocean – a mere 2.5km from a sewage outlet?

And now we are surprised by reports there is E coli – the disgusting bacteria that warns of fecal contamination – present in Sydney’s drinking water.

After human civilisation finally achieved the 19th-century dream of clean water delivered to our taps, delivering us from chronic gastroenteritis and cholera epidemics and helping us live longer, it has come to this.

We won’t build dams because of misplaced environmental concerns, so instead we are reduced to drinking our own sewage. Welcome to the absurdity of Australia’s headlong rush into desalination, with Melbourne’s

$3 billion mammoth Wonthaggi plant due to open next year, just as the skies open, and another brand new plant on the Gold Coast remains mothballed for – you wont believe it – rust!

As the rain pours down, our inadequate dams refill and a record wet summer beckons, electricity-guzzling white elephants on our coasts stand as monuments to the cowardice and incompetence of state Labor governments and their lily-livered oppositions.

If our governments are so serious about reducing carbon emissions,

they need to acknowledge a dam is the lowest carbon solution. Desalination plants produce water so energy-intensive that it is called “bottled electricity”.

The Water Services Association of Australia has estimated that a desalination plant burns enough electricity to power an extra computer or fridge in every house in Sydney and Melbourne.

The cost of running these desalination plants as electricity prices continue to soar is only going to force up the price of drinking water. In Melbourne and Sydney, water prices are tipped to rise by more than 30 per cent on average, to pay for the new technology.

Desalinated water uses up to 21 times more electricity than dam water and costs four times more, since electricity accounts for 60 per cent of the running cost of a desal plant.

Once built and filled, dams provide cheap, safe, low-emission water. They are the greenest solution of all. Yet “dam” has become a four-letter word in green circles, despite the fact surveys by the Australian Water Association show dams to be the most popular water source preferred by a majority of people, 64 per cent.

During the drought just finished it should have become obvious that dams built 50 years ago to hold eight years’ water – the length of a bad drought – for every resident were now inadequate for a population that had more than doubled.

BUT no, state governments decided to go for the sexy solution – desalination plants, with all the costs and risks we now see.

NSW Premier Kristina Keneally has been in frantic damage control since the Sunday Telegraph reported this week that desalinated water failed to meet the Australian guidelines for drinking water.

It was an error in its report, not in the water, said Sydney Water, hastily changing the online version.

However, the fact remains that sea water sucked in by the 10-month-old,

$2 billion Kurnell desalination plant south of Sydney contains 390 times the amount of E coli organisms per

100ml as found in the Warragamba Dam, which provides most of Sydney’s water, and is almost completely free of the bacteria.

Infectious disease specialists have now warned that viruses transmitted in fecal material could survive sewage treatment processes, and all that is between us and calamity is human error.

Why would we trust the NSW Government, or the Federal Government, for that matter, which have brought us so many stuff-ups in other vital areas, to deliver safe drinking water?

Unscientific or not, people in Sydney are naturally distrustful, with letters to newspapers already complaining about tap water that is a milky white colour and tastes putrid.

Sydney hasn’t built a new dam since 1976, yet projections are for an extra million residents needing showers and drinking water in the next 15 years.

The city’s great dam, Warragamba, was built in response to the 1940s drought by our practical forebears who believed in creating infrastructure for the future rather than in the dark voodoo of global warming.

IN contrast, today the Government steals water from the farmers of the Murray-Darling Basin and charges them for rain that falls out of the sky into the dams they had the foresight to build on their own land.

The reason water was so scarce in the recent drought was not because of climate change – it was because our dams simply aren’t big enough for a growing population. D’uh.

Yet green-fearing governments keep squibbing the tough decisions, afraid of unleashing another Franklin Dam campaign and creating a legion of new Bob Browns. Last year the Federal Government lost its nerve on one of the last dams in the country; and the then federal environment minister, Peter Garrett, vetoed Queensland’s Traveston dam to save a few turtles.

In 2002, then NSW premier Bob Carr locked up land that had been set aside over 40 years for the planned Welcome Reef Dam on the Shoalhaven River to Sydney’s south. He claimed it would be an environmental disaster that would take a decade to fill, even though the engineer who wrote the original environmental impact study says

there is only a 10 per cent chance it would not fill to its minimum level within four months.

Welcome Reef would have cost $1.8 billion. But the Kurnell desalination plant cost more, with environmental costs far greater than any dam, benefits far less, and a finite lifespan.

Victoria has had its wettest year since 1992, with some areas receiving the entire October rainfall in just one day. NSW has had its wettest winter since 2005, with October delivering record rainfall to some areas.

The dams in both states are filling up already. The Sydney Catchment Authority reports dam supplies are at 58.5 per cent. The Tallowa reservoir – near where the Welcome Reef dam was supposed to be – is full. Melbourne Water says its supplies have filled to

51 per cent with some smaller reservoirs at Maroondah and O’Shannassy, Sugarloaf and the Upper Yarra at or close to full.

The Bureau of Meteorology has forecast a wetter-than-average

summer across much of eastern Australia as the cyclical La Nina effect takes hold.

It would have been the perfect time to fill a new dam – if we had one.

Taxpayers would be content if only governments would provide adequate water, energy, sewage treatment and roads as their core functions. Forget bank bashing, carbon trading schemes, free laptops and the $43 billion NBN broadband rollout. Just get the boring basics right.


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