Water wise, dollar dumb
Date February 21, 2013 201 reading now
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SYDNEY WATER has abandoned a decade-long push for Sydneysiders to cut their usage because pursuing more efficiencies would drive up bills.
Critics say the move is short-sighted and is designed to preserve corporate profits, maximise state government dividends and make the Kurnell desalination plant appear viable.
Water saving programs were cut as a ‘backdoor way to drive up water usage and increase dividends to Treasury’.
After years of successfully promoting a culture of water efficiency – the former premier Morris Iemma described water as “liquid gold” in 2007 – the utility has now dumped programs for schools, businesses and households and has abandoned large-scale recycling schemes.
Illustration: Cathy Wilcox
The utility’s latest water efficiency report says consumption in Sydney is at historic lows, and “after more than a decade of sustained effort, the biggest gains in water savings are already made”.
Sydney Water says that continuing to drive down water consumption would cost it more than the value of the water saved, which would lead to an increase in bills.
“There is now little scope for the broad-scale water efficiency programs … to continue to produce additional water savings cost-effectively,” the report said.
The backflip comes despite dire warnings in 2003, when the then premier Bob Carr said water restrictions could become a permanent way of life. He called on Sydneysiders to reconsider their love of thirsty European-style gardens.
Latest figures show per capita use in the Sydney Water catchment, which includes the Illawarra and Blue Mountains, was 297 litres of water a day – more than meeting Sydney Water’s target.
Sydney Water is now forecasting in its corporate planning documents that overall consumption for the Sydney catchment will increase from 487 to 491 gigalitres over the next three years. Warragamba Dam is this month at 95 per cent capacity.
Sydney Water spending on water efficiency programs fell from $30.5 million five years ago to $1.5 million last financial year.
Programs scrapped over the past two years include the Every Drop Counts program in schools, the rainwater tank rebate and water-saving kits. Large water-recycling schemes will be replaced by smaller, local projects.
Programs still in place include subsidised WaterFix and toilet replacement services for customers experiencing financial hardship.
VIDEO: Saving water in the city
Critics have long claimed that the corporatised Sydney Water makes money from selling water, which conflicts with environmental considerations and the need to manage water use.
The utility expects a $496 million pre-tax profit this financial year. About $232 million will be paid to the government as a dividend.
A City of Sydney council draft report said Sydney Water believed declining water use would drive up bills “to compensate for the loss of revenue”. It described the position as “regulatory failure”. Sydney Water denied the claim.
Labor’s water spokesman, Walt Secord, said water saving programs were cut as a “backdoor way to drive up water usage and increase dividends to Treasury”.
The Greens MP John Kaye said scrapping water efficiency programs would increase demand and “help disguise the folly of Sydney’s $2 billion desalination plant”, which only operates when dam levels fall below 70 per cent.
Water-saving programs were sacrificed “to ensure that the desalination plant is turned back on as soon as possible”, Mr Kaye said.
Households will pay $193 million this financial year to keep the plant in shutdown mode. That cost would rise to about $250 million if it was operating.
A spokeswoman for the Minister for Finance and Services, Greg Pearce, denied the claim and said running programs that were not cost-effective “would be an irresponsible investment by Sydney Water”.
The NSW manager of the Save Water Alliance, Robert Bell, said the water conservation message should be kept alive, “independent of the economic argument”.
“[It] has taken a lot of resources to convince the community that there is high value in conserving the resource,” he said. ”People quickly forget.”
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/water-issues/water-wise-dollar-dumb-20130220-2erql.html#ixzz2LTvNmtVm