Premiers need to stop tilting at windmills and back effective water plans
Recycled water, not desalination, is an answer to our shortages, writes Kenneth Davidson.
MELBURNIANS are going to pay a heavy price for their reluctance to drink recycled water. It beats me: the same people who would turn up their nose at recycled water in their home town willingly travel to London and other European cities where the water that comes out of the taps in their expensive hotel rooms includes recycled sewage.
The only reasons the Labor governments of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland have foreshadowed expenditure of some $5.3 billion on desalination plants are their irrational fear that the existing water storages will dry up completely and their belief that Toowoomba's reaction to the 2006 referendum on recycling — an overwhelming victory for those opposed, despite bipartisan support for the move — reflects the attitude of the population at large.
It is possible that existing storages could run dry if drought persists and we insist on wasting potable water. But only 20 per cent of water consumption needs to be potable: the water we use to drink, cook and wash in. The other 80 per cent — which we use in the laundry, to flush toilets, water the garden and wash the car — doesn't.
The rainfall on greater Melbourne is seven times our present wasteful consumption in an average year and three times average consumption in the drought conditions experienced recently.
If we understand both these points, it becomes clear that there isn't a shortage of water but a problem with how we use it. This flies in the face of the crazy policies being foisted on the electorate by state premiers.
By using a judicious system of taxes and subsidies, households and businesses can be persuaded to recycle grey water, supplemented by tanks to harvest rainwater. Harvesting minimises stormwater run-off, which generates most of the pollution in the Yarra and Port Phillip.
Black water from toilet flushing can be recycled for the watering of parks, street trees and sports fields through the introduction of sewer mines, built on sewer mains around the city. Production of black water can be avoided by the introduction of dry composting toilets, which are now being installed in northern Europe.
If climate change led to existing water storages drying up despite an 80 per cent cut in consumption of reticulated potable water, as per the above reforms, a desalination plant would not save Victoria. The remnant population would be in retreat past Tasmania to the poles.
It is more likely that global warming will be associated with extreme weather events, including violent storms and flooding such as that seen in Gippsland and Newcastle recently. According to Melbourne Water chief executive Rob Skinner, the desalination plant could be forced to shut down within 10 years if Melbourne's water storages fill. Is Victoria so profligate that it can write off $3.1 billion in spending on infrastructure that produces water at a cost six to seven times that from existing storages?
Then there are the environmental costs. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), the combined consumption of electricity to operate the desal plant and pump water from Wonthaggi to Melbourne will generate 946,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually if the electricity comes from brown coal. This is equivalent to putting another 240,000 cars on Melbourne's roads.
Victoria's baseload generating capacity is already up against supply constraints during peak demand, thanks to the proliferation of air-conditioners in poorly designed and insulated houses permitted by bad planning regulations.
The Bracks Government sidesteps the environmental issue, claiming the desal plant will be carbon-neutral because the Government will offset its emissions by building wind farms. According to the ACF, to balance the emissions would require an additional 150 turbines — doubling the state's existing wind farm capacity.
If Australia is to meet its share of global greenhouse gas targets by 2050 (to prevent warming of 2 degrees over pre-industrial levels and avoid the tipping point where warming becomes uncontrollable), it will have to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent. Those who think that business-as-usual growth can be sustained by carbon offsets are living in a dream world or have no concern for the future.
What is needed is a batsqueak of political courage to confront the electorate with the real choices. The Labor premiers could do worse than join Kevin Rudd, who is proposing a $500 subsidy for households to install water tanks or grey-water recycling.
It's not enough, but at least it is not taking us backwards like Steve Bracks, who has promised to overhaul Victoria's green building rules by scrapping the requirement for either tanks or solar panels in new homes.
Kenneth Davidson is a senior columnist.
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