Friday, December 14, 2007

Water in Victoria

Below is an Article from The Age newspaper today outlining the problem with the current water plan.


Utilities are wasting our precious water

ACCORDING to conventional wisdom, Victoria's government-owned or regulated institutions are frantically conserving water for a growing economy in a record drought.

The canard concludes that we need a $3.1 billion desalination plant.

In reality, Victorians are saving lots of water but the responsible utilities waste it faster.

The desalination plant is intended to serve Melbourne but its Wonthaggi location demands an extraordinary 85-kilometre pumping system to deliver the water.

The plant will consume enough electricity to run a town and produce an estimated 1 million tonnes of atmospheric carbon each year. It will be greenwashed by robbing every iota of wind energy now produced in Victoria.

The desalination plant is designed to produce 150 gigalitres — 150 billion litres — of drinking water each year. It will extract about 400 gigalitres of sea water and return about 250 gigalitres in a plume of concentrated brine. Each day the plant will also produce about three semi-trailer loads of contaminated salt for burial.

Consumers will foot the bill, but the plant's public institutional proponents are not compelled to reciprocate with innovation or accountability. Discarded water volumes could potentially double planned water augmentation without going near a desalination plant.

For example, 116 gigalitres of drinking water is used to cool Latrobe Valley electricity generators each year, when sea water or air coolers could provide alternative solutions.

The Melbourne Water Corporation sends almost 300 gigalitres of partially treated waste water into Bass Strait each year even though the water could be recycled for Melbourne's industry belts. Discarding this treated water is akin to sending all of Melbourne's bottles, cans, papers and cardboard to landfill instead of recycling them.

It is thinking that belongs to the era when the Yarra was a sewer and the Maribyrnong River flowed red beyond the meatworks.

In Melbourne, rainfall run-off is channelled straight into the Yarra and Port Phillip Bay, wasting more than 200 gigalitres each year.

Melbourne's water retailers rigorously enforce household water restrictions, yet the water companies themselves are losing nearly 50 gigalitres of drinking water each year. Last year, Yarra Valley Water lost about 22 gigalitres but still advertises itself in a monopoly market.

In Bendigo, the state education office recently wasted 2½ million litres of water from a leaking pipe. This equalled nearly 10% of daily water consumption for Bendigo and surrounding townships.

Meanwhile, ordinary consumers shower with buckets while their gardens wilt and water prices rise.

An elderly Sydney gardener is alleged to have been killed recently in the first case of "water rage". Shocking, but hardly surprising, because the tension is all being focused on consumers.

Some influential water industry leaders are now predicting that the proposed desalination plant and the new Goulburn Valley pipeline will leave Melbourne awash with expensive drinking water.

Even Victoria's utilities regulator has flagged the potential glut. The Essential Services Commission recently questioned a proposal to introduce a "fourth tier" pricing escalation, saying "such a strong disincentive to use water may be questioned".

The desalination plant will be built as a public-private partnership and its owners will pay about a third more interest on their loans compared with government borrowings. The cost of operation and investment return could reach $500 million a year, in a contract that would typically bind taxpayers for 30 years or more.

Such contracts usually operate on a take-or-pay basis. The owners might even demand compensation if water consumption is reduced by government strategies, and this will see new and spurious justifications for buying water.

Desalination costs will rise as arid nations compete for expertise, and as Victoria fights a bidding war with the oil kingdoms of the Middle East. Foreign water corporations will be drooling at the prospect.

The desalination decision was made by former State Government leaders apparently seduced by big spending rather than big thinking around demand management.

Ironically, Australians are highly amenable to the cultural shifts demanded by the climate crisis. A recent Lowy Institute survey showed that 92% of Australians want to see the climate change tackled seriously and almost 70% of Australians are accepting of the necessary investment. If provided with knowledge rather than propaganda, Victorians are capable of embracing a strategy that better captures rainfall, reduces squandering by utilities and provides industry with an option to use recycled water.

In the interim, Victorians should take a leisurely drive to Wonthaggi and prepare for the delight of a lifetime as they crest the gentle hill at Kilcunda. Here, the drab grazing land gives way to a seascape that is simply glorious. From 2009 that scene will be violated by bulldozers building a de facto carbon factory.

It is an ecological blasphemy that will plague us for a lifetime.

Tony Cutcliffe is a director of policy forum and consultancy The Eureka Project.