The inclusion of controversial desalination plants in the Tweed, Byron and Ballina shires alongside other high-cost options for the northern rivers’ future water security, has drawn sharp criticism from a Lismore councillor.
Billions of dollars could be wasted to make drinking-quality water, which will then be used to flush toilets and wash clothes, which just doesn’t make sense, according to Lismore Greens Cr Vanessa Ekins.
Cr Ekins believes smarter and cheaper options must be included on the shortlist currently being drafted by regional water supply authority, Rous Water, particularly given the cost of the Tugun and Sydney desalination plants which have been widely labelled ‘white elephants’.
The authority’s project reference group, made up of stakeholders and community members to assist Rous develop a long-term strategic water strategy for the northern rivers region, met with constituent council and staff members from Ballina, Byron, Lismore and Richmond Valley on Friday to assess the list.
‘What really shocked me was the reliance on heavy infrastructure options including desalination plants at Pottsville, Tyagarah and South Ballina, which would be a massive investment,’ Cr Ekins said.
‘I think the whole mindset with which we’re looking at this capital-intensive centralised supply needs to change.
‘Every single option included huge infrastructure investments, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, to collect water, pump water, process water to make it drinking quality and redistribute it.’
Cr Ekins believes more on-site water collection would better accommodate Rous Water’s own stated aims for the strategy which are to ‘maximise the use of existing water supplies; reduce demand for water through demand management measures; consider alternative water supplies; and assess the viability of the proposed Dunoon Dam’.
‘About 80 per cent of all our future usage is residential, so only 20 per cent is for industry, schools, universities etc and when you break down that water use, most of that 80 per cent is for the toilet and the laundry,’ Cr Ekins said.
‘We’re looking at this supply/demand curve that says we’re not going to have enough water for the needs of the estimated population in 2060, but what we’re talking about is providing drinking water for flushing toilets and laundries.
‘Why are we going to spend all this money making drinking quality water and then we’re going to use it flush our toilets and do our laundry? It doesn’t make sense. We should be looking at solutions to provide fit-for-purpose water.
‘We only need two per cent of household water for drinking and cooking, and a percentage for showering, but we don’t need it that clean for toilets and laundry use.’
While the authority’s current shortlist includes the high-cost infrastructure options of desalination plants, groundwater harvesting, connection with Toonumbar Dam and the proposed Dunoon Dam, Cr Ekins said stormwater and wastewater re-use options could be significantly cheaper if on-site collection options were considered instead of, or in conjunction with, the current central collection and redistribution options.
‘The stormwater proposal was a big centralised collection point, like the catchment area at Southern Cross University, where we build a new pipe and pump it to Howards Grass where the Lismore source is, then pump it at a huge expense up to Rocky Creek Dam then treat it and redistribute it,’ Cr Ekins said.
‘So I thought hang on, we’re talking about rainfall on roofs, why don’t we collect it off the roof and plug it straight into the toilet or laundry? Surely stormwater collection doesn’t have to involve all this piping and pumping?’
Cr Ekins also questioned the public’s willingness to support groundwater harvesting options with the threat of pollution from coal seam gas production and the negative effect on the ecosystem of draining the water table in times of drought.