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Byron Shire
June 24, 2021

Recent rains welcomed, but we need a long-term strategy

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Paul Bibby

 The gentle sounds of rain on the roof have been music to the ears of many locals this week.

The light but regular showers have provided a desperately needed boost to the region’s water supply and to our parched land and all its inhabitants.

December 2019: The freshwater canals behind Pottsville Waters are drying as water has stopped flowing in from the Pottsville Wetland. The wetland is now dry. Photo supplied.

But a sizeable body of climate research indicates that such steady rains are less frequent than they used to be, and are likely to become even scarcer as time goes on.

Numerous solutions are being tossed around, from generating new water sources through desalination plants, to simply limiting supply so that people are forced to use less.

Others are calling for an entirely new approach to water use that is adapted to the new reality.

‘In Australia we’ve tended to get caught in the silver bullet cycle of trying to find a particular technological solution,’ says Associate Professor Peter Coombes, the Chair of Engineering at Southern Cross University.

‘But we’ve always needed is a mix of measures that we use all the time, not just when we’re almost out of water.’

Associate Professor Coombes believes Australia, including the Northern Rivers, could be reusing far more wastewater and storm water than it does currently.

He believes the changing climate will also require a different approach to harvesting drinking water.

‘If it’s going to be hotter and drier, you’re going to get less run-off from the catchment because the soil will absorb more water each time it rains,’ he says.

‘So you need to look more closely at capturing run-off from roofs. That might require changing the typical design of our built environment and changing the classic model of having one central source of drinking water for a town, city or region.

He also argues that there needs to be a profound shift in the culture of water use, not just an attempt to dramatically reduce water consumption through restrictions during periods of drought.

‘We need to be saving water through the good times and the tough times,’ he says.

‘It’s tempting to think that you can just build bigger storage areas, but the reality is that rivers and other catchments can only provide so much water.’

A better understanding of ground water resources was also needed.

‘There’s a lot we don’t know about ground water in this region,

‘In particular, we don’t know how the hotter, drier climate will affect these resources.

‘We also need to explore leaks in our systems, particularly in small towns where up to 20 per cent of water can be lost on the wat to its destination.’

Meanwhile, Byron Council is stepping up its water use education campaign in Mullumbimby, where water has remained at unsustainable levels despite the introduction of level 4 water restrictions.

Unlike the rest of the Byron Shire which sources its water from Rous County Council, Mullum sources its water from Laverty’s Gap – a small weir in Wilson’s Creek which requires regular rain.

The spokesperson said preparations were underway for a letterbox drop to Mullumbimby residents reminding them about the level 4 restrictions and what they mean, as well as tips on how to save water.

‘Staff will also be attending the markets at Mullumbimby and manning a stall in town to talk to people about the water situation and answer questions,’ the spokesperson said.

She said staff were also in the process of identifying some of Mullumbimby’s highest water users as well as  businesses and residences in Mullumbimby where leaks may be occurring.

‘Council is hoping to work with those individuals and groups to help them reduce their water use,’ the spokesperson said.

There were no plans to increase the policing of water restrictions, through regular ‘water patrols’.

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  1. It solution is in maintenance and provision of infrastructure. And that is where our Council has a notoriously poor track record.

  2. “The light but regular showers have provided a desperately needed boost to the region’s water supply and to our parched land and all its inhabitants.”
    Including our wildlife. Went down after the rains to the BEC’s wetland reserve next to the Buttler St Reserve, to hear the tinkling call of the Endangered Wallum Froglet. In dry seasons they burrow down under the moist roots of the paperbark wetland, and come out after rain. There would have been Wallum Froglets waiting for rain under the Paperbark Wetland that Byron Council has bulldozed along Buttler st, for the first stage of the new development road that they misrepresent as a ‘bypass’, with the frogs mangled bodies joining the also hidden Mitchells snails.
    I think we need to letterbox Byron Council on their obligations under the frogs listing as ‘Vulnerable’ under New South Wales legislation (New South Wales Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995), and listed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union of Conservation of Nature.

  3. Granny flats in every backyard, Tallowood Ridge – All this built upon the assumption that regular rainfall will occur. I’d say a halt on development is in order just as there was a halt on development until waste water could be treated.

  4. Professor Coombes has inferred that we should be looking more closely at alternative sources of potable (drinking) water including runoff from roofs. This is a welcome breakthrough. At a water conference whist I was a Councillor I compared the attitude of water authorities to drinking rainwater with attempts to stop tennagers having sex. Instead of folding our arms & saying ‘don’t do it’ we should acknowledge the reality & provide advice on how to do it safely.
    Rous Water introduced a rainwater tank subsidy about that time. Although the official line was rainwater shouldn’t be consumed, the Demand Management Co-ordinator told me that the majority of those installing tanks were doing so to catch water for drinking.
    It’s not hard to keep rainwater safe for drinking. Thousands of rural households (including mine) do. If you’re going to the trouble of installing a tank you might as well ensure the water is kept that way.

  5. A. ‘Technology exists to treat effluent to potable water quality level. There are well-established cases around the world where recycled water is used directly or indirectly for drinking purposes’

    B. ‘Managing Health and Environmental Risks (Phase 1) of the guidelines focuses on:
    large-scale treated sewage and grey-water to be used for:
    residential garden watering, car washing, toilet flushing and clothes washing;
    irrigation for urban recreational and open space, and agriculture and horticulture;
    fire protection and fire fighting systems;
    industrial uses, including cooling water; and
    grey-water treated on-site (including in high rise apartments and office blocks) for use for garden
    watering, car washing, toilet flushing and clothes washing.
    Managing Health and Environmental Risks (Phase 2) of the guidelines focuses on:
    Stormwater reuse
    Managed aquifer recharge
    Recycled water for drinking’

    C.’The use of recycled water in horticulture (urban and rural) and industry, as well as in residential areas has grown considerably over the past decade. To assist this growth and help identify new opportunitities for recycled water Horticultural Australia Limited has funded the publication of the website with the assistance of voluntary contributions from the agricultural and water industries.
    WARNING: This website is currently not maintained and access is allowed for archive purposes:
    www LINKS may not be the most current!’
    Perhaps we will see renewed or even recycled interest in this resource.


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