As the debate over the Rous County Council Future Water Project 2060 continues, recycled or ‘purified’ water has been raised as an alternative to the proposed second dam on Rocky Creek, between Dunoon and the Channon.
Rous CC Chair Keith Williams is a supporter of recycled water in principle but says the NSW state government requires a successful precedent in the state with potable re-use water before a bigger scheme can proceed. He told Echonetdaily that his ‘pet project’ is the pilot recycled water scheme at the Perradenya housing estate, in Caniaba, 10 kilometres from Lismore.
‘It’s not part of the Future Water plan, but we included it with the recommendations,’ he said.
‘The sole aim of that is to put up a project to get licenced to produce potable re-use water, to be licenced by the NSW government to do it. We’ve got a couple of academics in SCU, one who’s the new head of Environment, Science and Engineering, Professor Nick Ashbolt. He was in California rolling out recycled water there, he’s a specialist in this stuff, he’s just joined as Head of School.
‘We thought fantastic, we’ve got a resource here, we’ve got to build a recycled water plant for this development. There’s a DA commitment to that.
‘But it could just be purple pipe, the same as every other council, and we get nowhere. So what we’ve pitched to state government is to make this plant the pilot for potable reuse. We’ve got access to the experts, we’ve got water treatment engineers to produce stuff to Australian drinking water quality guidelines.
‘We can do this. We’ve had positive feedback so far, they’ve authorised us to pursue that project.’
Mr Williams explained that the Perradenya housing estate was bought by Rous County Council as a property investment 20 years ago. ‘It was designed as an eco-village with recycled water and larger blocks with koala habitat and rural views. For us it’s a golden opportunity to make progress.’
He said the plan is to build the plant bigger than normal so it can be used as a teaching area for SCU as well.
‘We’ll build it so you can plug in and plug out different types of units, so we can trial different technology. A pilot plant for recycled water.
‘That’s my pet project out of this, but we couldn’t achieve it in the Future Water plan. We just can’t cost it,’ said Mr Williams.
Richard Swinton is a Clunes resident with a keen interest in the local water debate. His history includes experience as an irrigation farmer in southern NSW, near Deniliquin, then as an irrigation officer with NSW Agriculture, then water policy officer on the north coast.
He holds a Masters degree in Agriculture and Rural Development, and has also been involved with Rous Water’s planning for the future, but holds serious reservations about the underlying philosophy of growth as a ‘given’ in such planning, with future population increase assumed and growth remaining the driver of the economic system.
‘My position is that a dam is the last thing we want to have to do, especially one that has social and heritage issues,’ said Mr Swinton.
‘If future climate change drives major storms followed by longer dry spells – a CSIRO prediction at one stage – then increased storage is one answer. But it doesn’t necessarily mean another dam. It could be many more tanks.’
Tanks for everything
Mr Swinton is walking the talk with his own residential water system.
‘We have 30,000 litres of tank here and in the last seven years since we installed them we’ve only had to turn on the town water supply a total of about five months!
‘We supply the whole house from the tanks despite the recommendation that only laundries and loos should be connected,’ he said.
‘I lived on farms for thirty years where we were totally responsible for our own supply (and disposal) of water, and I can’t recall any problems health wise. We filter the drinking water through a micro fine filter and have had no issues.’
Mr Swinton said he’s checked his water quality at the lab and found it fine, and says advice to limit water to secondary use works against acceptance of tank use.
‘If many people installed such tanks, it would mean that the demand on Rocky Creek dam would be much lower. The idea should be that you run on your tank as long as you can and leave the water in the dam where it is available during a dry spell,’ he said.
‘Another issue is that in Clunes, we are still using septic tanks and bringing in town water unrestricted. This can lead to environmental problems of groundwater contamination and swampy backyards.
‘Some councils have a policy of no town water supply to any property which doesn’t have sewerage, but it’s in the wet periods that we need to be sparing with our water use, not the dry.
‘My house uses only the water that falls on the block as rain, so apart from time shifting it a bit, the application rates are more “natural” so the soil profiles can cope better.’
Mr Swinton said water bills could be used as a way of encouraging water efficiency.
‘The first tier could be based on an affordable price with an allocation based on numbers of bedrooms and a data-based ‘reasonable’ efficient water usage,’ he suggested.
‘Maybe there could be an allowance for dam level as well – lots of water available so ease the limits – but this might discourage the development of a habit of efficient water use. The second and further tiers would be significantly higher, not just a token increase.
‘The idea is to make people think, “Do i really want to hose down the drive every day?” Anyway, Rous would probably need the extra cash flow since sales of water would be down.’
Mr Swinton thinks that although recycled water is a ‘political minefield’ in Australia, other countries are showing the way.
‘Singapore has a tourist industry based on its “New Water” recycled water plant, but governments here have chickened out of encouraging a massive source of water right under the consumers noses. If other countries encourage such schemes, why not us?’ he said.
‘Are we so namby pamby that we can’t cope with the idea of reusing water? It might help if people thought about the fact that every drop of water you drink has most likely been through the gut of dinosaurs and everything else right up to today.
‘Modern treatment plants are fail safe, so they can be trusted. Government might insist that the recycled water be put back into the dam to ‘mature’, but why? It’s cleaner than the treated dam water!
‘If it was necessary, then surely the almost-unused pipeline from the lower Wilsons River could do dual duty and return recycled water to the dam?’
Mr Swinton said that the ‘Toowoomba problem’ could be avoided by beginning a targeted education program long before commitment.
‘Send a delegation to Singapore including a few doubters, and work hard with developers and estate agents to show them it’s a benefit, not a problem.
‘It’s up to citizens and their representatives on council to fight the conservative bureaucrats in Sydney.’
Mr Swinton added a final suggestion.
‘If we were to raise the Rocky Creek dam wall, the water planning rules are that we have to install a bypass to enable environmental flows downstream. Why not use recycled water to develop a flow below the dam?’
Diving into further research
Water Research Australia is a national organisation that has studied many of the issues around recycled water in depth. You can read Stuart Khan and Amos Branch’s detailed study of what Australia can learn from overseas experience of potable water reuse here.
Rous County Council welcomes public submissions on the Future Water Project 2060 until 12 August 2020. You can explore a virtual version of what is being proposed here.