Saturday, July 29, 2006

How to Run a Successful Scare Campaign

It has been well observed that Toowoomba’s (failed) poll will provide many lessons for future planned potable water recycling schemes in Australia. There will be lessons to learn for both pro- and anti- recycling campaigners. I fully intend to investigate the lessons to be learned by both sides.

First up, I hereby offer this handy guide to running future successful scare campaigns. I expect to see it well utilised in other major cities in the coming months.

1. Exploit the “Yuck Factor” for all its worth

You will go into this campaign with a great natural head-start. All humans have a negative instinctive and emotional response to the concept of water being used in close human contact more than once. Unless people have had a good reason to carefully consider the issue and the capabilities of modern water treatment technology, emotional responses will prevail. This will come naturally for most people, but you can encourage this natural “yuck factor” by drawing on all opportunities to link recycled water with human excrement.

2. Agree on a catchy slogan

A catchy slogan is worth more than any fact. You don’t have to think too hard about this one since you can always recycle slogans from overseas. ‘Toilet-to-Tap’ is a tried and tested standard and should not be overlooked. ‘WEEcycled POOrified Sewage Water’ is perhaps less sophisticated, but can be effective for the right demographic and may appeal to children under the age of nine. If you can work terms relating to human excrement into the name of your town or city, then you are truly on a winner.

3. Remember, it’s not ‘water’, it’s ‘sewage’ (or sewerage)

Smarmy scientists and politicians may claim that water should be judged by its quality, rather than its history. You should seek to remind them of the well known scientific adage: ‘once sewage, always sewage’. It doesn’t matter how much water (sewage) is purified, it has a tainted past from which it can never be redeemed. Homeopathy is a well-established science in our community and this fact can be conveniently exploited. It means that many people will understand that water has a ‘molecular memory’ and will forever be tarnished by that with which it has previously been in contact.

People who use the term ‘water’ rather than ‘sewage’ are simply trying to sanitise the issue and these propaganda merchants should be quickly exposed.

4. Use suggestive images

A picture is worth a thousand clichés. Invest about 10 seconds on Google Images to find a few good shots of sewage being treated by conventional treatment processes. Useful keywords to try are ‘activated sludge’ or just simply ‘sludge’. Present your images with a caption like “Is This Our Future Water Source?”

An image of a dog drinking from a toilet bowl, or a glass of water placed in the general vicinity of toilet, is worth two thousand clichés. A graphic suggesting a direct connection between a toilet and a bathroom tap is worth three thousand. A pseudo-medical image of a foetus inside a womb is priceless.

5. Refuse to be a lab rat

Insist that your community should not be the ‘lab rats’ for the rest of the country (‘guinea pigs’ is a possible alternative, but may be too cute).

No two towns or cities are identical and this means that no two water management schemes will be identical. Obviously, if no existing scheme is identical to the one planned for your town, then you are being asked to be the subject of a radical and dangerous experiment.

Differences to look for include the precise treatment process (it doesn’t matter if yours is more comprehensive), precise proportions of ‘sewage water’ to be mixed with ‘pristine natural water’, and whether a scheme is generally considered to be ‘planned’ or ‘unplanned’ (remember that ‘unplanned’ is usually safer). If all of these fail (which is highly unlikely), demand details of the likely colour schemes for the plant office.

6. Defend children and future generations

Are children and future generations being consulted? If not, why not? It is your responsibility to assume the role of defender of those ‘without a voice’. Who knows what effects purified water may have on the fragile immune systems of children and unborn foetuses? Tell those monsters and their cronies that they have no right to harm your family!!! How dare these evil-doers even consider harming children!?

7. Be prepared to misrepresent science

It is perfectly honest, ethical and acceptable to intentionally misrepresent science when there is ‘a greater good’ at stake. Effective strategies include quoting facts out of context and careful juxtaposition to suggest a relationship between unrelated facts.

It is well established that raw sewage contains all sorts of nasty chemicals and microbial organisms. Furthermore, conventionally treated sewage processes are not 100 per cent effective at removing trace concentrations of all chemicals. People who drink poorly treated sewage get sick and some die!! This fact can be used to provide conclusive evidence that any recycled water is a deadly cocktail.

Even reports that claim to provide evidence that recycled water can be just as safe as any other source can be misrepresented by careful selection of key quotes. If all else fails, you can always claim that the authors (and peer-reviewers) have misinterpreted the results. “Flawed” is a useful and flexible term that can be applied to prove that you speak the ‘scientific language’ and are therefore a credible authority on any subject.

Remember that if someone else has already expressed an anti-recycling opinion on the internet, then it is thus proved to be indisputably true. Such opinions can be extrapolated to any potential scheme regardless of trivial details such as the treatment processes involved. Pioneers from previous campaigns in California will provide rich pickings. Google is a loyal friend.

8. Point out that you can run but you can’t hide

Buying bottled water will not save people from the peril of recycled water. People will still be exposed in baths and showers. Remember that the skin is porus and all chemicals will be quickly absorbed into the body. All food that is prepared in your city will be highly contaminated with recycled water. This will cause local food-producing industries to be bankrupted with devastating flow-on effects to the local economy. A quiet cup of coffee in town will be rendered an adrenaline-inducing deadly game of Russian roulette.

9. Exploit the broad use of the term “recycled water”

Precedents exist on the internet referring to all sorts of waters as ‘recycled water’. If secondary treated sewage is used to irrigate a timber plantation, then that is ‘recycled water’. A few schemes distribute lower-quality water to houses by ‘purple pipe dual reticulation’ systems. Utilities involved in managing this water publish information regarding how the recycled water should be used. This can be a useful source for quotes such as: “Recycled water is suitable for watering gardens and flushing toilets, but should never be used for drinking, washing or filling swimming pools”. The mere existence of such information provides irrefutable evidence that anybody that suggests drinking recycled water, from any source, has a sinister ulterior motive.

10. Demand that every possible chemical must be monitored

Pick a large number, double it and quote it as the number of chemicals in existence. The number can be preceded with a ‘greater than’ sign or simply stick a ‘plus’ sign on the end. A figure like 87,000 is more convincing than a round number like 100,000 (which is clearly just an estimation). Ask the water testing authority whether they plan to regularly monitor for every single one. If the laboratory manager is unable to even name every one of these chemicals, this is an obvious blow to their credibility and should be exposed.

Ignore the fact that the vast majority of chemicals come from nature. Focus on words like ‘hormones’, ‘endocrine disrupters’, ‘pharmaceuticals’, ‘illicit drugs’, ‘phthalates’, ‘RU486 abortion pills’, ‘emerging contaminants’, ‘prions’ and ‘carcinogens’. Point out that new drugs are being developed all the time and we don’t even have analytical methods for them yet!!!! (multiple exclamation marks reinforce the scientific validity of any statement. CAPITAL LETTERS HAVE A SIMILAR SIGNIFICANCE!!!!).

Read the book “Our Stolen Future”. It doesn’t mention water recycling, but all facts and theories described in this book were written with planned potable water recycling in mind (read between the lines, dummy!). Those alligators were foolish to unquestioningly accept an advanced recycled water supply from the state of Florida (contamination of the swamp by a DDT spill is a red herring invented by pro-water recycling devil worshipers).

I trust that this handy guide will be useful for budding campaigners. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the assured media exposure. Once the campaign is over you can settle back to the important task of revealing the lies of climate change.

Note: This post is intended to be satirical. However, yes, it is a venting of some frustration. While Toowoomba has certainly seen the type of scare campaign suggested in this post, I do acknowledge that there were other important (legitimate) issues to be considered as well. Readers are welcome to offer alternative lessons (to both sides), seriously.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Luggage Point to Wivenhoe (and back again)

Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, expressed support today for the concept of planned potable water recycling for Brisbane. It would add to an existing plan to take advanced-treated recycled water from Brisbane’s largest sewage treatment plant (Luggage Point) to the city’s largest water storage reservoir (Wivenhoe Dam). As reported in the Courier Mail:

"I am saying in an upfront and transparent way today that it would not be very difficult to build a spur line to put this recycled water into Wivenhoe," Mr Beattie said. "So I want the community to know that. I am saying, however, that we wouldn't do it without some form of mandate from the community and there are a number of options, including the next election."

It must be said that Beattie has such a high margin of popularity, that it behoves him to make a few gutsy decisions. However, as the Mayor of Toowoomba could confirm, supporting planned potable recycling really is a gutsy decision.

Until people have really had the opportunity to consider the facts, our initial reactions to potable recycling are normally those of fear and disgust. Most people are not aware that recycling is the normal job-description for water and that it happens, -in an unplanned way- throughout the world. Some people may never be convinced that dirty water can be effectively and reliably cleaned. Others simply do not want to be convinced. Politicians will, as always, exploit this ignorance (wilful or otherwise) for their own political gain.

Scare campaigns about planned potable water recycling are so easy to run. All you need are a few keywords to Google and a willingness to quote facts out of context. Take, for instance, Dr Oppenheimer’s bomb that was dropped in Toowoomba this week. An anonymously authored ‘freelance’ article, was posted to an anti-potable water recycling blog. The article recycled a few quotes from the internet that were already of out context (and misrepresent the conclusions of the reports that they refer to). However, the anonymous author managed to go one step further in the deception by (not so) clever juxtaposition of information, -tying accurate, but unrelated facts together to suggest some relevance which does not exist.

It is so easy to present information that relates to conventional sewage treatment or low pressure (high porosity) membrane treatment and position it such to suggest that it has some relevance to advanced treatment processes such as those proposed for Toowoomba or used at Luggage Point. It’s been happening in Toowoomba and will certainly happen in Brisbane. Major Brisbane newspapers will publish it because it helps to sell papers on Sundays.

Premier Beattie is obviously well aware that scientific knowledge and understanding firmly support the safety of potable water recycling using advanced treatment technology. The problem that he will face is that many couldn’t care less. Even once the deceptions described above are revealed, some people will continue to argue in favour of the article. For some people, the question has nothing to do with science; -it’s a matter of principle. Planned potable water recycling is apparently “unethical”.

Nonetheless, Premier Beattie should remain optimistic. I am confident that the majority of Australians are perfectly capable of investigating and considering facts in an objective manner. For this reason, I think it is essential for Beattie to dedicate his efforts towards providing the community with access to scientifically-supportable information. Don’t just give us the sales pitch, -give us the facts. Access to accurate information will increase support for planned potable water recycling and will truly allow Beattie to claim a mandate from a well informed community.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Seawater desalination

Prior to 2004, desalination was practiced in Australia with just a few very small brackish groundwater schemes. The Premier of NSW had disparagingly referred to desalinated seawater as ‘bottled electricity’, noting the considerable energy requirements for its production. However, serious consideration of large-scale seawater desalination schemes has been accelerating during the last two years.

In July 2004, the Western Australian Government announced that it would construct one of the world’s largest seawater desalination plants to supply Perth with up to 45 gigaliters per year of potable water.

Soon after, the NSW government announced plans to build a desalination plant for Sydney on the Kurnell peninsular. Following community anxiety, the construction of this plant has been postponed. However, planning continues and construction will begin when Sydney’s supplies dip below 30 per cent of capacity. The plant will initially produce 125 megaliters per day, but will be built with the capacity for further expansion to 500 megaliters per day.

Other cities, including the Gold Coast and numerous smaller coastal towns around Australia have also begun investigating the feasibility of seawater desalination as a component of their overall municipal water supply and management.

To achieve best-quality water production, a number of alternative treatment approaches could be considered. However, in 2006 Australia, reverse osmosis membrane treatment is by far the most energy efficient approach for adequately upgrading both conventionally treated wastewater (water recycling) and seawater.

The fundamental principal of reverse osmosis is the employment of semi-permeable membranes to separate a ‘purified’ component of the water from a waste-stream retaining the concentrated salts. This waste stream is commonly referred to as the membrane ‘concentrate’ or ‘brine’. The sound management and disposal of concentrates has become one of the greatest concerns regarding both water recycling and desalination, and is often a key factor determining the overall viability of a project. The issues involved include technical challenges, permitting problems and high costs.

Concentrate from seawater desalination typically comprises half of the original in-take volume and almost all of the dissolved salts. Accordingly, it is typically double the normal concentration of seawater. Most commonly, concentrates are discharged via ocean outfalls, however the double salinity renders concentrate plumes denser than seawater and thus they sink and can be difficult to disperse. The potential impact of concentrate plumes on marine species in Australian environments has yet to be properly assessed.

Much public discussion has taken place regarding the relative energy requirements to treat municipal effluents and seawater to qualities suitable for reuse. Reverse osmosis technology has developed dramatically during the last decade, decreasing both the energy costs and therefore the financial costs of treatment. However, the major source of energy requirement remains the necessity to overcome the osmotic potential difference across the membrane. That is, the difference in salinity between the purified water and the retained brine.

Seawater normally has a salinity of around 35 grams per litre. Municipal effluent is typically only one tenth of this salinity. This means that the osmotic potential is lower for municipal effluent than for seawater (and a higher fraction of the water can be recovered before the brine becomes too concentrated). Therefore, considerably less energy is required to produce a volume of clean water by reverse osmosis of municipal effluent than for than to produce the same volume from seawater.

Logically, seawater is sourced from sea level (or slightly below). However, most drinking water supplies are stored inland and somewhat elevated. This helps in the gravity-assisted distribution to our homes. Therefore, a second significant energy requirement in most circumstances is the need to pump desalinated water long distances and often uphill.

Some opponents of potable water recyling in Toowoomba have left comments on this blog recomending seawater desalination as a solution for that city. One suggestion has been to allow Toowoomba to extract water from Brisbane’s Wivenhoe Dam and replace that water with desalinated seawater. The pumping costs involved with such a scheme (from the ocean, up the Great Dividing Range to Toowoomba), combined with the treatment costs would make this about the most expensive water on earth.

In addition to these obvious ‘engineering’-type limitations, some more obtuse consequences of desalination are also worth considering. One such consequence is the weakening of the message highlighting the importance of water conservation. When a potential water source is envisaged to be as great as the world’s oceans the urgency to implement water-efficient technologies and practices is reduced. Furthermore, cities that come to rely on seawater desalination rather than conservation or recycling, will also rely on ocean outfall infrastructure for the discharge of municipal wastewaters (as well as desalination brines). As these cities harvest ever-increasing volumes of water from the ocean, they must also discharge similarly increasing volumes to the detriment of Australia’s precious marine environment.

But of course, desalination does have one great advantage over municipal recycling…no yuck factor! And yes, I know…no hormones, RU486 abortion pills, prions, or other yet-to-be-invented chemicals. However, properly treated recycled water will not contain these either…

Whadda you reckon?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Liverpool to Ashfield Pipeline

Sydney Water and the NSW Government have clearly been working hard to identify new opportunities for water recycling. The 2006 Metropolitan Water Plan describes some major schemes currently under development. These include supplementation of environmental flow in the Nepean River (Western Sydney Recycled Water Initiative); significant expansion of dual-reticulation schemes in north west and south west growth centres; and a major industrial reuse scheme (Bluescope Steel, Wollongong).

However, there is one opportunity which, although it is right under our noses, seems to be eluding all attention. So let me tell you about the Liverpool-to-Ashfield pipeline.

Sydney Water workers recently began boring a 20-metre hole into a reserve at Park Road, Ashfield. This is part of a$110-million project to build a 24 kilometre pipeline from Liverpool, a major component of the South Western Sydney Sewerage Scheme.

Two of Western Sydney’s largest inland sewage treatment plants are at Glenfield and Liverpool. Together these produce more than 50 megalitres of tertiary treated effluent per day. Historically, effluent from this area was discharged into the Georges River. However, to improve the water quality in the river, this practice has been largely discontinued. Instead, the treated effluent is dropped straight back into the sewer, where it is mixed with raw sewage and flows all the way to Malabar. At Malabar, the mixture then undergoes primary treatment before being discharged via the deepwater ocean-outfall.

Click on the map for a larger image

South West Sydney is a major growth area and increased capacity is required in the north Georges River sewerage sub-main to allow for development. The aim of the Liverpool-to-Ashfield pipeline is to free up capacity in this sub-main by diverting flows from the Glenfield and Liverpool sewage treatment plants.

The pipeline would carry tertiary-treated effluent 24 kilometres through some of Sydney’s most densely populated suburbs and industrial areas. However, when the water reaches Ashfield, it will again be dropped back into the old sewer, where it will again be mixed with raw sewage and transported to Malabar for discharge.

The pipeline is due for completion in 2008 but future options for reusing the treated effluent are not intended to be considered until 2010. This is a short sighted decision that should be revisited as a matter of urgency.

The Liverpool-to-Ashfield pipeline is new infrastructure and as such, provides a unique opportunity for planning for access to the recycled water. Expressions of interest should be sought immediately from local government and industrial water users to make use of this water as a replacement for current potable-water use. Obvious examples include irrigation of public parks and playing fields. There is also considerable heavy industry in the areas around Liverpool, Bankstown and Strathfield. If such interest is sought, this would allow Sydney Water to optimally plan the pipeline before it is completed and rendered inaccessible or unsuitable for access. Planning should include identification of the optimum precise path for the pipeline, any additional branches that may facilitate access, and the implementation of usable access junctions. The diameter of the pipeline should also be carefully considered to provide for optimum flow regimes facilitating access.

Under normal circumstances, ideas for sewer mining are commendable. However, in this case, we are dealing with water that has already had considerable energy-investment in bringing it up to a tertiary-treated quality. It seems sheer madness to throw that away by then mixing it with raw sewage. Our aim should be for nothing more than a trickle of water to actually reach the sewer junction at Ashfield. Come on NSW, let’s do something novel and plan before we build!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Law of Contagion

Jaun, a regular commenter on this blog, left an interesting comment after my previous post (please excuse the minor expletives, -Jaun has a nice way with words!):

Well Stuart, if you dropped your knife in a pile of shit, would you clean it off and butter your bread? Would you wear your ring if it fell in the toilet full of crap? Would you brush your teeth if you dropped your toothbrush in the loo and cleaned it off? Would you wear your shirt with a poo stain on it in public? My point is, it doesn't matter how much you clean up sewage, it will always been seen that way. If anyone says Yes to any of the above questions, they are downright dirty people and should have no SAY in the debate. It's not a YUK factor we have to get over, it's just common sense to say NO!

In 2004, the WateReuse Foundation (USA) ran a workshop titled “Research Needs Assessment Workshop: Human Reactions to Water Reuse”. Social psychologist, Professor Paul Rozin (University of Pennsylvania) gave a presentation at the workshop. Dr Brent Haddad from the University of California wrote a report on the workshop, which was published by the WateReuse Foundation. The following paragraphs are transcribed directly from that report and describe some of the comments made by Prof Rozin (hence represent his professional views, rather than necessarily my own).

I expect that some readers may disagree with some of Prof Rozin’s comments (and are quite entitled to do so!). But while considering them, please try to remember that he is an international expert on social psychology and has studied this topic in detail. Dr Haddad’s description of Prof Rozin’s comments follow:

The “The Law of Contagion” suggests that when a pure object comes into physical contact with a contaminated object, the contamination is passed to the pure object. Thus, people will respond with revulsion to both things following their contact. The principle has the following properties:

  • Physical contact is required for contagion to operate. Examples include a cockroach touching a salad or Adolf Hitler wearing a sweater: people would want nothing to do with the salad or sweater no matter what scientific evidence could be produced to demonstrate that they are healthy/clean; and
  • The contagious effect is only slightly influenced by dose (degree of physical contact).

The perceived presence of contagion is often, though not always, permanent. For some people, nothing works to purify contaminated objects, but for the majority, there are two primary ways to reclaim them: for those using a physical-contact model of contagion, extreme measures of purification are often effective (eg, to get rid of HIV-related contagion in silverware, melting down the silverware into molten metal and then refashioning it into new silverware would actually work to purify it). For those using a “spiritual” (or non-physical) model, opposite contact could redeem the objects. Thus if a sweater was contaminated by contact with Hitler, then having Mother Teresa wear it could remove the contagion. In the case of water reuse, an endorsement from a “pure” pro-environment organisation such as Greenpeace, or a group such as La Leche League which endorses and provides advice to new mothers on breastfeeding, might serve as a purifying action.

Thus, psychological contamination is easy to accomplish, whereas psychological purification is difficult to achieve. This implies that extended discussions on the safety of indirect potable reuse are not able to move people’s feelings away from the sense that water from indirect potable reuse is contaminated.

A way to understand the law of contagion is to consider the thing's “essence”. People consider objects to have an essence that is not subject to the laws of physics. In addition to a thing’s physical nature, the history of it is part of what it is. Consequently, people associate purity with what has happened to a thing in the past, not just its current chemical profile. As a result, perceptions of recycled water include what is in it as well as where it has been and what it once was. However, the historical aspects that are included in a discussion of indirect potable reuse do not have to dwell on its prior urban use since all water has a very long history. The public perception of the essence of water from indirect potable reuse can change if the public understanding of history of the water changes.

I must admit that the references to Adolf Hitler, Mother Teresa, Greenpeace and the La Leche League are a bit foreign to my way of thinking (and perhaps yours too?), but I can quite relate to comments about cockroaches and salad!

Contrary to Jaun’s assertion that “it's not a YUK factor we have to get over”, I suggest that the difficulties that he has described are precisely a manifestation of this so-called “YUK factor”. This is perfectly natural and we all experience it to some degree. I also suggest that this “YUK factor” serves us humans very well in the absence of more precise scientific information regarding true chemical (or hygienic) quality.

Whadda you reckon?