Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Norwin Noose

Nuwater is the name of a lobby group of Queensland irrigators with a keen interest in recycled water. The front page of their website promotes them as "the peak group lobbying for sustainable water use and new water for Darling Downs agriculture".

Nuwater have an impressive list of sponsors, but to give you an idea of where they are coming from, these include Cotton Australia, Queensland Cotton, Central Downs Irrigators Ltd, Namoi Cotton, Darling Downs Cotton Growers Inc, and Cotton Seed Distributors.

Nuwater’s central cause is to have recycled water from Brisbane pumped to the Darling Downs for irrigation. This would involve a pipeline connecting seven sewage treatment plants from Luggage Point STP (Brisbane) to Wetalla STP (Toowoomba) and then out to the Darling Downs Irrigation Area.

The concept seems quite sensible and has a number of obvious benefits. These would include decreased sewage discharge to Moreton Bay, a sure supply of water for Darling Downs irrigators and (hopefully) decreased extraction of natural water sources from the Darling Downs region. However, the major obstacle is the need to pump the water up over the Great Dividing Range. This implies significant energy requirements and considerable costs.

A task force was set up by the Queensland Government during 2001-2003 to examine four variations on this scheme focusing on the Darling Downs and Lockyer Valley. The key outcomes of the task force report were:

• Negative economic (including environmental) outcomes for society.
• Negative environmental outcomes from 2009 to the end of scheme life.
• Negative financial outcomes for the scheme(s) in that it/they recover between 16% and 21% of commercial requirements. The water costs of between $841 per Megalitre (ML) and $1079/ML are well above the $150 /ML price offered.
• Social advantages in employment and population for the receiving areas.
• Hydrological feasibility – but requires management particularly in some specific areas.
• A shortfall where project revenues do not cover operating costs. Revenues recover approximately 22 – 28% of lower bound costs being operating costs and including the cost of capital, without capital recovery. Under agreements reached at CoAG between all states and territories, new water infrastructure projects are required to at least receive revenues at or above the lower bound cost before they can be considered as being eligible for a Government Community Service Obligation payment.

Interestingly, Nuwater participated in the recent Toowoomba City indirect potable recycling debate. As their Spring 2006 newsletter states:

“Most significantly, the Toowoomba water referendum delivered a stunning victory to common sense. As members and sponsors would know, NUWater - through CEO John McVeigh - played an active role in the campaign, urging a No vote to adding 25% recycled sewerage to Toowoomba’s drinking water.”

The Nuwater Winter 2006 newsletter had previously introduced a Nuwater proposal thus:

"So why is NUWater opposed to Toowoomba Water Futures? Put simply, there is a better option - a broader, regional approach which is a true win-win for all. It involves a clean water swap between Oakey Creek Groundwater licence holders, drawing on the vast artesian reserves below the Norwin district, and treated Wetalla water" [Wetalla being the Toowoomba sewage treatment plant].

In other words, a pipeline from Toowoomba would carry recycled water to the Norwin district for irrigators, while a second pipeline from the Norwin district would carry ground water to Toowoomba for potable use.

Shortly before the Toowoomba recycled water poll, a private consultancy - Parsons Brinckerhoff - was engaged to review the various options being proposed to address the city’s water woes. The consultants costed this water swap at around $200 million, which practically ruled the approach out as a viable option.

Nuwater has since revised its proposal and has now offered to simply lease 5000 megalitres a year of water to Toowoomba, at a cost of $40 million (their claim). No supply of recycled water to the irrigators seems to be included in the current proposal. This is strange since it is the complete reverse of the concept that Nuwater was set up and funded to lobby for.

The idea of a small group of Norwin Irrigators leasing water to a thirsty city of more than 90,000 people is somewhat fascinating to say the least. However, it seems that Nuwater have well earned their lobbying fees. The residents of Toowoomba voted against the indirect potable recycling scheme (with Nuwater claiming some credit) and the Norwin proposal remains widely touted as a popular solution for the city.

According to the Nuwater website, ex-Toowoomba City Councilor and State National Party candidate, Lyle Shelton is a member of the Nuwater committee. In fact, Nuwater seem to have broad QLD National Party support with leader Lawrence Springborg also having touted their proposal as a reason for Toowoomba to vote against indirect potable recycling.

Having now celebrated the “No” vote in Toowoomba, it must soon be time for Nuwater to publicly provide a little detail on their proposal. Surely the residents of Toowoomba are keen to find out the conditions of the deal that many seem so keen to enter into?

Water trading is set to become a very important and controversial issue in Australia over the coming decade. Are the Norwin irrigators and the residents of Toowoomba about to set a precedent for the rest of the country?

Investment tip: Buy shares in companies holding large irrigation licenses in close proximity to large desperately thirsty cities.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Planned potable proposals provide pristine perspective

The controversy surrounding recent planned potable recycling proposals seems to have had one very positive outcome. Australians are finally beginning to recognise the realities of the water cycle outside of high school science classes.

Until recently, ignorance about such realities seemed to have been almost actively encouraged. I suppose it made sense. Why would water authorities want to unnecessarily raise awareness of practices that might prove controversial? But with communities now under pressure to consider planned potable recycling schemes, a more realistic understanding of the water cycle has become pertinent.

Serious discussion of potable recycling began in Sydney around two years ago when we were publicly debating alternatives to the proposed seawater desalination plant. In October 2005, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article describing how treated effluent from both Goulburn and Lithgow supplement supplies stored in Warragamba Dam.

By July this year, it was the Queensland State Government themselves that began to promote the common occurrence of “unplanned” potable reuse in that state. The minister in charge of water resources provided the following information to The Australian:

Fernvale, Esk, Lowood, Toogoolawah, Gatton and Laidley pump recycled sewage into the Mt Crosby Weir system, which supplies drinking water for Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan and Beenleigh residents. Dalby and Chinchilla drink Toowoomba's treated sewage, put back into the Condamine River, while Caloundra and Maroochy shires drink Maleny's treated wastewater from the Baroon Pocket Dam. Maryborough drinks from Gympie, Kingaroy drinks its own, Goondiwindi drinks from Inglewood and Beaudesert residents take theirs from Kooralbin.

This week, the (Melbourne) Herald Sun reports that treated effluent is discharged into one of the Yarra River's tributary creeks upstream of the point where river water is pumped into the Sugarloaf reservoir. The Victorian State Government seems keen to talk it down. However, I think that doing so is a disservice to some parched Australian towns and cities. Surely its time that we all just bit the bullet and focused on raising awareness.

If we want communities to identify the fact that potable recycling is absolutely normal, then we really do need to cooperate and encourage an open-eyed understanding of urban water cycles.

Whadda you reckon?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Recycled water for electricity production

The vast majority of electricity produced in Australia is generated by burning coal. This process uses large volumes of water, much of which is converted to steam (and subsequently lost to the atmosphere). For example, Delta Electricity in NSW report the use of around 1 Megalitre of water for each gigawatt-hour of electricity produced. Given the large volumes of water required in a single location, power production seems like an ideal use for recycled water.

In fact, Australia is a world pioneer of using recycled water for power stations. Pacific Power’s Eraring Power Station supplies around 25 % of the electricity requirements to NSW and has been using recycled water for a decade now.

Eraring Station is located in the Hunter Valley close to the Dora Creek Sewage Treatment Plant. In the mid 1990s a 15-year agreement was signed to enable Eraring to access more than five megalitres of effluent from Dora Creek STP each day. This water is transferred directly to a water reclamation plant at the station where it undergoes further treatment by microfiltration and reverse osmosis.

Access to recycled water provides a sure source for Eraring Power Station. Furthermore, it helps protect the sensitive aquatic environment of Lake Macquarie, which would otherwise be further impacted by treated effluent.

In the last couple of years, Western Australia, Queensland and now Victoria have identified similar opportunities. In these cases, the primary motivation has been to free-up potable water supplies, which are currently used for power production.

Recycled water efforts around Perth have largely focused on an industrial precinct called Kwinana, about 40 km south of Perth. At Kwinana, a centralised water recycling plant supplies 17 megalitres per day to a diverse range of industries, including power production by Western Power.

Shortly before the recent Queensland state election, Premier Beattie announced plans to build a pipeline from Luggage Point sewage treatment plant to Tarong and Swanbank power stations, which are major suppliers of electricity to Brisbane.

In just the last few weeks, Victorian Government plans have been revealed to allocate large volumes of recycled water from Melbourne for use by power plants in the Latrobe Valley, 100 kilometers west. This plan would add more than 20 per cent to Melbourne’s total water supply, significantly increasing security during extended dry periods. It would be a massive water recycling scheme and is estimated to come at a cost of $1-2 billion dollars.

In addition to potable water savings, the Victorian Government plan has plenty of potential environmental benefits to recommend it. Importantly, it would drastically reduce water discharged by ocean outfall at Gunnamatta, southeast of Melbourne. Furthermore, the reduction of freshwater use by the Latrobe Valley power stations would significantly boost flows in the Gippsland rivers (and subsequently add to drinking water supplies for Melbourne).

The primary opposition to the proposal, appears to have been expressed by Victorian National Party leader, Peter Ryan who was quoted this week as saying "The Nationals' view is that Melbourne already receives enough of Gippsland's fresh water and has to learn to live within its water means".

What do you reckon?