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.


Anonymous said...

Stewart: You are playing with fire. The Norwin irrigators are offering a potential solution to a real problem. The residents of Toowoomba are correct to prefer to drink good quality groundwater that has been consumed by families for decades over completely untested recycled water. Get a real issue.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks Anonymous,

I am sure that the irrigators are acting out of altruism towards the City of Toowoomba. However, in order to judge their proposal, some public details are required. How was the figure of $40 million calculated? What does it include? Who pays the infrastructure and pumping costs? How will the Norwin farmers cope without this water? Does it mean goodbye to growing thirsty crops and hello to living off water licensing fees? What is the salinity of the water? Is it affected by pesticides and other agricultural chemicals? Is the suggestion of reducing the volume of water available for irrigation consistent with Nuwater’s charter and sponsors expectations? Who’s problem is it if 5000 ML/year turns out not to be sustainable? Will Toowoomba be bound to continue buying the water if it rains and the dams fill up? All reasonable questions, I would suggest.

H.P. said...

Toowoomba was conned out of a world class sustainable water recycling scheme by a severely conflicted bunch of irrigators. What a pack of dills!

W.F. Blog said...

Reasonable questions indeed for which there are reasonable answers.

Stuart, you seem to have moved from water science to water politics.


Stuart Khan said...

G’day W.F. Blog,

The way I see it, one of the major obstacles to improved water management in Australia is the compartmentalisation of expertise and roles. We seem to have a bunch of water economists out there who seem unable (or unwilling) to properly consider the science behind what they propose. Similarly, many of us who work with fairly technical aspects of water analysis or treatment, are clearly deficient when it comes to identifying with some of the social issues such as choice, trust and public perception. Scientists, economists and social scientists that fail to step back and look at the ‘big picture’ are living in a make-believe world. For example, it doesn’t matter how well a water recycling scheme may clean water, it amounts to nothing if such a scheme is unrealistic in social or economic terms. Politics is where all of the disparate aspects of water management should come together, so I think it’s a fairly obvious focal point for those of us interested in taking a more holistic view.

W.F. Blog said...

I like to hear that. Create a product the public wants to buy and at the moment drinking water extracted from sewage water is not a marketable product.

If Toowoomba could lease/buy Norwin Irrigators water in a project estimated by irrigators to cost $40M and the current drilling program into the basalt under the city continued to the last nine holes as successfully as the first eleven then Toowoomba could continue their current (restricted) water usage without any reliance on the three dams at all.

This is a very secure fall back position subject to an as yet uninformed debate about sustainablility of the aquifers.

A GAB bore is also budgetted for and the Hampton bore is yet to be brought online. The taps will not run dry.

Into that context let us introduce sewage water, rainwater tanks, dams and whatever else and create a long term plan acceptable to all stakeholders.

If we can stay focussed on a sutainable city model and not get sidetracked by state and federal water politics I think Toowoomba will emerge as a very good example for other cities to follow.

Matthew G. (Dalby) said...

I agree with Stuart's suggestion that there is no way that the irrigators will settle for a net-loss of water. They will sell groundwater to Toowoomba for a hansome profit and then expect some form of infrastructure to be built to supply them with recycled water.

A pipeline to deliver recycled water from Toowoomba would be a huge boon for NUWater since it will basically be Stage 1 of the larger scheme that they have been lobying for for years.

NUWater's enthusiatic involvement with the Toowoomba NO campaign was a major conflict of interest.

wondering said...

Stuart, have you been away recently? Your blog has been very quiet.

Stuart Khan said...

Hello Wondering,

Thanks for noticing! Yes, I have been away for a couple of weeks, but am back home now. I have a next post planned and will find time to sit down and write it before the end of this week ;-)

wondering said...

look forward to the update

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