Friday, December 01, 2006

Has Toowoomba already voted NO?

As most readers would be aware, South East Queensland will vote in March on the question of whether to supplement drinking water sources with recycled water. Or as Premier Beattie put it today:

"This (question) basically is: 'Are you or are you not in favour of drinking purified recycled water to a standard that's accepted by health officials around the world'"

Nineteen Shires are to vote, including Toowoomba since that city is considering the possibility of extracting future supplies from Wivenhoe Dam. But ‘hold on’, you say! Didn’t Toowoomba vote no to the same question only five months ago?

I don’t believe they did. I watched that debate fairly closely and was assured by many of the ‘No’ campaigners that there were specific issues associated with the Toowoomba proposal that motivated them to vote no. Here’s how Cr Snow Manners put it three days after the poll:

Posted by Snow Manners of Toowoomba on Tue 01 Aug 06 at 03:58pm
"The Toowoomba debate was not about drinking recycled water. It was about a community considering it options, dam water, bore water, rainwater or sewage water. Sewage water was not the preferred option (apparently). The other options are now being more closely examined. People of Toowoomba also expressed concern that they were never given the opportunity to provide inputs to Council about their preferred options. Toowoomba has a very high proportion of tertiary educated people in the community by virtue of being a city of 100,000 people with a major University and a host of highly respected private schools serving western Queensland and also by virtue of having major corporate offices and government headquarters serving that huge region as well as being a centre for medical specialists serving the region. Other trade professionals and ordinary folk are not ill informed either. As a chosen retirement destination for farmers and graziers there are a lot of practical people in the city. Toowoomba’s choice was an educated and intelligent decision about options not a potable reuse debate."

Another “No” campaigner, “John C” left variations of the following two messages on numerous websites and blogs in the days following following the poll:

John C Says: August 20th, 2006 at 2:17 pm
"The problem with the recycled sewage plant proposed for Toowoomba is that it just would not work. It is not possible to produce 11,000 ML of recycled water from 8,000 ML of sewage. Toowoomba City Council also had nowhere for the RO waste stream to go. Acland Coal did not want it. Singapore pumps its RO waste stream into the sea. The plant could never have been built for $68 million - closer to $150-200 million would be more accurate when you take into account the hundreds of acres of evaporation ponds required which were not included in the budget. Regardless of your view on recycled water use, the No vote in Toowoomba was correct because the proposal was a dud".

John c says: July 31st, 2006 at 11:06 pm
"Many people in Toowoomba voted No, not because of any scare tactics, but because they had read the Council’s NWC funding application that Mayor Thorley tried to keep secret. This document showed the project as being fundamentally flawed. The Water Futures project was never a solution - where was the RO waste stream going to go. Where was Thorley going to hide it? Acland Coal didn’t want it. Without their involvement, the project’s cost doubled. How high would rates be then? You will be surprised at how quickly other water source options are now adopted for Toowoomba".

In addition to the issues raised by Cr Manners and “John C”, many people expressed concern about the loss of the water that currently flows from the Wetalla Sewage Treatment Plant, eventually into Oakey Creek and the Condamine River. This water is a recognised valuable resource to irrigators in the region and the loss of that water may have caused considerable hardship in these times of severe drought. Finally, there was widespread concern that the Toowoomba scheme would not solve current water shortages since it would not be online for a number of years.

Of course, all of these people will realise that any proposal involving recycled water from Luggage Point to Wivenhoe Dam will be quite a different proposal. Only those who voted according to some ideological opposition or support for (planned) potable recycling would suggest that their vote for Toowoomba is automatically transferable to the proposed South East Queensland Scheme.

People would not have raised the above issues if these did not significantly contribute to the decisions that they ultimately made.

Don’t you reckon?


Anonymous said...

I voted NO and that was for all possible versions of the mad and potentially dangerous to human health crackpot idea. It is not possible to keep recycling something and still have the same quality. Let it go!!!

Casual observer said...

Interesting point. But is Toowoomba being asked the same fundamental question? The answer must be yes.

You seem to be confusing the question with voter reasoning.

There were certainly various factors which influenced different voters in Toowoomba.

Some voters may have even voted no because they objected to TCC's parking changes! We'll never know.

The same may apply to the regional referendum.

People may vote no because they don't like Beattie or they think they know what the dirt is that Merri Rose has on him. Or they think all of his ex-Ministers are dodgy. You can't tell and you have no control over that. It's the same thing at any election.

Plenty of Toowoomba voters may vote no next March simply because they feel they have already given their answer - the no means no approach.

To take it to its extreme, you could keep asking voters a slightly different question by changing the amount of recycled sewage or the plant location, and claim they hadn't voted on the issue before.

Do you want to drink recycled water put into Cooby Dam?

Do you want to drink recycled water put into Cressbrook Dam?

Do you want to drink recycled water put into Perseverance Dam?

Or you could do it by percentages:

Do you want to drink 1%, 2%, 3%, 4%, 5% ... 25% ... 50% ... 75% ... 100%?

They're all slightly different questions but ultimately it's the same underlying issue - do you want to drink recycled sewage?

People's reasons for their answer may even be different each time but they are being asked the same fundamental question.

So has Toowoomba already voted on this issue. The answer seems to be yes - unless you want to play semantics over the precise detail of the question. That would allow Beattie to do weekly referendums during his term, asking a slightly different question each time.

Everyone would soon get fed up with that approach, particularly at $10 million a pop.

Anonymous said...

How do you know that when people in Toowoomba voted last time, they weren't thinking - no to this scheme and no to any scheme involving recycled sewage water? You don't.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks “Casual Observer”,

I appreciate your well-reasoned argument. However, many residents of Toowoomba would disagree with you. Toowoomba bloggers have told me straight that exit polling in Toowooomba showed that community consultation and analysis of the options were the key issues. Not which dam or what percentage. ‘No’ campaigners were quite clear after the poll that specific issues with the Toowoomba proposal scheme were very significant (as I have tried to demonstrate in this post).

I have spent much time and effort during the last five months trying to explain to people that characterising the “NO” voters in Toowoomba as uninformed luddites (as the media began to do) is absolutely inappropriate and incorrect. The issues involved were significantly more complex than the simplistic way that the media (and many others) have portrayed them ever since. To deny this would be an insult to 62% of the Toowoomba population.

casual observer said...

Still think you're confusing the question with the voter reasons.

It wasn't Toowoomba voters' fault that Mayor Thorley and the Yes campaigners did their best to subvert the process.

The fundamental question was still - do you want to drink recycled sewage?

For some people it was 'no, never' or 'no, we haven't been consulted'. For others it was 'no, there are other options' and for others it was 'no, the mayor is a loud-mouthed bully'.

But that's their reason for voting yes or no.

And it may very well be their reasons next time as well:

'No, never'

'No, we have other options'

'No, the mayor is a loud-mouthed bully.'

That's their choice. But are voters voting once again on the issue of whether to drink recycled water. The answer must be yes.

I realise that some people will try to distance the last vote from the next vote, but the fundamental question is the same.

At best, asking Toowoomba voters to vote again is treating them as 'uninformed luddites'.

casual observer said...

And it's started already - comments on the Courier Mail blog - they may vote no because they don't trust Beattie and co but they're still voting on the question of do you want to drink recycled water:

'Do you trust a government to deliver hygienically clean recycled sewerage to drink? The same government responsible for the water infrastructure crisis, electricity crisis, hospital crisis, Dr Patel, and the same government that had as members people like Nuttall, Rose, D’Arcy, Mackenroth ...and the list goes on.'

Stuart Khan said...

Okay C.O.,

I guess we will simply have to accept that there are differences of opinion. Snow Manners has clearly stated that "the Toowoomba debate was not about drinking recycled water” and I assume his view is endorsed by his subsequent election to Toowoomba City Council (13,819 votes). However, I am sure that you are at least partially correct and that some number of people did vote on the basis of a fundamental aversion to potable water recycling. It would be unreasonable of me to assume otherwise.

casual observer said...

'Snow Manners has clearly stated that "the Toowoomba debate was not about drinking recycled water”.'

It wasn't because Mayor Thorley subverted the process but that was the question that was asked and will be asked again in March.

Stuart Khan said...

G’day C.O.,

If the processes was “subverted”, then shouldn’t the people now be given an opportunity to clearly express their will?

casual observer said...

I think they expressed their will last time, and will again in March.

Greg said...

I voted no and most of the people I know voted no because they do not trust and pobably never will trust the technology and believe this water could be better utilised in other ways, industry, parks and gardens, purple pipe systems, irrigation, forests, etc. Do you really think that doing this will save us from the drought Stuart, it has to break to make this idea even the slightest bit useful in our dams. The people of Toowoomba have not changed there minds but I will say one thing the cicumstances have changed enough for us to be pretty bloody well pissed off! When we wanted the water from Wivenhoe Beattie said no but now he is going to build a pipleline to Toowoomba simply because he's putting sewage water in Wivenhoe but we couldn't have Emu Creek dam because it was in the upper reaches of Wivenhoes' catchment area, how bloody convenient for Thorley and all those idiots who voted yes and yes I do reckon there idiots because this is something we consume, cook and bath in, wash in and I bloody pay for it. Stuff the self-centered yes voters, what would be the outcome of major contamination from this bullshit? I think the option of running out of water and moving is a little more inviting then falling ill as a direct result of some stupid blunder or a flaw in the science or tecnology used to apply the science, wouldn't you agree (of course not) you only appear to care about the science and not all those men, women and most of all children that will be directly affected by it! But then again we wouldn't run out of water no matter how long the drought continues if desal was implemented would we? I,m not scaremongering either I thought Chernobyl was a bad idea too, yes I was around then and an adult and it sure wised me up! The wise people will vote no and the stupid yes which is about 25-35%! We do not source anything else we consume from a contaminated base except for those things that our governments are too stupid to be able to fix, like your unplanned potable re-use to which the effects on humans are not widely documented or researched!
Sorry if I am rude but I am very annoyed!

Stuart Khan said...

Welcome back Greg, -I’ve missed you!

I can tell that you are angry, but I didn’t find your message ‘rude’ at all. I think your concerns are fairly rational and I’m sure that you will take the opportunity that you have been given to let Peter Beattie (and everyone else) know your judgement on planned potable recycling.

Snow Manners said...

I don't think the SEQ debate will be much different - its about a community considering its options.

There is no doubt that Brisbane is very short of water but sewage water is viewed widely as an option of last resort, an Armageddon solution.

Voters may not let Peter Beattie off the hook easily if they feel his neglect of infrastruture has led to this situation.

It will be interesting to watch.

Snow Manners said...

Another angle to consider is that if Toowoomba had various abundant sources of water the vote may well have been 100% NO.

Perhaps the 38% who voted 'YES' did so because they were not convinced by the No Case argument that alternative supplies really existed.

It seems to be that the pre-conditioning of people to secure a 'Yes' vote is to paint a picture of impending disaster.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks Snow,

I appreciate the feedback. I agree that the SEQ vote is about consideration of options (which presumably are not identical to Toowoomba’s options). This vote is really about asking the community whether they would support the addition of a new option that has not been extensively included in earlier considerations, -at least not in such a ‘planned’ or ‘open’ way. Some people will vote to widen the list of options, others will prefer not to.

I’d be interested to know whether you have made up your mind on which way to go yet?


njta said...

It has always been a vote about options. I would think that SEQ, like Toowoomba has a suite of options or combination of options to consider to "create" or bring new water into the system.

I would also think that like Toowoomba, the combination option which includes IPR as a component works out to be the least cost with environmental advantages, and perhaps defers or does away with a more expensive option, such as a desal plant, or an expensive and increasingly unrealiable option such as a dam.

So the community needs to be presented with the combination options being considered, and highlighted that an option with IPR has definate advatages over the other combinations.

There does need to be a choice, and the community also need to have a clear understanding of the consequences of each choice.

So then the argument/debate becomes one of "Why would you advocate for a combination which is more expensive, least environmentally sensitive, and questionable in reliablity?"

If the answer rests on the ability of the community to trust and have confidence in this new technology, well there is evidence and research about (is there not Stuart?) that shows that product water from the proposed AWT plant is safe and fit for human consumtion.

For those who will campaign against the proposal to introduce IPR to the water supply, they need to be challenged to provide reasons and evidence to counter this, and also provided information which indicates that another strategy can be employed which does not include IPR, and which offers the same level of cost, reliability and environmental advantages.

On looking back (which always allows for wonderful learnings) this approach was never adopted in the Toowoomba debate. There was a lot of resentment in the community due to the perception that the IPR solution was being rushed through, without any or very little community involvement. The community were never properly informed of the options, and shown how the IPR solution offered the greatest advantage at that time. And the opposition were never properly challenged.

As it is, the solution for Toowoomba looks now to being "Plan B", go to Wivenhoe, which was always a valid solution, but still is the second best solution due mainly to cost, both to implement, and then run.

The Toowoomba debate should have been a good learning experience, and I hope that the lessons have been noted on how to best to conduct the upcoming debate.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks Njta,

I agree with practically everything you have said here.

Regarding your question to me, I don’t know any details regarding the proposed AWT. As far as I know, there is no specific proposal in place. So it’s a bit hard to comment other than to say that suitable combinations of advanced technologies can provide water that is (at least) as safe as any other potable supply. However, I won’t promise that the risk of drowning is any less in recycled water!

I too will be very disappointed if lessons from Toowoomba prove not to have been learnt.

Greg said...

With Deputy Premier Bligh stating this "Climate change is having a marked impact on our water security and we must continue to look at all options for future supply" it seems to me that no lessons have been learnt - a beginning of the same old scare campaign that the no people here in Toowoomba were accused of! Blame climate change for your own inability to have a secure water supply for over 2 million people during a prolonged drought and scare the people into believing its not your fault and drinking recycled effluent is a saviour of some kind! If the state government had of been using recycled water in industry and power stations years ago we would not be in this predicament!

Stuart Khan said...

Fair call Greg. Australian’s could have made more progress more quickly with industrial water reuse. Most of the existing schemes were developed primarily for environmental protection from effluent discharge, rather than as a potable water conservation measure. However, to be fair, Brisbane is really a world pioneer with the industrial reuse of water from Luggage Point at the adjacent BP Amoco refinery. This scheme saves around 10-14 ML of potable water per day, which is significant, but we would need many more like it to have a major impact on supplies. I’m sure that there are other similar opportunities out there in most of our major cities.

Hogwash said...

How often will we hear that the recycled water plant would have been the cheapest for Toowoomba?

It would not have been.

Why is it that the so called independent Brinkerhoff Report never evaluated the Water Futures costs - just assumed they were ok and add 10% on top.

Water Futures was never going to be the cheapest. The larger evaporation ponds were most likely going to be needed - add $70 million on top of the ball park $68 million which itself would have been subject to blow out.

If Toowoomba had to pay the extra costs itself, it would have juggled the extra debt on the city's balance sheet, which would then have been strained. Debt would have doubled or tripled current debt levels.

Figure the annual interest bill for ratepayers at around $100-$150 per household, even with the generous interest rates offered by the State government.

Water Futures was not and would never have been the cheapest option.

Why do you think Beattie, Thorley and co never wanted its costings really independently assessed??

It was about gettng an experiment up and running and burying the cost overruns later somehow.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks Hogwash,

I think you are correct to suggest that concerns about costs were a major reason for some people to vote ‘no’ in Toowoomba. I appreciate the feedback.

Hogwash said...

I still can't believe that the council went to the federal government with a plan that was so full of holes. The numbers just didn't stack up. Makes you wonder what the engineering department was up to - clearly completely incompetent.

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