Sunday, January 28, 2007

Poll Vaulted

The Queensland Government have decided to scrap the $10 million water recycling poll. The Courier Mail has the full story.

Premier Beattie’s explanation for the decision is that "the reality is there is no choice". He said "I wanted to put this decision to the people but the reality is that sometimes a leader has to just go ahead and do what needs to be done."

Deputy Premier Anna Bligh said the dry summer meant the "luxury of giving the people an option had disappeared". She said “not only is it increasingly inevitable that we will have to use purified water as soon as the pipe is available but we may have to use it for quite a long time...What is the point of offering people a vote on something that is not optional?"

Beattie said that his decision had also been influenced by growing cross-party acceptance of indirect potable reuse as a viable solution for the region.

Brisbane's Acting Mayor David Hinchliffe confirmed support for today’s decision on ABC News. “Frankly I don't think the Government has got any alternative - we are in a dire situation,” he said.

My personal opinion on polls like the one that had been proposed is made clear in my earlier post titled Ask a Stoopid Question. However, I was not alone in considering such a poll to be either counter-productive or a waste of time or money. Queensland Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett called for the poll to be axed just a few days ago.

Chris Griffith from the Courier Mail posted a blog titled ‘Scrap the Water Referendum’ in November last year. He wrote “As we will certainly need recycled water to survive in south-east Queensland, there is little point holding a referendum on the subject”. While a number of interesting responses were posted, few of them directly addressed the issue of whether the poll was appropriate. Most argued passionately either for or against potable water recycling, or else for or against Wendy of Toowoomba.

Chris posted another blog when the poll date was announced at the start of December. By this time, many commentators began to call the poll a waste of time and money. Rod R of Toowoomba did so on the basis that politicians “were elected to the position of power to make hard discissions”. Elizabeth from Toowoomba agreed, urging governments to “PLEASE govern as you were elected to do, and save the taxpayer much needed monies for other projects, or use the money saved for our water”. Allan of Gold Coast pointed out that “tenders are already being let for the construction of the pipeline required to take the recycled water to the dam”. He argued that the purpose of the poll was simply to make us “feel like we are part of the process”.

Terry Nilsson of Redcliffe saw a much more sinister motivation for the poll. He wrote that “the only reason the State GOV. are going to the polls on drinking water is to leave them NOT at fault for your health or for your planned children, as in defects. If you vote this yes or no, you have no compensation claim against the GOV. because you had your say”.

I notice that ‘Scoop’ even had the foresight to ask the question that would later be answered “If drinking recycled sewage water is completely safe, as Beattie and his Australian Water Association friends tell us, why not make it 100pc?”

I think the mere threat of a poll did have one obvious and very significant advantage. It got us all talking about water. I suspect that the vast majority of residents of South East Queensland know something about water recycling that they didn’t know three months ago. This does not mean that they necessarily support the idea, but at least people are beginning to recognise that it is a realistic proposal.

But still, the process of making information available in the lead up to the poll had really barely begun. Discussion papers were to be produced and community forums were to be held. I sincerely hope that the QLD Government continue to see the value of these activities, regardless of the need to persuade people on how to vote at a poll.

…Oh and I also wish they’d stop talking about Armageddon. The situation is indeed serious, but hopefully good governance may prevent it from causing the world to come to an end.

Mr Beattie and Ms Bligh will hold a press conference shortly after midday today at which details of the decision will be announced. If anything significant transpires, I’ll add an update later.


Anonymous said...

Nice blog-post title!

not scoop said...

"Scoop" is a nym often used by Lyle Shelton, a former Toowoomba City Councillor, who opposed water recycling.

Voter said...

All this decision does is push the vote on recycled water out to the next Council elections in 2008.

Wendy said...

What you will see is another Beattie backflip and he will 'save' south east qld from drinking recycled water, just before the next State election. It's just politics Stuart.

Stuart Khan said...

Hello ‘Voter’,

Its difficult to see how this could be a Local Government issue. Beattie and Bligh have clearly taken responsibility for the decision and they are from the Queensland State Government. There is unlikely to be any reason for individual local councillors across SE Queensland to even have to mention whether they are for or against potable water recycling. Whatever their position is, and whoever is voted in or out, it is unlikely to have any impact.

Hi Wendy,

Yes, I agree that there is always a large degree of politics involved. Certainly anything can happen in politics, however this just doesn’t seem like a decision that Beattie would make unless he really had to. Call me na├»ve...

Anonymous said...

You said it!!

Greg said...

I disagree Stuart. He could have went with desal for Brisbane which would free up Wivenhoe to be used by the other areas of SE QLD hence lessening the strain on this dam and allowing the insecurity of water supply to be once and for all snuffed out. I said it before and I will say it again, there is no need to make and I stress make the people of SEQ drink recycled effluent when there are other viable options, safe or not,it is by no means a solution to the drought or population growth by itself alone but desal is!

Stuart Khan said...

Hi Greg,

I can’t deny that seawater desalination is a possible means of supplying Brisbane with potable water. As you and I both know, the alternative strategies of desalination and recycling each have various advantages and disadvantages. I think it would be very helpful if the QLD State Government (or anyone else) would publish a detailed comparative assessment of the two, taking into account economic, social and environmental costs. Some of these factors are extremely difficult to quantify and compare, but it would still be useful to lay out as much detail as possible including any assumptions. Much of the detail would need to relate to specific proposals for SE QLD. Unless such a detailed comparison is provided it will never really be possible for either of us to argue that one is necessarily a better strategy than the other.

voter said...

"There is unlikely to be any reason for individual local councillors across SE Queensland to even have to mention whether they are for or against potable water recycling."

They will because the surest way to get elected as a councillor in 2008 is to say "vote for me and I won't make you drink from the toilet."

Look at the Qld North Coast and San Diego council examples.

They know that the majority of voters don't want to drink recycled water. It's a vote getter. Post 2008, you will see new council's outside Brisbane looking at other options which make them independent of Wivenhoe - if Beattie doesn't backflip again at the next State election and, as Wendy says, 'save Qld from drinking recycled water'.

That's politics.

Stuart Khan said...

Hello Voter,

Yes, I guess I wont be too surprised to see candidates saying “vote for me and I wont make you drink from the toilet”. It is to be expected, as you say.

If councils outside of Brisbane are able to voluntarily make themselves independent from Wivenhoe (regardless of their motivation to do so), it may well be a good thing.

Politics indeed.

Iain said...

I'm intrigued that people in general are happy enough to take desal water in their potable supply, but not "recycled" water. It seems to me that the only difference in many cases is a few kilometres of muddy/sandy watercourse and a bit of dilution, particularly in Brisbane where much of the effluent ends up in Moreton bay (and which is where any desal plant for Brisbane would likely be built). Moreover, where does Esk's effluent ultimately end up? And is it treated to the highest available standards?

If I'm not mistaken recycled water is marginally less energy intensive to produce than desal (but I could be wrong, of course).

Recycled water in itself isn't the only answer to the water shortages we're seeing — not every last drop of water from the potable supply ends up back in the wastewater pipeline — but is a possible significant element of a whole-of-system solution. So is desal, so are tanks on private properties, so is the use of greywater (untreated or otherwise). So is just plain getting used to not gratuitiously wasting water.

In the driest permanently inhabited continent on Earth, it's high time we started using all measures to conserve water, and got over the journalist-described "yuk factor" of having reclaimed water in our potable supply.

Greg said...

I would love to see a study into the effects of both desal and effluent recycling on the environment as well. The outcomes could be quite interesting, but at the end of the day there is more water in the ocean then there is in our dams and if the Gold Coast can have it then so can Brisbane.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks Greg,

I was actually thinking that there might be some more sophisticated arguments than “there is more water in the ocean then there is in our dams” or “if the Gold Coast can have it then so can Brisbane”. However, I guess these will do for a start.


Thanks for your well considered comments. The point about seawater desalination being an extreme form of effluent reuse also applies in Sydney. The proposed desalination intake (at Kurnell) is just a few hundred metres south of our largest ocean outfall (Malabar). While a significant degree of dilution is obvious, it also intrigues me that this appears to be enough of an environmental barrier to really break the psychological connection for most people. I would be interested to see a social psychologist take a close look at this phenomenon.

Regarding relative energy intensiveness of potable recycling and desalination, in both cases it predominantly comes down to two main factors: The reverse osmosis treatment step and any required water pumping. As far as treatment goes, seawater desalination is considerably more energy intensive than water recycling. I have discussed the reasons why in an earlier post on seawater desalination.

Annette said...

Wow Stuart, It looks like it was a big weekend in recycled water world. I'm sorry I missed it!

W F Blog said...

Facing the reality of making it work is going to be the real test.

Beattie has now given the water industry a chance to implement. Is water quality the criteria?

It's obviously an important one that you have worked on Stuart, but not the only one.

Can you make a useful volume of water?

Can you dispose of the waste stream in an environmentally friendly way?

Can you operate the plant(s) in a cost effective way?

Will the plants be maintained properly over the long term 20-30 years?

Will food/beverage producers and tour operators be able to maintain their market share in a cruelly competitive world where their product will be criticised?

Will the proposal remove the need to build more dams?

What if it doesn't rain and there is no water to recycle?

Will long term testing reveal undesireable consequences?

Will Brisbane become a 'don't drink the water' city in the Lonely Planet guidebooks?

If SEQ water is later privatised will cost cutting and price rises occur?

Should high energy consumption water solutions like this be used in a greenhouse aware society?

Is water a Human Rights issue?

Should water monopolies provide consumers with choices (ACCC)?

Are people who purchase water from their taps obliged to return it to the sewers for reuse? Do they own the water they buy or just rent it for a few hours?

I guess the point I am (badly) making is that there has been no debate and there are many issues to discuss beyond the science of extracting remnant water from sewage.

Stuart Khan said...

Actually W.F. Blog, you make the point very well.

These are all good questions and are all worthy of detailed consideration and discussion. Many of them (particularly health and environmental protection) have been quite thoroughly dealt with by research and practitioners in the field, but I acknowledge that they have not all been prominent aspects of public discussion. We need to rectify this.

I think communities have a significant role to play in addressing some of the social issues that you raise. Public discussion on the topic of potable recycling is currently highly stimulated throughout Australia and that is a prerequisite productive debate. I expect that your blog will play an important role in facilitating this debate (if that is your intention).

Greg said...

Stuart, our premier premier Beattie has now taken this issue beyond the safety of this water, it is now an issue simply of having water. With that in mind and with the links I have provided here to the new methods now available in the technology of desal I believe it can compete with recycling effluent quite effectively on environmental terms and in energy consumption and can provide a greater and more secure water supply. We just need our premier to get of his high horse and start looking at this alternative seriously instead of listening only to the likes of you! He has an obligation to please the people of this state that elected him to power, not you!

Stuart Khan said...

Greg, I sincerely think that you drastically overestimate the amount of influence I have. Peter Beattie may be accused of many things, but trying to please Stuart Khan is really not one of them.

Greg said...

Sorry Stuart but somebody must be having a drastic influence when he cites London as doing it. Ohh well, at least the Thames is always running, cannot say the same about our creeks that feed our dams here! If environmental and power consumption were such important issues then Beattie would take all motor vehicles off the road under those pretences. There are other factors that need to be considered and if it is only about having water then desal wins this fight by a huge margin! I just grow a little tired of you knocking it, I guess that was part of the reason for my outburst. Perhaps you should take a look at this.

Anonymous said...

Good evening all. I must admit this blog is one of my favourite reads. As an environmental engineer who lives in Toowoomba and voted yes (oh no I hear some cry) I must admit the ongoing debate amuses yet scares me.

Unfortunately the half truths seem to add up to more than the truth. Greg, whilst your concern is noted, the article you have quoted does not actually indicate that the northern suburbs of the Gold Coast, i.e. the old Albert shire draws its water (well when it did when I worked in the water area) from Wivenhoe/Mt Crosby. Its nice of Mr Clarke to state that the Gold Coast wont take water, but this, im reasonably sure does not take the aforementioned fact into account. If the Gold Coast can run off its own steam (no pun inteneded) thats fine they should. However, the fact that they are looking at desal begs the question why if they have plenty of water? I seem to recal Hinze dam was looking empty a while back. Having just spent a weekend on the Tweed coast it took some getting used to not being on restrictions. I mean i could let the kids run under a tap.

Have a good evening.

Greg said...

I guess they are looking at desal as it is a limitless option unlike our dams which rely on rainfall which of late has been pretty scarce around Wivenhoe for some strange reason. I,m pretty sure if Wivenhoe keeps drying up that desal plant will be worth its weight in Gold.

Jaun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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