Monday, April 23, 2007

A brief bout of trumpet blowing

There was an article about water recycling in the Canberra Times today. Unless you live in Canberra, you probably didn’t see it since it doesn’t appear to be available on the newspaper’s website. I retrieved it from a media database called Factiva, for which you need a subscription to access, so I can’t provide a link.

However, I couldn’t resist posting it here since it mentions this blog. It’s a case of the media discussing this blog discussing the media (and now this blog discussing the media back again!). There must be term for this. I mean a polite term!

As always, I’d be grateful for your opinions...

When is water fit to drink?
The Canberra Times
23 April 2007

UNIVERSITY of NSW water quality scientist Dr Stuart Khan doesn't think Canberra residents are being squeamish in objecting to ACT government plans to add treated effluent to their drinking water. ''Squeamish? Definitely not, it's a natural response that's worked well for the human species in terms of evolution we know instinctively to avoid water that's contaminated. ''I accept the 'yuk factor' as an objection. People should be concerned about the quality of their drinking water,'' he says.

Khan, a senior researcher at the University of NSW centre for water and waste technology, isn't opposed to recycled water schemes. In fact, he's been one of their most articulate champions but argues they can't be touted as foolproof or without human health risks. ''Scientists can never say there's no risk with recycled water, but most risks can be effectively managed if advanced treatment processes are employed.''

Several years ago, Khan conducted the first survey of pharmaceuticals in Australia's waterways as his doctoral thesis. He looked at which drugs anti-depressants, contraceptive pills, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics were being prescribed at high enough concentrations to be detected in municipal sewage. Studying inflows and discharges at a sewage treatment plant in western Sydney, Khan found removal of these biologically active compounds was variable, depending on methods of wastewater treatment. He told the ABC's ''Earth Hour'' in 2004 that pharmaceutical drugs were entering the environment at ''pretty much the same mass per year'' as pesticides and it was time to ''look at setting, or at least talking about, arguing about, what are acceptable limits that a sewage treatment plant can emit.''

Earlier this year, he co-authored a report for the Local Government Association of Queensland on the risks and health effects of adding highly treated wastewater reclaimed from municipal effluents to drinking water. The report says the microbial and chemical quality of water intended for recycling ''is generally very high'' and risks associated with potable reuse ''while never zero, are successively decreased with increasing levels of treatment.'' But it also says the range of potential contaminants in municipal wastewaters ''is significantly greater than in well protected environmental waters'', and concentrations of these contaminants can fluctuate, making them difficult to detect by conventional water monitoring systems. ''While studies undertaken overseas bode well for the safety of recycled water generally, exactly how effectively these studies can be translated to potential Australian schemes is less clear. Water sources will differ and water treatment processes will differ,'' the report says.

In recent weeks, Khan has been keeping a close eye on political events in the ACT, posting commentary on his water recycling discussion blogsite ( www.waterrecycling.blogspot.com ). Former ACT Planning Minister Simon Corbell was stripped of the portfolio after calling for a more cautious approach to water recycling, following concerns raised by Canberra Hospital infectious diseases specialist Professor Peter Collignon over the risks of prescription drugs persisting in the waster supply. ''I'm concerned that the recent water policy is a fait accompli ... I think as a government we need to be more critical of what's being proposed,'' Corbell said. On his blog, Khan wrote: ''One might think this would be perfectly reasonable and, in fact, prudent position to take especially given Collignon's expression of concern. Absolute confidence that public health will be protected is vital ... I am perhaps idealistic enough to think that open debate should be encouraged, rather than crushed. If a Planning Minister can't engage in a public debate about water management and public safety, who can?''

During the NSW election campaign, former state Liberal leader Peter Debnam downed as glass of ''recycled'' water as part of a taste-test media stunt to launch his $955million water recycling plan. There were political red faces when it was later revealed by water experts that the water used in the taste-test came from Sydney Water's North Richmond filtration plant on the Hawkesbury-Nepean river. Sydney Water confirmed the water was produced from run-off, and was not recycled water.

Toowoomba's rejection of recycled water has been criticised as ill-informed and the result of a fear campaign exaggerating health risks. Khan was involved in the public debate as a supporter of water recycling schemes but says it's wrong to portray Toowoomba residents ''as a bunch of Luddites incapable of accepting scientific fact.'' He argues the major factor for many No- voters in Toowoomba had ''little to do with any suggestion that there may be something fundamentally wrong with the concept of planned potable water recycling.'' What scuppered the scheme was lack of community consultation and ''a perceived unwillingness'' of the council to consider alternative water management options. ''These factors left the community feeling disempowered and generated suspicion of the council's motivation,'' he writes. ''There are many lessons to be learned from Toowoomba. If we dont take them seriously, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes. Observing people in the media and on this blog lashing out at Toowoomba residents for being stupid, naive and irrational is not encouraging.''

Last week, Australian National University professor of water resources, Ian White, dismissed the ACT Government's plans to add treated effluent to Canberra's drinking water as a cynical way ''to make money by pushing up water prices.'' He also accused ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope of a potential conflict on interest between his new role as environment minister and his financial obligations as principal government shareholder of water utility Actew.

Stanhope dismissed the suggestion as ''extremely offensive'', saying he was fully aware of, and accepted, his ministerial responsibilities to distinguish between the dual roles. But White and former Actew chief engineer Cary Reynolds have raised questions about the cost-benefit analyses that under-pin the government's push to introduce recycled water. ''It's a very expensive option and the government haven't adequately explained why it's necessary or what it will cost consumers. Where's the economic debate? We seem to have skipped that,'' White says. He claims the government's plans to introduce recycled water ignore the recommendations of a previous Actew report in 1994 which outlined a 50 year strategy to guide Canberra's water supplies. The report, which involved two-years of community consultation, was designed to be reviewed and updated every five years with new data, but was shelved in 2004 and replaced by the government's pared-down Think Water Act Water strategy.

Reynolds was one of the authors of the 1994 report which won national awards for innovation and points out more than 97 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of using treated water to irrigate parks and gardens. Only 20 per cent supported use of treated and recycled effluent as drinking water. Reynolds believes a less costly solution to Canberra's water problems is to ''mine'' effluent from the sewer and stormwater systems, using treated effluent for irrigation.

Effluent mining is already being used to irrigate the Duntroon sports ovals, and the system could be expanded across the city at a cost of about $5million to build two treatment plants, he says. ''Do we need to go to recycled drinking water because of the drought? Probably not if we remove irrigation demands from potable water by using treated effluent, and place more emphasis on community education. We need to tell people how to save water.'' To prove his point, Reynolds opens a door under his laundry tub to reveal a simple valve that costs around $160 for a plumber to install. A length of flexible hose (like those connected to washing machine outlets) can be connected to channel greywater from the laundry to water the garden. '' A greywater system may be too expensive for some people, but they can do something like this at minimal cost. We need to show people what to do, not tell them we'll do the thinking for them''.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

Pretty good summary of the Toowoomba position.

Things might have been different if Thorley wasn't mayor and her deputy wasn't threatening to drop rocks on people. Their idea of community consultation was something straight out of the 3rd Reich - yes, they wanted to march the kiddies through the streets too!

Beyond all of Thorley's threats to cut gospel festival funding, sack outside council workers and generally bully people towards a yes vote, she forgot that acceptance of recycled water is linked to trust (she could have read that in any of the studies!) and her tactics ensured that people didn't trust her or her colleagues.

She just got more and more angry and frustrated as her plans to help the big companies roll out AWTs around Australia went down the drain.

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