Thursday, November 29, 2007

World’s largest IPR scheme opens

The world’s largest indirect potable water recycling (IPR) scheme will begin operation this week. The scheme, in Orange County California is known as the Groundwater Replenishment System (GRS) and is essentially an upgrade of the earlier Water Factory 21, which began operation in 1976.

Thanks to the four separate individuals who sent me this article from the New York Times. It’s nice to have a few vigilant spotters out there!

It’s worth clicking on the link below, back to the original source, which includes a couple of nice pictures of the plant. Check out all those membranes!

Oh, speaking of membranes… I happened to visit the advanced water recycling plant at Sydney Olympic Park this afternoon. They had only just recently made the first replacements of some of the reverse osmosis membranes that were installed when the plant was first commissioned back in 2000. Eight years is an excellent achievement!

From Sewage, Added Water for Drinking
By Randal C. Archibold
New York Times
November 27, 2007

FOUNTAIN VALLEY, Calif. — It used to be so final: flush the toilet, and waste be gone.

But on Nov. 30, for millions of people here in Orange County, pulling the lever will be the start of a long, intense process to purify the sewage into drinking water — after a hard scrubbing with filters, screens, chemicals and ultraviolet light and the passage of time underground.

On that Friday, the Orange County Water District will turn on what industry experts say is the world’s largest plant devoted to purifying sewer water to increase drinking water supplies. They and others hope it serves as a model for authorities worldwide facing persistent drought, predicted water shortages and projected growth.

The process, called by proponents “indirect potable water reuse” and “toilet to tap” by the wary, is getting a close look in several cities.

The San Diego City Council approved a pilot plan in October to bolster a drinking water reservoir with recycled sewer water. The mayor vetoed the proposal as costly and unlikely to win public acceptance, but the Council will consider overriding it in early December.

Water officials in the San Jose area announced a study of the issue in September, water managers in South Florida approved a plan in November calling for abundant use of recycled wastewater in the coming years in part to help restock drinking water supplies, and planners in Texas are giving it serious consideration.

“These types of projects you will see springing up all over the place where there are severe water shortages,” said Michael R. Markus, the general manager of the Orange County district, whose plant, which will process 70 million gallons a day, has already been visited by water managers from across the globe.

The finished product, which district managers say exceeds drinking water standards, will not flow directly into kitchen and bathroom taps; state regulations forbid that.

Instead it will be injected underground, with half of it helping to form a barrier against seawater intruding on groundwater sources and the other half gradually filtering into aquifers that supply 2.3 million people, about three-quarters of the county. The recycling project will produce much more potable water and at a higher quality than did the mid-1970s-era plant it replaces.

The Groundwater Replenishment System, as the $481 million plant here is known, is a labyrinth of tubing and tanks that sucks in treated sewer water the color of dark beer from a sanitation plant next door, and first runs it through microfilters to remove solids. The water then undergoes reverse osmosis, forcing it through thin, porous membranes at high pressure, before it is further cleansed with peroxide and ultraviolet light to break down any remaining pharmaceuticals and carcinogens.

The result, Mr. Markus said, “is as pure as distilled water” and about the same cost as buying water from wholesalers.

Recycled water, also called reclaimed or gray water, has been used for decades in agriculture, landscaping and by industrial plants.

And for years, treated sewage, known as effluent, has been discharged into oceans and rivers, including the Mississippi and the Colorado, which supply drinking water for millions.

But only about a dozen water agencies in the United States, and several more abroad, recycle treated sewage to replenish drinking water supplies, though none here steer the water directly into household taps. They typically spray or inject the water into the ground and allow it to percolate down to aquifers.

Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, among the most arid places in Africa, is believed to be the only place in the world that practices “direct potable reuse” on a large-scale, with recycled water going directly into the tap water distribution system, said James Crook, a water industry consultant who has studied the issue.

The projects are costly and often face health concerns from opponents.

Such was the case on Nov. 6 in Tucson, where a wide-ranging ballot measure that would have barred the city from using purified water in drinking water supplies failed overwhelmingly. The water department there said it had no such plans but the idea has been discussed in the past.

John Kromko, a former Arizona state legislator who advocated for the prohibition, said he was skeptical about claims that the recycling process cleanses all contaminants from the water and he suggested that Tucson limit growth rather than find new ways to feed it.

“We really don’t know how safe it is,” he said. “And if we controlled growth we would never have to worry about drinking it.”

Mayor Jerry Sanders of San Diego, in vetoing the City Council plan there, said it “is not a silver bullet for the region’s water needs” and the public has never taken to the idea in the 15 years it has been discussed off and on.

Although originally estimated at $10 million for the pilot study in San Diego, water department officials said the figure would be refined, and the total cost of the project might be hundreds of millions of dollars. Although the Council wants to offset the cost with government grants and other sources, Mr. Sanders predicted it would add to already escalating water bills.

“It is one of the most expensive kinds of water you can create,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the mayor. “It is a large investment for a very small return.”

San Diego, which imports about 85 percent of its water because of a lack of aquifers, asked residents this year to curtail water use.

Here in Orange County, the project, a collaboration between the water and sanitation districts, has not faced serious opposition, in part because of a public awareness and marketing campaign.

Early on, officials secured the backing of environmental groups, elected leaders and civic groups, helped in part by the fact the project eliminated the need for the sanitation district to build a new pipe spewing effluent into the ocean.

Orange County began purifying sewer water in 1976 with its Water Factory 21, which dispensed the cleansed water into the ground to protect groundwater from encroaching seawater.

That plant has been replaced by the new one, with more advanced technology, and is intended to cope with not only current water needs but also expectations that the county’s population will grow by 500,000 by 2020.

Still, said Stephen Coonan, a water industry consultant in Texas, such projects proceed slowly.

“Nobody is jumping out to do it,” he said. “They want to make sure the science is where it should be. I think the public is accepting we are investigating it.”

Monday, November 19, 2007

Toowoomba Effluent worth Fighting For

If you have been following water recycling issues in Australia during the past two years, The City of Toowoomba in Queensland will be a familiar location.

In 2006, Toowoomba became the first city in the world to vote directly on its water supply. The Citizens famously voted ‘NO’ to a plan to recharge an important drinking water reservoir with advanced-treated recycled water. It was a fairly landmark event for urban water management in Australia and we observed a number of lessons from it.

While it is not widely recognised, irrigators played a significant role in urging the citizens to vote against the proposed indirect potable reuse (IPR) scheme. Perhaps not surprisingly, they considered that there were ‘better uses for recycled water’.

Today it is reported in the Courier Mail that Toowoomba City Council has now signed an agreement to supply recycled water to a local coalmine for $1300 a megalitre. That’s about the same price that we pay in Sydney for reticulated potable water.

The trouble is that irrigators have been relying on the free resource of effluent as it has always been discharged from the sewage treatment plant and into local creeks. The Courier Mail article states that ‘farmers had rejected the chance to lock in supplies at $150 a megalitre in 2000’.

Given that Toowoomba now plans to pump potable water up the Great Diving Range from Brisbane’s Wivenhoe Dam, a good price for treated effluent seems like a good thing to help cover the cost of potable water pumping.

However, transferring water from one use to another is a big deal in Australia and carries significant social implications. A degree of disquiet is to be expected.

Mine buys out water allocation
Brian Williams
The Courier Mail
November 18, 2007

SIXTY farmers are threatening to sue Toowoomba City Council for $80 million after losing free waste water because a coalmine is prepared to pay $1300 a megalitre.

Farmers had rejected the chance to lock in supplies at $150 a megalitre in 2000.

Gowrie and Oakey Creek Irrigators Association spokesman Rod Sleba yesterday said farmers had legal advice they could sue for lost earnings based on notes taken at a meeting with council officers in the early 1970s.

Mr Sleba from Kingsthorpe, about 20km from Toowoomba, said farmers understood from the meeting they were guaranteed water.

"The council said they'd give us first opportunity. It seems like a vendetta," he said.

Mayor Di Thorley said the farmers had no agreement and had done well for decades, getting water for nothing.

State and federal funding had been sought in 2000 for a project to pipe water to farmers at $150 a megalitre but when irrigators were approached with the deal, they fought the offer, and the council lost the grants.

Farmers also backed a campaign last year to stop the council from controversially recycling waste water back into drinking water because it would have reduced their supplies.

Council engineer Kevin Flanagan said notes from meetings in 1982, 1988 and 2001 showed irrigators had never been guaranteed the water.

Mr Sleba said farmers had spent $80 million to $100 million on irrigation infrastructure.

New Hope chairman Robert Millner said a contract had been signed to buy recycled water for the Acland coalmine for 28 years from 2010.

"New Hope will build, own and operate a 47km pipeline from Toowoomba to Acland, which will essentially drought proof the mine," Mr Millner said.

Cr Thorley said the council would make about $4 million a year from the mine, which would take 3000ML a year and have an option on a further 2500ML if available.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Caboolture IPR Proposal 1996

One of the first towns in Australia to advocate a planned indirect potable water recycling (IPR) scheme was Caboolture Shire in South East Queensland. This post tells the story primarily in terms of the community reaction to the 1996 proposal.

The information is primarily sourced from local newspaper articles from the time as well as some discussions that I have had with people who were involved. If you have an alternative perspective on the story, I’d be grateful to receive it.

Caboolture shire, in South Eastern Queensland, is one of the fastest growing areas in Australia with a current population of around 140,000.

The Caboolture River runs through the centre of the town and, in part, supplies the town with potable water via a small weir. However, the quantities of water available from the weir have not been sufficient to meet the demands of the shire and most of the potable water is imported from Brisbane City Council.

Caboolture Weir (from Sweetwater Fishing)

The South Caboolture Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) is about a kilometre downstream from the drinking water weir. Unfortunately, the flow regimes of the Caboolture River have been insufficient to effectively flush the river at all times of the year and, by the 1990s, eutrophication of the river had become a significant problem.

The South Caboolture STP was identified as a principal point-source of nutrient inflow to the river and indications developed that the Queensland Environment Protection Authority may soon require improved protection of the river. One likely solution would have been the construction of an ocean outfall pipeline to Moreton Bay.

In 1995, the Caboolture Shire planning engineer was enthusiastic to address the problems facing the shire’s overall water management. He identified water recycling as a potential solution to reduce nutrient discharge to the river while also reducing the shire’s dependence on outside sources of potable water supplies.

The initial proposal was to significantly upgrade the South Caboolture STP and then pump the highly treated effluent back up above the weir for potable reuse. Such a scheme would involve negligible elevation and therefore minimal pumping costs.

The planning engineer proposed the scheme to the shire councillors, many of whom, including Mayor John White, became strong advocates.

The council implemented a strategy aimed at convincing the community that their shire would be a world leader and pioneer of water recycling systems. The treatment process would employ state-of-the-art technology and provide significant environmental and economic benefits to the community. The shire council expected that the community would see the scheme as a significant cultural achievement for Caboolture.

The plan was announced amid much fanfare in February 1996 and a process of public consultation initiated a few months later. It began with the distribution of brochures outlining the project to households and the establishment of a telephone hotline service for the community to provide feedback. The brochures depicted a number of possible scheme variations including recycling back into the town water supply.

The Caboolture Shire Herald reported:

Waste water views tapped.
16 July 1996
Caboolture Shire Herald

CABOOLTURE Shire Council has started public consultation on its waste water re-use proposal.

Brochures explaining the sewage reclamation project have been sent to all households and a phone hotline set up for people to call.

Council public relations manager Andrew Swanton said there had been a slow initial response to the invitation to comment on the scheme.

It involves upgrading the shire's sewage treatment works and a final option which may involve recycling waste water back into the town water supply.

In a letter to rate payers, Caboolture Shire Mayor John White states that the council has to examine all water saving options.

"With the enormous population growth taking place, water consumption within the shire has increased to the point where we are no longer self-sufficient," he said.

He said that while the council was continuing to examine solutions such as new dams and water conservation programs, the recycling option was effective and environmentally friendly.

Any reuse of water for human consumption would only be considered after exhaustive tests by health authorities.

Within a couple of weeks of the brochure distribution, it became very clear that there would be considerable community resistance to potable recycling. The local newspaper presented a ‘vox populi’ section on the question of whether ‘to drink or not to drink?:

Recycling reaction mixed.
30 July 1996
Caboolture Shire Herald

TO drink or not to drink? That's the question the Caboolture Shire Herald asked people in King St last week about the shire council's sewage recycling scheme.

The proposal involves recycling highly treated water from the new South Caboolture Sewerage Treatment Plant back into the weir for drinking purposes.

The response from people was mixed with some thinking it a good idea but others saying it "stunk".

Debbie Ashton, of Burpengary, said she would rather the council encourage people to install rainwater tanks.

She personally would not drink the recycled water.

Annette Berger, of Caboolture, said she supported the scheme as it would be good for the environment.

She said the current Caboolture town water was so bad, it couldn't get any worse. "As long as they did the proper tests, it would be better than what we are drinking now. I used to think the kids were peeing in the shower, the water is so bad."

Sean Wood, of Morayfield, said he would not like his kids to bath in the recycled water. He said it would be all right to use for agricultural purposes but not for human consumption.

Nola Lea, of Wamuran, said the idea "stunk". She said one of her children had been born premature because she drank contaminated water and she would not like to take the risk again.

Nathan Bahre, of Caboolture, said he didn't know too much about the proposal but he didn't like it. "I wouldn't like to drink it," he said.

Kirsty Jones, of Caboolture, said her first reaction to the scheme was revulsion. "If they did strenuous tests, it would not be so bad, but I personally would not drink it," she said.

Tom Robertson, of Caboolture, said the scheme sounded like a good idea. "It worries me a little bit but if we can get assurances it is absolutely purified it should be okay to drink," he said.

Soon after, the council stepped up its public education campaign. This was focused around a very scientific presentation of information such as water quality data, health effects and relative risk description.

The council sponsored two full-day community workshops in August 1996. Speakers included the Caboolture Shire Council water resources planning manager, a representative of the Sunshine Coast Environment Council as well as other experts including microbiologists and water engineers. However, the presentation of such dry technical information proved to be no match for the opposing arguments, which were highly emotionally-based...

Stoush on tap.
12 November 1996
Caboolture Shire Herald

CABOOLTURE Shire Council's controversial sewage recycling debate continues to smoulder despite mayoral attempts to defuse the issue.

Cr Lynette Devereaux (division four) tabled a petition to the council last week. It was signed by 500 people opposing any plans to recycle sewage back into drinking water.

"People have expressed to me the view that they will consider leaving the shire because of this proposal," Cr Devereaux said.

Mayor John White told Cr Devereaux the present council was "not proceeding" with the scheme.

Cr White attempted to further allay community concerns in September when he assured residents they would have the final say on the scheme.

"I wish to give an assurance that no decision will be made on the possible reuse of treated water for at least four years and before doing so, the public will be surveyed to gauge acceptance," Cr White said.

However, Cr Devereaux said people still felt the proposal was "hanging over their heads".

Petition organiser Sue Hannam, of Burpengary, said 90 per cent of the people she spoke to opposed the scheme.

"They were worried about a number of things including health, the effect on real estate prices and the fact their children would have to drink water that was more chemically treated," Mrs Hannam said.

She said despite the Mayor's recent announcement delaying the scheme, the project "could be too far down the track to stop".

The Bribie Island Environmental Protection Association will hold its third community information night on the sewage recycling issue on Friday.

Guest speaker is Keith Harrison, of the Queensland Fertility Group, who will discuss links between male reproductive health and water contaminants.

The meeting will be held at the Bribie Island Community Arts Centre in Sunderland Dve from 7.30pm.

Local government elections took place in early 1997. While water recycling proposals were not the only issues arising during the election campaign, they were among the major issues.

The Mayor, along with a further vocal supporter of the recycling scheme, was not returned to the following council. All of the returned and newly elected councillors had agreed to a campaign policy to not proceed with the current potable recycling proposals and, further, that potable recycling would not be again considered by the council.

Many readers will not help noticing the parallels between this story and the situation in Toowoomba a decade later. Indeed, the Courier Mail carried the following story...

Former mayor warns Thorley
Amanda Gearing, Brendan O'Malley
27 June 2006
The Courier-Mail

The big dry

THE first Australian mayor to be dumped from office for backing recycled drinking water has warned Toowoomba Mayor Di Thorley she risks the same fate.

Ten years ago Caboolture Shire residents ditched their mayor, John White, after he had served for 16 years on the council.

He blamed his demise on a plan to recycle purified sewage from the local wastewater treatment plant.

"I didn't see it as an election issue, but very emotive terms were used and the topic was used to divide the public," he said.

"One day I was the rooster, the next I was a feather duster."

Cr Thorley, who plans to contest the 2008 council election, is backing a similar plan for drought-stricken Toowoomba, where residents are facing a July 29 referendum on water recycling.

Mr White warned she risked a similar fate and he called for a co-ordinated approach from the State Government instead of allowing individual councils to cop the flak.

"If (her) opposition chooses to use this as an issue then she will become a feather duster as well," he said.

He admitted that if he had been able to foresee the deep divisions the debate caused he would have advocated recycling for uses other than drinking.

Cr Thorley said that although she did not underestimate how concerned some residents were about the issue she would not back down.

"I've acknowledged that people take this seriously, but I have not seen that as a reason to make me lose courage," she said.

"I think 1997 in Caboolture was a very different time.

"They weren't faced with running out of water, no one thought Wivenhoe Dam could run dry and you didn't have climate change in the media day after day."

Mr White said he was pleased the debate had led Caboolture to spend millions of dollars to improve its water treatment facilities and to embrace recycling of water for parks, gardens and sporting fields.

"It defies logic to treat millions of litres of water and then dump it into the ocean," he said.

In 1999 Caboolture upgraded its sewage treatment works, treating the effluent to A-class standard rather than building an outfall pipeline to Moreton Bay.

The recycled effluent is now used for new housing and industrial developments and major water users including school grounds, the town's showgrounds and sporting fields, parks and gardens, roadworks and building sites.

It is interesting to note how nothing much changed in terms of community attitudes towards indirect potable reuse between 1996/97 and 2006/07. This is despite the vastly increased pressures on drinking water supplies noted in the article above.

The quote from the Toowoomba Mayor: “I think 1997 in Caboolture was a very different time” is clearly true in terms of some environmental and population density factors. However, it was apparently not correct in terms of social acceptance of the credibility and reliability of facts as they are espoused by scientists and engineers. For that, we can really only blame scientists and engineers...

What do you think?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

ALP Election Policies

As all Australian readers would know, we are approaching the federal election on November 24.

I expect that sometime during the next three weeks, the Howard Government will announce new policies building on the (very effective) National Water Commission (NWC) and associated funding programs. As I understand it, the major NWC funding programs are now essentially fully allocated so a major injection of funds will be required to sustain the role of the Commission. I’ll endeavour to take a look at any announcements as they come.

During the last two weeks, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) have announced what I presume to be their major election campaign policies regarding urban water supply. The centre piece is a $1 billion National Urban Water and Desalination Plan (NUWD Plan). This is to fund a 10% Water Tax Credit and grants for approved desalination, water recycling, and major storm water capture projects developed by the private sector, local governments, and State and Territory Governments.

Its not entirely clear (to me) how the tax credit will work. However, I assume that it means that an ALP Government would provide 10% of the up-front capital costs by allowing project proponents to keep an equivalent sum that would otherwise be required to be paid as tax.

Where the project proponent is a government-owned business that does not pay Commonwealth income tax, support from the NUWD Plan would instead be paid in cash.

Project proponents would be able to submit proposals for funding assistance up until the end of June 2009. To be eligible, projects must source 100% of their energy needs from renewable supplies or else fully offset the carbon impact of their operations using nationally accredited offsets.

There wasn’t much response from the Howard Government to this announcement. However The Greens did weigh in with Bob Brown stating that stormwater recycling and water harvesting are good ideas but desalination plants are not. Brown noted that desalination plants are “energy guzzlers” and claimed that the ALP’s plan to keep the plants carbon-neutral was unrealistic. He said “they use vast amounts of energy and if you're going to (divert) Australia's flow of wind power into these desalination plants you're simply taking it away from households and businesses elsewhere and burning more coal”

Kevin Rudd at the Gold Coast Desalination Plant

The ALP has also promised to establish a Centre of Excellence in Desalination in Perth and a Centre of Excellence in Water Recycling in Brisbane. These Centres would each be funded at $4 million per year for five years.

Universities, government agencies and other interested stakeholders will be asked to develop collaborative bids to competitively bid for the opportunity to be part of each Centre.

I haven’t seen any specific detail regarding the proposed activities of the Water Recycling Centre yet. However, the activities of the Desalination Centre of Excellence were described during a recent ALP visit to Perth:

  • Investigating ways of optimising and adapting desalination technology for optimum use in Australia’s unique circumstances;
  • Expand on research into the use of desalination technology in rural and regional areas;
  • Researching ways of efficiently and affordably reducing the carbon footprint of desalination facilities; and
  • Accelerating ground breaking research on energy efficient bulk water supply technology being developed in Australia.

These seem like very noble goals indeed. I think it is appropriate that the focus appears to be on addressing some of the existing technical limitations of seawater desalination (predominantly the energy costs and carbon footprint).

Personally, I would have added research towards achieving environmentally sustainable management of concentrated desalination brine streams. While this is extremely important for coastal areas, it is the major limiting factor for the increased uptake of brackish water desalination in inland areas. Perhaps it comes naturally under the first two dot points.

One quick pedantic point before I finish this post...

Perth’s existing seawater desalination plant at Kwinana is normally described as having a capacity of 125 megalitres per day (ML/day) or 45 gigalitres per year (GL/year). However, for some reason the ALP’s media release this week prefers US Gallons: “The Kwinana Desalination Plant already turns water from the Indian Ocean into nearly 40 million gallons of drinking water a day”. Presumably this is a result of having sourced the information from Wikipedia which states: “The Kwinana Desalination Plant, located just south of Perth, Western Australia, turns water from the Indian Ocean into nearly 40 million gallons of drinking water per day”. I guess they must be pretty busy in the ALP campaign office right now.