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?


Anonymous said...

"The recycled effluent [in Caboolture] 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."

What could be better? This non-potable water reuse off-sets the demand for potable water for these applications. Smart water management by a community who examined thier options.

Watch Toowoomba do the same after the 2008 Council election.

Anonymous said...

The arrogance of scientists and engineers in beyond belief as the sit back and call the people names and tell us to just trust them.

While they disagree on the safety of the use of purified recycled water we will always say NO!

Anonymous said...

Water recycling is vital to our survival, excellent points!

W F Blog said...

I think the Caboolture Council and Mayor White were mislead by the Caloundra - Maroochy Waste and Wastewater Study which got very bad reviews as a push-poll engagement.

White believed what he read and thought the community accepted IPR.

He was wrong.

Mayor Thorley is not standing for re-election being smart enough to realise it would be a waste of time. The other five vocal supporters of IPR on Council may stand but will not be re-elected.

Ten years later and public opinion hasn't changed. Why?

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks WF,

I pondered the same question in the final paragraph of the blog post.

My simplistic answer is that scientists and engineers have thus far failed to properly communicate some of the realities of the natural (and anthropogenic) hydrologic cycles and the evidence available to support the safety of water recycling to a wider audience.

However, I expect that there is more to it than that. I wrote a post in July 2006, which began to discuss some of the psychological barriers that we all face when it comes to water recycling. I expect that for many of us, no amount of rational argument and scientific evidence will get us over these barriers. We are emotional beings and this is simply a reflection of the way that I believe us humans are hard-wired.

Perhaps you have an alternative answer to the question?

W F Blog said...

Perhaps extracting drinking water from a sewage treatment plant is unacceptable to most rational people and has remained so over the past ten years and undoubtedly will remain so into the future.

Stuart Khan said...

I asked for it and I got it :-)


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