Monday, December 15, 2008

boire l'eau des égouts

Queensland’s indirect potable water recycling plans, and the controversy surrounding them, made it all the way to France’s largest daily newspaper Le Monde this week.

Not only that, but I see that I have been promoted to ‘professeur au centre de recherche sur l'eau de l'université de Nouvelle-Galles-du-Sud’. Hmm…I must get those business cards reprinted!

I, of course, do not speak français. Thus I can only assume that the article is a close reflection of the debate as we know it in Australia. If it does say something a little unusual, I’d be pleased to know about it...


Assoiffée, l'Australie répugne à "boire l'eau des égouts"
By Marie-Morgane Le Moël
Le Monde
11 Dec 2008


En Australie, un projet d'usine de recyclage de l'eau provoque la controverse. Dans l'Etat du Queensland, le premier centre de traitement du pays destiné à produire de l'eau potable à partir des eaux usées sera prêt à fonctionner d'ici quelques mois. Il pourrait produire 60 millions de litres d'eau purifiée par jour, par un traitement en sept étapes, avec un procédé de pointe incluant osmose inverse et oxydation accélérée.

Originellement, l'eau purifiée devait alimenter le réservoir principal de Brisbane et de sa région, pour subvenir à entre 10 % et 25 % de la consommation des 2,6 millions d'habitants. Les besoins sont importants : la population de la région pourrait doubler d'ici cinquante ans. Mais la perspective de boire de l'eau recyclée effraie. Divers groupes se sont donc créés pour rejeter l'idée de "boire l'eau des égouts", multipliant les pétitions sur Internet.

"TIREZ LA CHASSE ET ENSUITE, BUVEZ !"

Des médias s'en sont mêlés et des articles aux titres tels que "Tirez la chasse d'eau et ensuite, buvez !" ont attisé les peurs. Des universitaires ont également fait connaître leur opposition : "Le procédé d'osmose inverse ne suffit pas : à Brisbane, on a pu voir que seuls 92 % des antibiotiques présents dans les eaux usées ont pu être supprimés", affirme Peter Collignon, microbiologiste à l'université nationale australienne (ANU).

Pourtant, boire de l'eau recyclée se pratique ailleurs dans le monde. Ainsi, à Singapour, 1 % de l'eau recyclée est utilisée comme eau potable. Plusieurs centres de traitement existent également aux Etats-Unis et en Belgique. "En Australie aussi, de l'eau recyclée est utilisée pour la consommation humaine, mais de façon indirecte : l'eau usée est rejetée dans un fleuve ou un réservoir, avant d'être ensuite traitée et réutilisée par une autre ville en aval", remarque Stuart Khan, professeur au centre de recherche sur l'eau de l'université de Nouvelle-Galles-du-Sud.

Mais tous les arguments en faveur de l'eau recyclée n'auront pas suffi à convaincre le public. Après avoir affronté une campagne d'opposition durant plusieurs semaines, Anna Bligh, premier ministre du Queensland, a fait savoir que l'eau recyclée ne serait utilisée que lorsque le niveau des réservoirs descendrait à 40 % de remplissage.

Ce qui risque d'être le cas d'ici quelques mois. Et désormais, les Australiens pourraient bien ne plus avoir le choix. Car dans le pays le plus sec au monde, la sécheresse s'aggrave au fil des ans. "Traditionnellement, les précipitations sont très variables ici. Mais on a noté ces dernières années une baisse durable, avec des flux correspondant à entre 43 % et 65 % des moyennes de longue durée. C'est une situation nouvelle", explique Tom Mollenkopf, directeur de l'Association australienne de l'eau (AWA).

Dans beaucoup de villes, comme Melbourne, les réservoirs ont diminué, atteignant des niveaux de remplissage de parfois 30 % seulement. Du coup, l'Etat australien investit massivement dans de nouvelles infrastructures pour l'eau. Quasiment toutes les métropoles du pays se dotent d'une usine de dessalement d'eau de mer, et les habitants sont incités à installer des citernes chez eux, par des mesures fiscales favorables. Enfin, beaucoup de villes ont dû mettre en place de sévères restrictions d'eau. Cela a fonctionné : dans le sud-est du Queensland, les habitants sont passés d'une consommation de 300 litres d'eau par jour à 140 litres. "Cela ne suffit pas ; la situation est telle qu'il faut désormais bien plus que des restrictions", prévient M. Mollenkopf.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

In Conversation

I was invited to be interviewed for the ABC Radio National Program ‘In Conversation’. Of course, the main topic of discussion was potable water recycling. If you’re interested, you can listen to the interview online here. Or if you prefer to skim for the controversial parts, the transcript is below...

I can’t quite believe that I suggested that there was a good case for damming the Mary River, -I must have been nervous!



Robyn Williams: Good evening, Robyn Williams with In Conversation, and this time a wet one; it's about the paradox of planet water. Now let's be serious, if you saw us from space you'd hardly want to call us the planet earth when such a very small fraction of it isn't blue; it should be the planet water, shouldn't it? And the paradox, well, that is the fact that so little of this water, barely 2%, is freely available for drinking, washing or putting in your vase. So much water, so little to drink, as the poet remarked.

And to obtain more we need the science, not least the science and technology of recycling, and don't forget that it's the same water going around and around from millennia. Here's In Conversation producer Nicky Phillips with Dr Stuart Khan at the University of NSW.

Nicky Phillips: Stuart, there's a fairly big debate at the moment going on in south east Queensland about recycled water, there's going to be a recycled water plant in use as of February next year. But 12 months ago it was quite a distressing situation with the water suppliers in Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Can you tell us just how bad the situation was?

Stuart Khan: Yes, I think in around March last year, March 2007, the Queensland government had released some projections on where their water supply would be and they were really quite startling projections. They were assuming that Queensland would stay on very, very tight water restrictions, level 5 water restrictions and that the inflows to the dams would be the same as they were in 2006/2007, which of course didn't turn out to be the case; we've had much better rain than that. But looking at those projections, they were looking at situations of pretty much running out of water, being less than 5% of capacity of the dams by around about this time, or early next year if they did not go ahead and build a number of major pieces of infrastructure—including the indirect potable water recycling scheme that they're building and also including the desalination plant down at the Gold Coast at Tugun River, as well as the new dams they are building on the Mary River. So without building all three of those components to the water supply system, really it was looking like a serious situation to running out of water. And even with those, the possibilities of having very, very low water supplies ongoing into the future were quite stark. So there was a lot of pressure on the Queensland government to do something.

Nicky Phillips: So that the indirect potable reuse centre is going ahead?

Stuart Khan: Yes, it's recycled water, it's water I think from I think six waste water treatment plants around south east Queensland, of which the water is then taken to three new advanced water treatment plants where they undergo advanced treatment processes including membrane filtration through a reverse osmosis membrane, and advanced oxidation, which is an oxidative process that breaks down any remaining chemicals that may make it through the reverse osmosis process.

Then some of it going to power stations, two major power stations in south east Queensland, Swanbank and Tarong power stations, and the left over water available from that will then be used to recharge Brisbane's main drinking water supply, which is at Lake Wivenhoe, or Wivenhoe Dam. And from there of course it will be mixed with the natural inflows of water into that dam, flow around 40 kilometres downstream to the Mount Crosby water filtration plant where it will then be treated at the conventional drinking water treatment plant, undergoing filtration and chlorination before being redistributed back as a clean drinking water source to the residents of south east Queensland.

Nicky Phillips: For all the hysteria that surrounds recycled water, do people realise that they drink unplanned potable reused water?

Stuart Khan: I think awareness of that fact is increasing because of the debate surrounding planned indirect potable water use. Unplanned water recycling is a situation where we have waste water treatment plants, sewerage treatment plants, discharging conventionally treated waste water that was never meant for drinking and not prepared in a way that's supposed to be suitable for drinking into rivers, or into catchments upstream of where other towns will take their drinking water supplies from that particular river.

So there are examples all over Australia of unplanned indirect potable water areas and there are examples all over the world. Some of the classic Australian examples are in Sydney. We have...our drinking water supply is Warragamba Dam and we have influence coming into that dam from sewerage treatment plants such as Lithgow sewerage treatment plant, commonly Goulburn discharges its water into the Wollondilly River which then flows down and becomes part of our drinking water supply. I think at the moment there is so little water available in Goulburn that they are actually reusing most of that water themselves for irrigation.

Those are two of the sewerage treatment plants that end up as part of Sydney's water supply. In Queensland the water that's already flowing into Lake Wivenhoe comes from a number of sewerage treatment plants including at Esk, Lowood, the list goes on and it's the same all over the world. It's a normal situation and it's called unplanned indirect potable water reuse.

Nicky Phillips: Opponents of recycled drinking water suggest that there could be dangerous bacteria or virus outbreaks but I'm assuming that that could also happen in non-recycled water?

Stuart Khan: Yes it can also happen in non-recycled water and it does also happen in non-recycled water. There's a professor in Canada actually called Steve Hrudey who released a very, very interesting book about four years ago called Safe Water Drinking. The book was essentially a review of all of the water borne illness outbreaks that had occurred in developed countries in the last 10 or 20 years and there are many examples. So we've seen outbreaks from organisms like cryptosporidium and giardia which are protozoan organisms causing illnesses in cities like Milwaukie in the US and very famously Walkerton in Canada where a number of people died because of those outbreaks. And they are conventional drinking water treatment processes, they are not water recycling schemes, they are drinking water treatment processes which in hindsight had been shown to be relatively poorly managed or not optimally managed and it shows us the importance of really taking a lot of care and a lot of attention in the way we manage risks associated with drinking water production and drinking water distribution. Because the risks are real, there are real possibilities of people becoming ill and people dying if things are not done properly.

Nicky Phillips: So what are the advantages of using recycled water?

Stuart Khan: Well there are a few advantages of using recycled water, in fact if you actually look at the way that we've started to use recycled water in Australia the major driver in the 1990s was environmental protection. We started to have the development of the EPAs, the state based EPAs around Australia which started to impose tighter restrictions on pollution that could be discharged. And so that put a lot of pressure on water utilities to start finding alternative ways of disposing of the water. And we started to see water recycling projects that included things like watering lots, and lots of golf courses around Australia are watered by recycled water and airports, and we started to see a little bit of industrial use but essentially they are ways of avoiding discharging water into rivers and streams.

But then in the last decade the driver really changed because since about 2000/2001 when we went into a long term El Nino phase on the east coast and we saw some similar evidence of climate change on the west coast of Australia the driver for all water management in Australia became finding new sources for drinking water supplies for major cities, or preserving those drinking water supplies for major cities. So we started looking at opportunities to recycle water in a way that would take pressure off current drinking water supplies and we started to see a lot of new industrial water recycling developments.

Now a lot of the low-hanging fruit, so as to speak, has been picked and a lot of those easy industrial processes have been identified and we are starting to see that the next best way to be able to preserve water supplies, actually to use that water as an indirect process for refilling our drinking water catchments. So that requires a lot more investment in the way that we treat water to ensure that we are treating water to a very, very high quality suitable for a drinking water source. A lot of change in the way that we manage recycled water once it becomes the drinking water supply. We recognise that new guide lines are required in Australia which have been developed and endorsed by the National Health and Medical Research Council that impose a very strict risk assessment and risk management regime on the way that water is prepared, delivered and managed in general in terms of understanding what could go wrong in the processes of supplying that water and how those problems can be avoided.

The philosophy that has generally been imposed is a multiple barrier of philosophy where if you have a human error, if you have a problem in the water treatment process, or a water supply process that there's a large degree of redundancy built into the system where there are subsequent barriers that can handle that water and produce high quality water anyway even if things go wrong upstream. So it gives us the opportunity to be able to deal with problems as they come up but still be able to produce a very reliable supply of drinking water into our catchments.

Nicky Phillips: So if it's so reliable why do you think the public is so concerned? Is it still that we haven't got over the yuk factor of recycled water?

Stuart Khan: Yes, that's a big question and there's a lot of research going on trying to understand the way we think about water, trying to understand why we have a yuk factor, so as to speak. I mean the yuk factor is real, it's not some way of criticising people who take a less rational approach to their attitudes towards water. My own opinion is that it's something that we evolved with and the yuk factor actually served us very, very well. It tells us that keeping away from our own faecal excrements etc. is a really, really good idea and we're repulsed by the idea of going close to it. And that's because people who did get too close to human excrements in the past were more likely to catch diseases and less likely to survive. And there's evolutionary pressure there for us to exhibit that kind of behaviour, or not to exhibit that kind of behaviour.

So it's a real leap for us to be able to go from a real natural instinct to not want to have anything to do with our own bodily excrements and waste water that carries those excrements to suddenly actually being able to say we can treat that water very, very well, very reliably, to a very, very high quality and to produce a much cleaner water that what we are currently drinking. I think that's a leap for a lot of people including myself but the fact is it can be done, it is done, there's plenty of evidence for it, there are plants across the USA that are doing exactly that and there's no reason why we can't do it just as well in Australia.

Nicky Phillips: As well as the public's concerns about recycled water it's also got scientists debating. Now microbiologist Peter Collignon and town planner Patrick Troy have been quite vocal in their opposition to recycled water. Is it a subject that has divided scientists or is it just a few people speaking out against it?

Stuart Khan: I think without wanting to put words in the mouths of other people my understanding of most of the comments that have been made by people such as Professor Collignon are that there's a general acceptance that these water treatment plants, advanced water treatment plants can be built and designed to do a great job, to produce very clean water. And when they're doing what they are supposed to be doing they do indeed produce very clean water. I think the major concern that has been expressed is how reliable is that, can things go wrong, and what happens if things do go wrong? That's probably the area where there is a bit of division in the scientific community with a number of people taking the position that the risk management regime that's been imposed by the new Australian water recycling guidelines is a very effective regime, it's a regime that's been adopted from the food industry largely. I think that the concept that if things go wrong it will necessarily lead to human health implications is wrong.

Generally if we're talking about reverse osmosis membranes for example if a reversals osmosis membrane breaks down what generally happens is you can't supply the water, you can't get water through the membrane if it's not working properly and that water needs to be discharged. So you run a risk there of course of not being able to produce the water that you want to produce but you don't produce water that's of a lower quality, that water remains either there at a very high quality or not available at all. One of the comments that I've heard recently that Professor Collignon made on the radio was that he was suggesting that major developments in public health in the last 200 years have really come about because people have learnt to separate their drinking water supplies from their waste water discharges.

It's actually factually incorrect, because we've never been able to separate drinking water supplies from waste water discharges and usually when people are thinking about major advances in the control of cholera and other water borne diseases we are thinking about situations like London in the 1800s where there were endemic cases of typhoid and cholera and largely they were related to waste water being in the drinking water supply. However we never, ever were able to really separate them, the London drinking water supply, a large part of it comes from the Thames River and there are 380 sewerage treatment plants that discharge water into the Thames River and it becomes part of the London water supply.

What we've done is we've increased treatment, we've improved the treatment of that water, we've developed techniques like media filtration, flocculation, coagulation, activated carbon absorption, disinfection most importantly and chlorination and it's these processes that have been effective in making sure that water, even though it hasn't been separated from our drinking water resource and is our drinking water sources and even though it is recycled water it's actually safe to drink. So it's not about separation it's about treatment and I would go so far as to say that those major public health advances of the 1800s, the people we can thank for those are not the medical profession at all, it's the engineers, it's the water treatment engineers that have provided safe drinking water to cities like London that really should get the credit for the major advances in public health.

Nicky Phillips: Another aspect of your research is on hormones in water. Have we always been concerned with hormones or organic material in water or is this just come up because of the recycled water debate? I mean hormones are excreted by everyone in their urine, is it just because we are now talking about using recycled water that it's an issue?

Stuart Khan: Yes, the fact that we're talking about water recycling has definitely raised the profile of the issues associated with chemicals like hormones in water in the community. However, the issue itself of being concerned about trace organics such as hormones in water certainly precedes potable water recycling schemes and is much more relevant really to environmental systems because that's where we've actually seen impacts. In about the mid 90s was when people started to ask questions about what was going on in some environmental systems people were catching fish that were showing very unusual qualities and these were referred to as herm fish because they had some part male and part female qualities. The reason for that was not clear at the time but from some investigations that took place in the UK it was traced back to the impact of chemicals that were coming from the sewerage treatment plant being discharged into rivers in the UK. Largely they were hormones but there were also lots of other industrial chemicals and some natural chemicals that mimic the effect of hormones. What they found is that if they put fish in a cage in a river just downstream of a sewerage treatment plant discharge those fish eventually exhibited those qualities of being feminised.

And it was related back to the presence of the particular hormones such as oestrogen, a hormone called 17 beta oestradiol which is a natural oestrogen and a hormone called ethanol-oestradiol which is a synthetic oestrogen that's used in the contraceptive pill. That was traced back to discharges from very poorly treated sewerage that was being discharged into rivers in northern England. Since the 1990s a lot of research has been done in that particular area looking at different organisms, different types of fish in different places around the world and we see now that it's a worldwide phenomenon.

Nicky Phillips: What about its effect on humans, have there been any research on that?

Stuart Khan: Yeah, it's a controversial topic on which it's definitely true to say that the scientific community is divided but there have been suggestions that exposure to different chemicals, not necessarily hormones themselves, but other chemicals that mimic the action of hormones, plasticisers, industrial chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls etc. have caused similar types of effects in humans, or at least effects related to our sexuality or to our endocrine systems. The main focus has been on sperm counts and sperm mobility and there are been a few epidemiological studies that have suggested that male sperm counts have been decreasing around the world over the last two decades and that evidence has more of less been brought together with observations of endocrine disrupting chemicals, hormones etc. in wild life. People are essentially putting two and two together and saying well you know we're seeing effects on humans, we know that these chemicals have effects on animals; could the chemicals be responsible for the effects that we are seeing on humans?

And that's a perfectly valid hypothesis that they may well be. However, the general scientific consensus is that we haven't actually been able to identify a conclusive link between the presence of these chemicals in our environment and effects on humans even though I think it's well accepted that we keep on looking and we keep on researching the issue we will find links.
Nicky Phillips: Hormones are very small, are they easily removed from water?
Stuart Khan: Yes, there are a number of different treatment processes that we use that are very effective for removing hormones from water, even conventional waste water treatment plants can be very effective if they are designed and operated well. Some studies that were undertaken recently in Queensland show that it's related to how we manage the activated sludge process, the biological process and if that sludge process is managed in a way that optimises the removal of organics we can end up with water where we cannot measure hormones in the effluence at all. And in fact that is very consistent with a lot of studies that are now being undertaken around Australia. But poorly operated waste water treatment plants we can definitely measure concentrations of hormones down around the milligram per litre concentration but well operated plants are very effective in removing those.

Then if we're talking about advanced water recycling processes reverse osmosis is extremely effective for rejecting any additional hormones that may be present or may not be present, they offer a multiple barrier essentially for the removal of any hormones that may theoretically be present in effluence going into an advanced water recycling treatment plant. And then, if you're talking about drinking water, an advanced drinking water treatment plant where you are actually using advanced oxidation as is the case in south east Queensland as a subsequent treatment process, then advanced oxidation is extremely powerful again at degrading hormones. So I think it's important to be clear that hormones in sewerage doesn't equal hormones in recycled water. One is a source water to a water recycling scheme and the other is a final product of water and of course the millions and billions of dollars that we are spending in between is supposed to achieve something and what it achieves is effective removal of a lot of trace organic chemical contaminants.

Nicky Phillips: So has there been any research on the effect of hormones or hormone-like chemicals on the Australian environment?

Stuart Khan: Very little, in fact there was a meeting in Canberra about 12 months ago that scientist from all around Australia came together and we decided to put together a document called the Black Mountain Declaration and put together a document that describes the consensus is on the implications of hormones and hormone like chemicals in the Australian environment. And it was well agreed that there's reasons to be concerned because when we've done surveys of Australian rivers we find that you'll see similar concentrations to those concentrations that have been reported from Europe. However, nobody has really gone out and done a systematic survey of impacts on Australian native species and we've not seen these sorts of feminisation processes that we've seen across Europe and across the USA in Australia. But it's because we're not looking and I think that's a key part of the Black Mountain Declaration is that we require research, it's a research priority to start saying well, you know we have all the evidence to suggest that there will be impacts to Australian wildlife if we can actually be bothered to get out there and look for it. That's an important part of our research agenda now.

Nicky Phillips: Now I understand your background is in chemistry, why did you get involved in water treatment?

Stuart Khan: I was working at Sydney University, I'd actually started a PhD in organic chemistry at Sydney University which I didn't end up finishing, but I was looking around for an alternative option for a PhD at the University of NSW and I was introduced to a professor that was a visiting professor from the US. And he had a background in microbial water treatment, or water engineering, looking at organisms like cryptosporidium and giardia.
My background being in chemistry, we sort of came together over a cup of coffee and we talked about what each of us could bring to a particular PhD project and we decided that the issue was just emerging in the time, in the mid to late 90s, that people were starting to report early occurrences of pharmaceuticals and hormones in water and so we were keen to have a look at whether the water treatment processes that my PhD supervisor was studying looking for microbes could actually have an effect on some of the organic chemicals as well.

And so we ended up doing a large number of surveys at some sewerage treatment plants in Sydney, looking at removal through conventional waste water treatment processes and there was also a pilot water recycling plant that was available up in Queensland at the time that we did some surveys looking at the removal of pharmaceuticals through processes like reverse osmosis and micro filtration, ozonation, advanced oxidation etc. which turned out to be some of the earlier studies on the removal of those chemicals by advanced water recycling processes. There are plenty, plenty more of them now that are much more comprehensive than the ones I ran ten years ago but that's very much what sparked my interest in the whole area of advanced water treatment.

Nicky Phillips: What do you like the most about studying water treatment?

Stuart Khan: I love chemistry, I love understanding how chemicals react to each other, how chemicals are removed, how chemicals are degraded by biological processes and physical processes, that's my interest. I am also interested in risks associated with chemistry and toxicology, I love discovering new pollutants I like what's actually a headache to a lot of people finding new pollutants, new byproducts from treatment processes that we are using and getting a good handle on the significance of those by-products and those chemicals and if they do present a risk to human health, if they can be degraded by different processes, or if we can prevent forming some of the by-products in the first place by operating processes in a different way. Anything to do with chemicals in water I'm generally interested in it.

Robyn Williams: Dr Stuart Khan at the University of NSW. And what exactly goes ahead in Queensland is as much to do with politics now as it is to do with science. He was with Nicky Phillips. Next week at this time I shall be In Conversation with the distinguished mathematician Freeman Dyson from Princeton.

Freeman Dyson: Sea level rises may or may not have anything to do with global warming, it's not at all clear. Sea level rise has been going on much longer, long before global warming and it probably has very little to do with human activities. All we know for sure is that sea level has been rising steadily for about 10,000 years and we'll have to do something about that.

Robyn Williams: Freeman Dyson at the Institute for Advance Studies at Princeton— that's next week on the Galapagos, climate and much else. I'm Robyn Williams.

Monday, December 08, 2008

IPR for Melbourne?

There is an interesting editorial from The Age in Melbourne today. It calls for indirect potable reuse (IPR) of water to be considered as a component of water supplies in Victoria. The editorial identifies the ‘yuck factor’ and timid politicians as the reasons that this approach is not really an important part of the public discussion in Victoria

Potability should be probable, not just possible
Editorial
The Age
December 8, 2008


IN LAST week's disturbing report on Victoria's environmental health by Sustainability Commissioner Ian McPhail, one crucial paragraph (water recommendation No. 5) summarises the dilemma facing the state between social and political choice and the necessity of making that choice swiftly and decisively: "The Victorian Government should engage with the community to get a better understanding of values, aspirations and fears related to urban water supply, including drinking purified recycled water supplied through indirect potable re-use."

The next recommendation, which underpins the urgency of the issue, says that the Government should support research into the effectiveness and viability of such alternative sources of water.

Thus, with admirable economy and common sense, Dr McPhail not only brings the water-recycling issue back into public prominence, but ensures that it remains there. It will be a foolish government that chooses to downplay or ignore these particular recommendations.

Judging from the evidence presented in the state-of-the-environment summary, the case for implementing water recycling is no longer one of discretion but of absolute necessity. It is also long overdue. The gloomy prognosis shows, in essence, supply unable to keep up with demand. Consider, for example, the projection that by 2070 flows in the state's rivers and streams will be reduced by half; or that drought frequency is likely to increase between 10 per cent and 80 per cent in the southern half of the state and between 10 per cent and 60 per cent in the north. Consider also the decline in the health of our existing water systems, which, when last assessed four years ago, showed that only one-fifth were in good or excellent condition. As the report says, although the drought has been a contributing factor, much of our water system was already significantly damaged.

The abiding problem with water recycling — even with the prospect it might be discussed — is its public image. The words "drinking water" and "sewage" do not coexist with any sense of pleasantry, and politicians often do their best to avoid making the connection. As a result, the matter has remained a political issue instead of a practical one, with proper policy taking precedence.

The Age has long argued that the state needs to engage in the debate on the viability of recycled water, especially for domestic use. It is cheaper, more energy-efficient (it uses less than half the energy of desalination) and would use billions of litres that otherwise go down the drain and out to sea.

Although water recycling is an accepted part of life in Singapore, London, Namibia and parts of California, Australia still seems tentative. Only last week, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh reversed Government plans to use recycled waste water in the south of the state; two years ago, residents of Toowoomba voted against using recycled sewage for drinking water. Therefore, is it surprising that the "yuck factor" still holds sway in Victoria?

It is perhaps worth recalling that a poll commissioned by this newspaper in February last year showed that 78 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of the use of recycled sewage in home-use water supply, with only 19 per cent against. It could be argued that instead of the population being sensitive, the Victorian Government has exercised over-sensitivity on its own behalf and has steadily refused to take the risk of entertaining even the idea of water recycling. At the same time, it has embraced other forms of conservation it previously rejected. For example, in October 2005, then premier Steve Bracks referred to desalination, with its high energy use and cost, as "a fool's paradise". In 2007, Mr Bracks rejected the idea of recycling sewage, saying, "It's not required under our 50-year plan." Since then, there has been no public comparison of feasibility, costs, or energy use between recycling and the options the Government did announce: the controversial north-south pipeline and the construction of a desalination plant — each of which has its problems in relation to climate change.

What has to happen now is for the Government to re-open the debate on water recycling. It should explain the basis of its opposition, consult the community accordingly, and instigate appropriate comparative research. Victoria's environmental future is at stake. We need to investigate the best of all potable worlds.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Water for Western Sydney

An article from the Hawkesbury Gazette this week turned my focus back to Western Sydney for a bit. It reported on a community forum hosted by the University of Western Sydney on the topic of ‘Water for Western Sydney’.

The article, copy-and-pasted below, speaks for itself. It is good to see a range of water recycling ideas being discussed and a positive attitude for improved water management.


Water debate highlights importance of recycling

By Amanda Perry
The Hawkesbury Gazette
3/12/2008


Water recycling was the hot topic at Saturday's community forum 'Water for Western Sydney - Who Will Miss Out?'

The forum, which was held at the University of Western Sydney's Hawkesbury campus, featured presentations by State and Federal agencies and councils, as well as a lively hypothetical debate chaired by ABC TV's Ticky Fullerton.

Hawkesbury Mayor Bart Bassett addressed the forum on behalf of Hawkesbury City Council, highlighting both the pros and cons of water recycling.

"I have long been a public advocate of more water recycling wherever feasible and practical," Mayor Bassett said.

"Promoting water recycling can help free us from the reliance on rainfall for a large percentage of our water needs.

"I am concerned, however, that we have not been fully consulted about our views regarding the use of recycled effluent as drinking water.

"It seems the Government has assumed that the idea would be unpalatable without seeking the opinions of the public."

Mayor Bassett said once freshwater environmental flows from Warragamba Dam were replaced by treated effluent through newly-constructed treatment plants, residents would "by default be consuming a more concentrated level of recycled water".

"I'm not sure this fact has been fully explained in the government's plans to promote water recycling," he said.

"Given that, the success of the household water recycling scheme at Rouse Hill has paved the way for similar schemes for future large scale housing developments and water recycling will be the way of our future."

Mayor Bassett said he would like to see more recycled water used for irrigation in both commercial and household applications.

The hypothetical with Ms Fullerton also put the focus on water recycling, including the use of recycled stormwater and effluent.

It leapt forward to 2010 and proposed that Sydney faced a severe water shortage, with level four water restrictions in place and less than three years supply left in our dams.

Panel member Les Sheather, a former Hawkesbury councillor, was in support of using recycled stormwater but said recycled effluent would be better.

"The outcome is better for the whole community," he said.

"Storm water is insecure, when it doesn't rain we're back to the situation a few years ago with the drought.

"With recycled effluent, it's permanent, there's a guarantee of supply.".

The hypothetical also asked panel members to consider what we should do when we do have good rainfall and excess of water.

Following the hypothetical audience members had the chance to ask questions of the panel.

Former councillor Ted Books raised the question of whether we should build more dams.

Ted Gardner, a professor from the Queensland University of Technology, said the general consensus among society was we shouldn't because of the environmental impacts, and said the effects of climate change had made dam storage unreliable.

One audience member asked those on the panel to say whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Western Sydney's water supply and why.

Hawkesbury Councillor Paul Rasmussen was one of those who said he was optimistic.

"Because I believe we don't have a water supply problem, we have a management problem," he said.


Monday, December 01, 2008

QLD Water Polls

An article in today’s Courier Mail reports an opinion poll that was undertaken in Queensland by the independent company Galaxy Research. The survey was administered on the evenings of 26-27 November and is based on the opinions of 800 voters.

Three of the questions that were asked were on the topic of urban water management in South East Queensland. I managed to obtain a copy of the results (by asking nicely!) for a closer look. Here’s what they found...

Galaxy Poll:

In your opinion, is the Premier Anna Bligh doing enough to ensure the continued supply of water or not?


This week Anna Bligh announced changes to the government’s water plan, including the decision to delay the building of the Traveston Dam near Gympie, possibly for several years. Overall, do you support or oppose this decision to delay the building of the dam near Gympie?

In February the first part of the government’s water grid is due to come on line. This will include the recycling of waste water in South East Queensland. Do you support or oppose the inclusion of purified recycled water in the new water grid?

Would you support or oppose the inclusion of purified recycled water in the new water grid if it was only to be used as a back-up when dam levels dropped below 40%?



Queensland Water Commission Research:

Interestingly, the Galaxy Poll was somewhat different to the more pessimistic polling undertaken by the Queensland Water Commission this week. I also managed to obtain these results (more asking nicely!), as summarised below.

A 1000 person phone poll was conducted across South East Queensland over the week ending Monday 24 November.

Q. Do you think the drought in South East Queensland is over or not?

• 69% of people think we are still in drought

Q. Do you support or oppose adding Purified Recycled Water to our water supply?

• 55% support
• 39% are opposed

Tracking:

January 2007: 75% support
September 2008: 67% support
November 2008: 55% support

Breakdown:

M: 63% Yes, 32% No
F: 48% Yes, 45% No
18 – 29 Years old: 63% Yes, 29% No
70+ Years old: 44% Yes, 51% No.


Q. Do you think Purified Recycled Water should always be included in the water supply or should be excluded if the dams reach a certain level

• 66% believe it should be excluded if it reaches a certain level

• Of those 66%, 30% say the dam should be 50% full before we should stop adding Purified Recycled Water

• Of those 66%, 29% say the dam should be 75% full before we should stop adding Purified Recycled Water

• Of those 66%, 8% say the dam should be 40% full before we should stop adding Purified Recycled Water

• Of those 66%, 9% say the dam should be 100% full before we should stop adding Purified Recycled Water

Q. Have you seen or heard anything in the media about purified recycled water over the past few weeks?

September 2008: 78% No, 21% Yes.
November 2008: 29% No, 70% Yes.

Q. What can you recall hearing or seeing? (November)

• Most of the discussion was basically about the safety of the water and it was all basically negative.
• That the hospital waste was going to go into it, which I don’t like.
• That it’s no good for you, that there are problems if something happens that there will be disease in the water.
• A lot of hysteria and garbage about safety particularly the expert from ANU, who is whipping up negative publicity, seems to be mostly what you hear.
• Safe water, that the water purification will be alright/ safe according to the experts.
• It was going to be added to the water supply, that it’s perfectly safe and that you’ll be able to drink it
• They’re trying to tell us there will be no issue and it will be really healthy. Others are saying it will be safe, but there’s a lot of opposition to it.



I'd be interested in your interpretations and conclusions!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reuse09 – Call for Papers

Reuse09 is the 7th International Water Association (IWA) World Congress on Water Reclamation and Reuse. It will take place at the Convention Centre in Brisbane during the 20-25 September 2009.


The first announcement and call for papers was released this week. Papers are invited on each of the conference themes, which include:

• Potable reuse
• Public health and environmental impacts
• Emerging pollutants
• Aquifer storage and recharge
• Novel technology developments
• Demand/supply management
• Closing the water and nutrient loops
• Public perceptions and community engagement
• Water and energy efficiencies
• Environmental flows

Papers for this conference can be submitted in either Extended Abstract of 3 pages or Full Papers of 8 pages format. Both formats will be considered for Oral presentation if submitted no later than 3 April 2009.

Papers for poster presentation will be accepted until 7 August 2009. Papers will be reviewed by no less than 2 persons from the Local Organising or Scientific Program Committees. Extended abstracts and full papers selected for either oral or poster presentation will be published in the REUS09 conference proceedings.

Authors who wish to have their paper published in Water Science and Technology should submit their full paper simultaneously to the journal for consideration according to their guidelines.

For submission details and guidelines for the REUSE09 submission please see the conference website http://www.reuse09.org


Important Dates:

Paper submission open: December 2008
Paper due date (Oral consideration): 3 April 2009
Registration open: 1 February 2009
Paper acceptance notification: 29 May 2009
Early bird registration closes: 26 June 2009
Paper due date (Poster only): 7 August 2009

Although Reuse09 will be an international IWA Congress, it is also the 4th Australian Water Association (AWA) Conference on Water Reuse & Recycling, following on from Reuse07 which took place at UNSW (as previously described on this blog).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rain on Bligh’s Parade

A thoughtful editorial this morning from the Courier Mail in Queensland. I think it’s a fairly accurate comment on the role of politics and populism in decision-making. The suggestion is that the Western Corridor Water Recycling Project may not be used for supplementing Brisbane’s drinking water supplies, -at least not until reservoir levels drop again to what they were a year or two ago.

It is unfortunate when something as crucial as sustainable water management becomes a political football. But politics is politics and elections must be won at all costs. I’ll be interested to see how this pans out over the next few days…


Rain on Bligh's parade: editorial
The Courier Mail
November 26, 2008


THE Courier-Mail has long been a strong advocate for long-term policy thinking. We have regularly encouraged the State Government to think to the future and not simply be captive to the emergencies of the day.

Many of the challenges and crises we have faced in Queensland, particularly in the southeast, have, in part at least, been caused by a failure to plan ahead, be it in health care, or traffic congestion or in making sure we do not run out of water.

We therefore applauded the State Government when it finally decided to build the southeast Queensland water grid to ensure the region's water security.

And we welcomed its commitment, at last, to recycling as a way to reduce the amount of potable water going to industrial use, particularly power generation.

And two years ago, in the midst of the worst drought on record, we accepted the argument for mixing recycled water with drinking water, as long as public health could be assured.

The water grid is undoubtedly more expensive than it needed to be if some early and sensible long-term planning had been in place. But here, at last, was government action designed to address current and future challenges with a long-term, albeit very expensive, strategy.

But now, suddenly we have a Government making decisions based not on long-term or thoughtful planning but rather on nothing more than crude populist politics. Premier Anna Bligh and her team have apparently decided that forcing people to drink recycled water unless they absolutely have to is bad politics and so they have turned to the Queensland Water Commission, looking for some wriggle room.

Not so very long ago, the State Government was telling us that not only was it perfectly safe to drink recycled water but it was a vital part of the state's overall drought-proofing strategy.

Nothing has changed since then except for the fact that we have had good early summer rains and suddenly the whole sense of emergency has faded away as our dam levels return to something approaching normal levels.

No new science has emerged to suggest that the purification and safety systems in place for handling recycled water are in any way inadequate. And there is no suggestion that, summer rains or not, the problems we faced a year ago of growing population and increasingly uncertain weather patterns have eased.

Ms Bligh clearly started her premiership trying to distance herself from the populist, three-ring-circus style of her predecessor by concentrating on the nuts and bolts, and pipes and hard hats, of getting much-needed infrastructure in place.

But now that the infrastructure, and the next state election, are almost here, she has dramatically reverted to a style of populism that would have done Peter Beattie proud.

But there is more to this than simply despairing of politicians acting the way politicians normally do when their future is at stake. There are also potentially serious economic consequences for the state if the Government eventually decides to make less than full use of the about-to-be-completed $2.5 billion recycled water scheme.

Imagine if the State Government decided to solve traffic problems by building an eight-lane toll road and then, just as it opened, decided to open only two lanes.

How do you pay for the project? Do you bump up the toll on the two lanes or do you spread the cost among all of us by way of higher taxes or cutting costs somewhere else? The state faces the same problem unless it fully utilises this expensive new piece of infrastructure.

We acknowledge that many of our readers have reservations about the idea of adding treated recycled water to our drinking supplies. But equally, we believe that the scientific safeguards provide maximum protection. And clearly the State Government believes that as well. But when it comes to politics, science will always take second place to opinion polls.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A break from hysteria

I’ve been away for the last week (hence my lack of responses to comments on the previous post...I’ll try to address a few of the questions when I get a moment). However, I have been keeping one eye on the attempted hysteria-whipping kerfuffle in Queensland courtesy of The Australian.

For those who missed them, last week’s stories featured suggestions that more recycled water should be used for industry, suggestions that the QLD Government agree with such suggestions, more of the same, suggestions that South East Queensland no longer has a long-term water supply problem, suggestions that the potable water recycling scheme may be scrapped, suggestions that it wont, and suggestions that the University of Queensland have a conflict of interest in undertaking research since they receive funding to do it.

Don’t get me wrong... I love all this stuff and I love Queensland (and I like Billy Moore). But somehow the news from Melbourne this week just seems a little less hyperventilated.

Billy Moore: Queenslander!

Take for example the article below, which was published as an Opinion piece in The Age on Thursday. As described below, an ex-Managing Director of Melbourne Water sees water recycling as an economically sensible and environmentally preferable alternative to seawater desalination. It’s worth a read between gasps.

Why is water recycling being overlooked?
By Kenneth Davidson
The Age, November 20, 2008


JOHN Morgan, the managing director of Melbourne Water from 1995 to 1998, sent me an email complaining that my most recent article on Melbourne's water options was "almost there but you missed the most important issue — recycled water". He wrote: "This is the answer in my view. Cost effective, safe and environmentally correct. I have no axe to grind. I would like to talk to you about the options."

So I did. Morgan was appointed by the Kennett government. His record managing water was good. He managed to cut prices and increase the dividend to the government. He was completely puzzled about why the current Government was committed to the desalination plant and the north-south pipeline. He said he supposed it was because "some merchant banker had got the ear of Brumby".

Morgan pointed out that the Queensland Government had a similar water supply problem to Victoria but the failure of the recycling referendum in Toowoomba hadn't stopped Queensland from undertaking recycling in the south-east of the state.

To underline the point, Morgan said that on a trip to Europe to look at how these countries managed their water supplies he was taken to a water purification plant near Paris and, after he had drunk some of the purified water from a fountain, he was told by his guide that the water had been drunk 13 times before in towns further up the Seine.

He couldn't remember who owned the purification plant but it would have most likely been Veolia or Suez, two of the biggest multinationals leading the corporate charge to privatise water in markets such as Australia, where water is still publicly owned. Macquarie Bank is part of the consortium with Suez (known as Degremonte in Australia) and ABN Amro is part of the consortium with Veolia in the final bidding for the proposed desal plant at Wonthaggi.

According to Morgan the desal plant is a waste of money. He pointed out that at the sewerage treatment plant at Carrum, 70% of the purification work to bring the water up to potable standards has already been done. This alternative would cost only a fraction of water from the desal plant. If this class A water was cleaned up to potable standard and pumped into the Silvan reservoir, which distributes water to 80% of Melbourne, it would cost a fraction of the water from the desal plant.

Plans to keep upgrading water produced from Carrum were apparently delayed after the decision to proceed with the desal plant.

If the upgrade had gone ahead it would have added about 25% to Melbourne's water, sooner than the desal plant and at about a third of the cost. As I understand it, the decision not to proceed is not due to consumer sensitivities: Melburnians in the north of the city have been drinking recycled water for 28 years from the Sugarloaf Reservoir, which is partly supplied from the middle Yarra on the sound assumption that what you don't know won't hurt you.

Environment Victoria, partly Government-funded but independently staffed, made a courageous submission to the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry into Melbourne's Future Water Supply. It said: "The Government's approach to Melbourne's water need is risky and a poor environmental outcome … (its) emphasis on very large-scale augmentation will undermine incentive for continued efforts to improve water use efficiency.

"Environment Victoria's plan for an alternative water vision (is) focusing specifically on improved use of underutilised resources such as storm water and recycled water."

The Government commitment to what Environment Victoria called "more expensive and environmentally damaging augmentation options" is hindering the development of more sensible recycling options being put up by Australian investors who apparently don't have the clout of French multinationals and their financial partners.

One of my correspondents, who is an investor in small-scale recycling plants and who, for understandable reasons wants to remain anonymous, says "management have noted to me that NSW, Queensland and WA are seeking to be pro-active in their approach to water re-treatment and encouragement thereof, which is the identification and implementation of a practical regulatory framework in a timely manner. We cannot say the same about policymakers here in Victoria based on experience to date.

"The key commercial drivers to this business are the rate at which regulatory change occurs to enable such businesses to operate and the price of water, which dictates the payback on capital of those parties that acquire a plant of this nature.

"There would appear to be a disincentive for government and policymakers to encourage water re-use when it has committed large chunks of money to a questionable pipeline and an even more questionable desalination plant.

"Don't get me wrong, the introduction of high-cost water only serves to enhance the economics of our plant, but a government water strategy developed with a view to addressing water certainty in 20, 30, 50 years, I don't think so." Who benefits?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A return to balance?

It was nice to wake up to a somewhat more balanced article on the topic of recycled water from The Australian today. I noticed that it even used the term “recycled water” rather than the usually preferred alternative “recycled sewage”.

If I hadn’t sat through a series of increasingly ridiculous headlines during the last fortnight, I may have thought The Australian was interested in a balanced analysis of the facts regarding water supply issues for South East Queensland. Though, fortunately any such misunderstanding was quickly resolved by headlines like “flush then drink in the sunshine state” and “cyanide to be recycled for drinking”.

Andrew Bartlett commented that he hadn’t “seen such a single-minded, prolonged determination from The Australian to manufacture a major controversy since they used a minor issue as the spark for launching a two week long series of grossly distorted attacks against Griffith University’s Islamic Research Unit earlier this year”.

Maybe today’s article will signal a return to the balanced water supply reporting we once expected from The Australian by journalists such as Asa Walquist.



Squeamish opposition to a treated supply
Greg Roberts
The Australian , 15 Nov 2008


JUST 5km from the imposing spillway of Wivenhoe Dam, Brisbane's main water source, is a lesser known storage. Atkinson Dam was built in 1970 to ensure a regular supply of water to the Lockyer Valley, one of the country's prime fruit and vegetable growing centres, but it has been empty, or nearly so, for several years because of the drought.

Nestled midway between Atkinson and Wivenhoe dams is the township of Coominya, population 1750. Coominya is typical of many once quiet rural backwaters that are booming as the population of southeast Queensland continues to skyrocket. Although Coominya residents can see Wivenhoe Dam from their verandas, they, like tens of thousands of other southeast Queenslanders, manage adequately with rainwater tanks because they are not connected to a town water supply.

The water histories of Atkinson Dam and Coominya say much about the debate over whether water supplies to Australia's fastest-growing region should be augmented by recycled industrial effluent and sewage.

The Queensland Government insists that when 60 million litres of recycled waste water a day are pumped to Wivenhoe Dam starting in February or March, rising to 230 megalitres later next year, it will be safer than presently available water after being going through a seven-stage treatment process.

Critics say there is a risk of viruses, bacteria and chemicals entering the drinking supply and that recycled water should be used only as a last resort. The safety debate aside, the key question the Government struggles to address is whether it is necessary to use recycled water at this time.

Says Canberra Hospital microbiologist Peter Collignon: "I'm not against drinking recycled water. That's not the point. The point is that it should be used only if absolutely necessary. I do not believe it is currently necessary to use it in southeast Queensland."

Levels in the region's main drinking water storages have doubled since the Labor Government announced its recycled water plan. Forecasts suggest further heavy falls this summer in the catchments.

The state Opposition and other critics argue that under these unexpectedly encouraging conditions, the Western Corridor Recycled Water Project could be completed in the new year as planned, but with the tap to Wivenhoe Dam turned off. If Wivenhoe returned to a critically low level, the tap could be turned on.

In the meantime, recycled water could be used by power stations, as it is now, industry and farmers. A short feeder pipeline to pump the water to Atkinson Dam would do much to provide relief to hard-pressed primary producers.

Australian National University emeritus professor Patrick Troy says the recycled water plan has been sold to the community on the false premise that the climate outlook is so dire there is no choice. He claims that with each Brisbane household receiving 200,000 litres of water a year from the skies, there is no need for it. "There is plenty of rain to meet domestic needs with tanks," Troy says.

Deputy Premier Paul Lucas this week rejected the option of retro-fitting all homes with rainwater tanks on the basis of the $3.2 billion cost - $700,000 more than the recycled water plan - and because it would "jeopardise the future", a reference to the logistical difficulty of guaranteeing a healthy water supply to a large population with tanks.

In January last year, when the capacity of the region's three main storages averaged 23 per cent, then premier Peter Beattie announced that a planned referendum on recycled water for its 2.6 million residents would be abandoned - he had promised the water would be used only in an Armageddon situation - because the option was inevitable.

Beattie and his infrastructure minister, Anna Bligh, who has succeeded him as Premier, said they were advised by the Queensland Water Commission that a combined dam level of 40 per cent should trigger the emergency use of recycled water. Beattie and Bligh said that with continued below-average rainfall, it would take five to 10 years for the level to reach 40 per cent, even with recycled water.

The only significant development relevant to the debate since then has been that it has rained. Yesterday, the average level of the three storages was just over 41 per cent, above the supposedly critical cut-off point.

Asked why recycled water is needed if dam levels are not at critically low levels, water commission chief executive John Bradley says it is the rational option because there is no risk. "Given that all evidence from the plant's design and testing is demonstrating it is a safe and reliable source, it makes sense to use recycled water as part of our integrated strategy."

The first flows of recycled water to Wivenhoe coincide with the likely timing of the state election, with opinion polls suggesting the Bligh Government is in trouble.

Sensing an opportunity, the Liberal National Party Opposition signals that recycled water will be a key campaign issue.

But the Opposition is treading warily. Bligh ridiculed the LNP in parliament this week for supporting "kooky, wacky voodoo science". Labor will be helped in efforts to counter the LNP by outlandish and baseless claims from the leaders of vocal community groups that are campaigning against recycled water.

A statement this week by Citizens Against Sewage spokeswoman Aileen Smith asserted that "babies, children and old people will suffer most terribly". A video circulated on the internet by Gold Coast campaigner Ray Sperring alleged a Labor conspiracy to spread disease; Sperring claims falsely in the video that University of Queensland vice-chancellor Paul Greenfield, who heads a committee advising the Government on the issue, had expressed concerns about recycled water. Toowoomba campaigner Snow Manners helped prepare a booklet that quoted experts in presenting the argument against recycled water, but four scientists said they were misrepresented.

These campaigners, who also oppose the fluoridation of Queensland's water supply, have organised public meetings in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast this weekend to protest against recycled water.

The Government insists that experience overseas shows it is safe. Collignon says there are important differences between the Queensland plan and the overseas schemes highlighted by the commission.

While recycled water will constitute between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of Wivenhoe's supply, it makes up less than 1 per cent of Singapore's drinking water. Orange County in the US uses recycled water to replenish underground aquifers, not open dams. London and other cities use recycled water from rivers, but it has been diluted over long distances. "It's just not reasonable to compare what Queensland is doing with overseas," Collignon says.

The Government agrees there are differences, but says this misses the point that properly treated water is safe: "Under Queensland government regulations, purified recycled water will be the most thoroughly tested and consistently safe town water supply in Australia," says Queensland Health's Linda Selvey.

Media scrutiny of those regulations is another matter. Lucas took the extraordinary step this week of refusing The Australian permission to photograph waste disposal at the publicly funded Bundamba water treatment plant near Brisbane.

A perception of government secrecy does not help facilitate an informed and comprehensive debate about recycled water.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Water Factory 21

I was searching through some old news articles when I came across this one from California in 1988.

It provides a useful historical perspective on the Orange County Water District’s water recycling scheme known as Water Factory 21. This was the precursor to the recently opened (and much larger) Groundwater Replenishment System in California.

The danger: Barriers keep ocean at bay and freshwater supplies safe
Frank Mickadeit
17 January 1988
The Orange County Register


The biggest threat to the potability of Orange County's tap water lies just to the west, waiting for water-district officials to let down their guard.

Unchecked in the past, it has sneaked in, rendered freshwater wells useless, and quietly retreated. The intruder? The Pacific Ocean. The Orange County Water District and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works have spent millions of dollars to hold back the sea, which, given a chance, will seep into local freshwater aquifers through underground channels.

Sea water, at about 32,000 parts per million salt, quickly can contaminate a ground-water supply, which, according to state guidelines, should not contain more than 500 ppm salt.

When the ground-water basin is at a high level, sea water cannot get in because the water pressure created by a full basin keeps it out. But when the freshwater basin is low, the pressure drops and the sea water can force its way in.

Numerous wells in coastal Orange County were lost to salt-water intrusion during the 1930s, '40s and '50s, when the water table dropped below sea level. The city of Newport Beach, for example, lost all of its freshwater wells and never has been able to reclaim them. It now imports water from the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles.

To stop the intrusion, water officials have built two sets of barriers.

Both work essentially the same way: A series of wells was drilled a few miles inland at points deemed most vulnerable to sea-water intrusion. Into the wells is pumped fresh water, which spills into aquifers located 90 feet to 420 feet underground.

The water helps keep the ground-water basin above sea level, which keeps the sea water out. Strung out over several miles, the wells form an underground blockade against the sea.

Without the barriers, "sea water could go as far as five to 10 miles inland over a long period of time," said James F. Reilly, director of water quality for the Orange County Water District. "Between the coast and five to 10 miles inland, there've probably been hundreds of wells that have been saved."

The first barrier, the Alamitos Barrier, was started in 1965 to cut off what is known as the Alamitos Gap, an underground channel at the point where the San Gabriel River flows into the Pacific Ocean.

Twenty-six injection wells and other facilities have been installed over the years on both the Los Angeles and Orange County sides of the river, at a cost of $3.5 million.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, which manages the barrier system, injects 6.5 million gallons of water into the Alamitos Barrier wells each day.

The system is "fairly effective," said Ramesh Doshi, an engineer who monitors the barrier. In general, water on the seaward side of the barrier has several times the saline level acceptable in drinking water, while ground water on the inland side is at or below acceptable levels.

In 1976, the Talbert Barrier was built to keep sea water from entering the gap where the Santa Ana River empties into the ocean.

The Orange County Water District drilled 23 water-injection wells along Ellis Avenue between the Santa Ana River and Newland Street in Fountain Valley.

Between 6 million and 7 million gallons of fresh water are injected into the Talbert Barrier wells each day.

Rather than use water from a source that could dry up in drought years, the district taps an unending supply: Orange County sewage.

At Water Factory 21 in Fountain Valley, the district takes treated sewage from the nearby Orange County Sanitation Districts and subjects it to a sophisticated cleansing process that includes reverse osmosis, in which the water is filtered through a microscopic membrane.

The result is water that meets state drinking-water standards and actually has only about one-fifth as much dissolved solids as water from the Colorado River. Instead of being sent to customers, however, that water is injected into the aquifers, where it mixes with the ground water that eventually is pumped out and sent to homes and businesses.

Water Factory 21 and related facilities cost the district nearly $21 million.

"It's a fairly costly source of water, but it is necessary to protect a very large quantity of cheap water," said Gordon Elser, spokesman for the water district.

Despite their successes, officials are concerned that sea water may be intruding in coastal areas where there are no barriers. Traces of sea water have shown up in special test wells in the Seal Beach and Bolsa Chica areas, Reilly said.

Although sea water hasn't appeared in any wells that produce drinking water, the agency wants to head off a potential intrusion and this year plans to look at those areas as possible candidates for barriers, Reilly said.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Not the NHMRC

Occasionally when you read a news article, the author’s personal position on the topic is all too clear. Today The Australian continues its campaign against sustainable water management in Queensland.

It is unfortunate that the article below gives a (very) strong impression that the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is opposed to indirect potable water reuse or has issued any type of warning to anyone. The impression that the NHMRC has issued to some warning to the Queensland Government is patently incorrect.

Professor Don Bursill
is the Chair of an advisory committee to the NHMRC and he has expressed his personal opinion that he supports recycling, but only where it is absolutely necessary. We have discussed Don’s position on this previously. There is really no new news here. The Water Quality Advisory Committee that Don chairs made some important contributions to the current National Guidelines for Water Recycling and the overall position of the committee is embedded in the fact that such Guidelines exist and have been endorsed by the NHMRC.

The article then goes on (in the same breathless breath) to state that “the Gold Coast City Council launched an investigation into how unsafe recycled waste water was if put into a treatment plant's drinking water”. Yes, but of course they are not referring to water that has been treated and managed as an intended drinking water supply. They are referring to a system that provides a lower-level recycled water intended purely for non-potable purposes. It may seem like a subtle point, but the implications are significant.

Investigating the safety of recycled water and water management in general is a worthy task for any news source. However, it would help us all if the facts could be made clear rather than intertwined in a way that distorts their meaning. Just my opinion...



Recycle Sewage 'as a Last Resort'
Greg Roberts
November 10, 2008
The Australian


THE federal agency responsible for establishing national health standards has warned the Queensland Government it should not proceed with its $2.5 billion plan to recycle sewage and industrial waste for drinking water unless it is "absolutely necessary".

National Health and Medical Research Council water quality advisory committee chairman Don Bursill issued the warning as the Gold Coast City Council launched an investigation into how unsafe recycled waste water was if put into a treatment plant's drinking water.

Sixty million litres of recycled waste water a day will be pumped to the Wivenhoe Dam, Brisbane's main drinking water source, from early next year.

The Queensland Government promised in 2006 that recycled water would be used for the drinking supply of the 2.6 million residents of southeast Queensland only as a "last resort".

Since the undertaking was given, Wivenhoe and other storages in the region have been replenished following good rainfall, but the Government insists recycled water should be introduced now to guarantee future supplies.

Professor Bursill said he supported water recycling, but only if it were absolutely necessary.

"I think that recycling waste water for potable purposes should be a choice of last report," he said.

"There are opportunities for problems to occur and if it can be avoided, I think it should be. The maintenance of public health should be the primary concern."

He said the Queensland Government had prepared itself well, accepting the NHMRC's Australian Water Recycling Guidelines and introducing the Water Supply (Safety and Reliability) Bill. However, the main cause for concern was the potential for human error.

"It is worth reminding people that although technology can achieve recycling for potable purposes, about 80 per cent of the failures that have occurred in conventional water supply systems in affluent countries have been due to human error rather than technology issues," Professor Bursill said.

Human error was being blamed for a mistake at Gold Coast Water's Pimpana recycled water plant that resulted in staff drinking inadequately treated waste water.

The general public was not exposed to the water.

Gold Coast Mayor Ron Clarke said a staff member was believed to have been responsible for mixing up waste-water lines at the plant in September.

A pipeline was disconnected on Friday when the problem was uncovered.

Up to 240 employees and visitors who may have drunk water that was not fit for consumption are being contacted to determine if they had suffered any ill effects.

"Somebody has stuffed up and it should have been cross-checked before it happened," Mr Clarke said.

"If it had happened in the public works, it would have been disastrous. I am told that the checks are there to ensure that cannot happen."

Public meetings have been called in Brisbane on Saturday and on the Gold Coast on Sunday to protest against the recycled water plan.

Citizens Against Drinking Sewage secretary Aileen Smith said the Queensland Government could give no guarantees that a repeat of the cryptosporidium outbreak in 1993 in the US city of Milwaukee would be avoided.

More than 400,000 people fell ill and 100 died after drinking contaminated water from a treatment plant; the cause was never identified.

Recycled water will account for between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of southeast Queensland's drinking water, with the Government insisting it will be safe after treatment through a seven-stage process.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Water comes from rivers

I was mildly amused by today's installment in The Australian.

It points out that much of the Thames River drinking water supply is sourced from discharged treated effluent. Apparently Stuart Khan reckons this is an example of indirect potable water recycling (albeit with much lower levels of treatment and management compared to SEQ).

However, as Prof Peter Collignon points out, places like London “don't use sewage as a primary source of water… they use rivers as water sources”.

Okay, well, then, excuse me sir, but, um, by that criterion, wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that Brisbane doesn’t (and wont) use “sewage as a primary source of water” either? Brisbane uses a river as its drinking water source. Brisbane takes its drinking water from the Brisbane River at Mt Crosby.

We can all close our eyes to what happens upstream if we want to… but its not the way that I would want to manage a drinking water supply for a large city like London or Brisbane.



Researchers Debate London's Lesson on Reuse of Water
Greg Roberts
The Australian
November 06, 2008


EXPERTS are divided on whether the drinking of recycled water from rivers in London and elsewhere is comparable with what is proposed for southeast Queensland.

University of NSW Water Research Centre contaminants researcher Stuart Khan said experience overseas had demonstrated the safety of drinking recycled water.

"London gets its water from the Thames River and there are 380 sewage treatment plants upstream from London which are putting effluent into the river," Dr Khan said.

"Despite more than 40 years' experience, no clear deleterious health effects from the deliberate recycling of purified water to a dam or river source of an urban water supply system have been observed."

Dr Khan said treatment processes being used in Queensland, including reverse osmosis and oxidation, were highly effective barriers to potential contaminants.

Australian National University microbiologist Peter Collignon said London and other centres that used recycled water from rivers for drinking -- such as Richmond in NSW -- could not be compared with what was planned for southeast Queensland.

"These places don't use sewage as a primary source of water," Professor Collignon said. "They use rivers as water sources, and rivers have much lower levels of potentially dangerous microbes and drugs than sewage.

"Sewage put into the rivers upstream has been in the rivers a long time and it's been heavily diluted by the time it gets to the people who drink the water after it is put through a filtering process. That is a long way from what will be happening in Queensland."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Singapore drinks recycled water too

An article in The Australian today points out the fact that Singaporeans are drinking recycled “sewage” too. That fact in itself may not seem remarkable since there is treated effluent in most water supplies of most large cities.

However, what is more interesting in Singapore is the high level of treatment used (including reverse osmosis and UV disinfection). This has made the water highly suited for a number of applications including Singapore’s considerable electronic chip manufacturing industry. Only a very small proportion is then left over to recharge public drinking water reservoirs with (to provide about 1 per cent of the island's total potable water supply).

We have looked at the situation in Singapore a few times previously on this blog. One of the most interesting aspects for me was the 'NEWater Study' that was undertaken to investigate the health effects of using highly treated recycled water as a drinking water supply.



An Expert Panel was formed in 1999 to oversee the NEWater Study. This Expert Panel was comprised of both local and overseas members with expertise in human health and toxicology, microbiology, engineering, water technology, epidemiology, water quality and environmental chemistry.

A pilot scale (10 ML/day) advanced water treatment plant, known as the NEWater Factory was constructed and commenced operation in 2000. The NEWater Factory received water from the Bedok Sewage Treatment Works, which produced secondary treated effluent. The technologies employed at the NEWater Factory included microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet radiation.

An extensive water quality sampling and monitoring program was devised for approximately 190 physical, chemical and microbiological parameters. Samples were tested from the plant feedwater, individual treatment module effluents, final produced NEWater, as well as untreated and treated traditional drinking-water supplies. Overall, almost 20,000 test results from seven sampling locations, including over 4,500 for NEWater were measured between November 1999-April 2002. The physical, chemical and microbiological data for NEWater were shown to be well within current (2002) US EPA and World Health Organization guidelines for drinking-water quality.

The health effects study was conducted with two components. A mice study was undertaken to assess long-term chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity, while a fish study was undertaken to assess toxic and estrogenic effects. In these studies, NEWater was compared with untreated reservoir water.

A sensitive mouse strain (B6C3F1) was used for the mice study. This strain is widely used for conducting long-term health effects studies of new pharmaceuticals. Groups of mice were fed 150-fold and 500-fold concentrates of NEWater and untreated reservoir water over a period of two years. The testing was undertaken with culls at 3, 12 and 24 months. At the time of publication of the expert review panel findings, the 3 and 12 month results were available and these indicated that exposure to concentrated NEWater did not cause any tissue abnormalities or health effects. The 24-month results were due to be completed in October 2002, but as far I know, remain unpublished. I would really like to see these if anyone is able to dig them up.

Fish studies were undertaken in accordance with a recommendation from a recent US National Research Council report. The purpose was to assess long-term chronic toxicity as well as the estrogenic potential (reproductive and developmental). The orange-red strain of the Japanese medaka fish (Oryzias latipes) was selected for the study due to the availability of an extensive biological database for this species.

The fish testing was conducted over a 12-month period with two generations of fish. The NEWater tests were initially undertaken during 2001 and both generations showed no evidence of carcinogenic or estrogenic effects from exposure to NEWater. The fish study was repeated in 2003 (due to some design deficiencies of the aquarium system, fish husbandry issues and weaknesses in the original study protocol) and confirmed the findings of no estrogenic or carcinogenic effects.

I don’t think that these types of live animal studies are necessarily justifiable for the South East Queensland scheme. However, it would be extremely helpful to see some of the existing data to confirm excellent performance of the advanced water treatment barriers.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Australia Talks

Australia Talks is a topical discussion program on ABC Radio National hosted by Paul Barclay. As far as I know, it’s Radio National’s only ‘talk back’ program, but don’t let that put you off… it’s generally a forum for a fairly rational debate on issues of broad interest in the community.

Today’s topic was Recycled Water, focusing on the Western Corridor Recycled Water Project in South East Queensland. Guests included:

Professor Peter Collignon, Infectious disease physician and microbiologist, Clinical school, ANU.

Professor Paul Greenfield, Vice-Chancellor, University of Queensland, Chair of Queensland Water Commission's independent Scientific Expert Panel.

Snow Manners, resident of Toowoomba and campaigner against recycled water.

Anton Vigenser, Spokesperson Victorian Water Forum.

I very much enjoyed this program and thought that there were some interesting insights from callers. Both Peter Collignon and Snow Manners have contributed to discussion on this blog over the last two years and long-time readers will be familiar with most of their concerns. But I particularly enjoyed listening to Anton Vigenser and his clear enthusiasm for potable water recycling as an environmentally sustainable solution to address water shortages in Victoria.

I thought the callers were roughly evenly split for and against recycled water, -or perhaps slightly more in favour. That may somewhat reflect the ABC demographic, but there did appear to be a good representation from various states around the country.

If you missed it, you can listen to the program online here. I hope Mark from Brisbane is feeling better...

Greenfield and Lucas on Recycled Water

The focus on recycled water continues at The Australian today. Unlike the last couple of days, today’s articles are much more positive and aimed at instilling community confidence in the use of recycled water to supplement drinking water supplies.

The first article below is an opinion piece from Prof Paul Greenfield, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland and Chair of the Independent Scientific Expert Advisory Panel to the Queensland Water Commission.

The second is a news story featuring Queensland's Deputy Premier, Paul Lucas, marking the opening of Stage 2A of the western corridor recycled water project. Lucas took the obligatory swig of recycled water and made the obligatory positive remarks about the taste. I guess this is the recycled water version of baby-kissing during election campaigns. Its entirely meaningless, but the cameras need a tangible image.

Based on your existing point of view and underlying prejudices, I expect that you will think that its either about time someone took a proactive stance towards community discussion, or else that its all part of a sinister conspiracy-laden propaganda campaign. In either case, I’d be grateful for your comments.

Don't turn your nose up at purified recycled
Paul Greenfield
The Australian
November 03, 2008


THERE is nothing more fundamental for a community than its confidence in a safe and reliable water supply. Southeast Queensland is implementing a $2.5 billion project to supplement dam supplies with purified recycled water: waste water that has been treated to the highest standard.

As the chairman of the independent scientific expert advisory panel scrutinising the project, I welcome any rational, scientifically based debate on these issues. After all, the panel includes world leaders in toxicology, microbiology, environmental science and advanced water treatment. The panel members, from Australia and overseas, have many years' experience in ensuring that drinking water supplies, regardless of source, are safe for communities to drink.

Some commentators have expressed concerns about the safety of purified recycled water based on information that is manifestly incorrect, not based on evidence and reflects existing prejudices. Such statements, coming as they do from so-called experts, directly threaten the community's understanding of water quality and cause unnecessary worry.

In The Australian last week, microbiologist Peter Collignon and urban planner Patrick Troy incorrectly stated that the Queensland project posed a health risk to 2.6 million people in the region.

I have no doubt the design of the Queensland scheme and its proposed operation meet or exceed international best practice to provide a safe, reliable source of water.

It was claimed by Troy and Collignon that the Queensland advanced water treatment processes, including microfiltration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation, would remove only 92 per cent of antibiotics. This is simply wrong. It represents a misreading of a 2007 study.

The present sewage treatment plants achieve reductions of about this level at just one barrier out of seven, even before the advanced water treatment process occurs. The data the panel has reviewed indicates the Western Corridor Recycled Water Project is consistently achieving better than the standards for the removal of antibiotics enshrined in the Public Health Regulations of 2005.

It was also claimed that viruses would get through the treatment process. But there are multiple barriers in the advanced water treatment process capable of removing viruses.

They are at least 100 times larger than the pores of the reverse osmosis membranes used in the production of purified recycled water, which effectively provide a molecular filter.

Purified recycled water is far cleaner than much of the existing water that reaches the dam from run-off over land.

It was further claimed there was "nowhere else in the world" where purified recycled water was being used to the same extent as it would be in southeast Queensland, where it will represent on average less than 10 per cent of supply from Wivenhoe Dam. But the advanced technologies being used (microfiltration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation) are all proven and in use across the world.

Similar schemes provide significant volumes in Britain, Belgium, Singapore, Los Angeles and Orange County in California. The most similar scheme has been operating for 30 years in the Upper Occoquan in Virginia, which is a leading water provider to Washington, DC. In that case, purified recycled water averages about 9per cent of the annual inflow to the reservoir and up to 80 per cent during droughts.

Contrary to Troy's claim, extensive studies, including epidemiological research, have been carried out and show no evidence of negative health impacts. Anyone with a dispassionate understanding of recycled water would recognise that treated effluent - straight out of a conventional sewage treatment plant - already supplements our urban water supply in Australia in unplanned schemes.

For example, Sydney's Warragamba Dam receives upstream effluent from Goulburn and Lithgow, Melbourne's Sugarloaf Reservoir receives effluent from the Lilydale Sewage Treatment Plant at Olinda Creek, and Adelaide's Mount Bold Reservoir takes treated effluent from Hahndorf.

Canberra's treated effluent enters the Murrumbidgee system, where it is diluted and extracted into the water treatment plants of towns downstream of Canberra. These systems work because the processes installed are appropriate for the risks introduced.

Clearly, different risks need to be managed in larger, planned schemes such as the Western Corridor Recycled Water Project - where a seven-barrier risk-management system applies and independent regulation occurs - but the same principle applies.

The membrane and ultraviolet oxidation technologies have been tried and tested in many applications worldwide.

Microfiltration is used in the food industry to purify, among other things, bottled water, medicines and fruit juice.

Reverse osmosis is used in desalination and home water-filtration units. Advanced oxidation uses strong ultraviolet light to destroy impurities and is used by doctors and dentists to sterilise surgical instruments.

After passing through these barriers, the water will be blended and diluted to a small proportion of Wivenhoe Dam water before being treated in the multiple stages of the water treatment plant at Mount Crosby, and then finally distributed to people's homes.

By law, this water must comply with Queensland's recycled water standards and regulatory framework.

The standards are based on nationally agreed guidelines adopted by state and federal governments, which were set after extensive scientific review and consultation.

When we debate recycled water, the key test we should demand is that it is safe and provides no greater risk to a community than its present water supply.

The independent scientific expert panel reviewing southeast Queensland's purified recycled water scheme has an ongoing role during the project's implementation to provide rigorous independent assessments to ensure this requirement has been met.

Paul Greenfield is chairman of the Queensland Water Commission's independent scientific expert advisory panel and vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland.



Minister takes on troubled water
Natasha Bita
The Australian
November 03, 2008


"BEWDIFUL!" Paul Lucas, Queensland's Deputy Premier, smacks his lips as he skols a glass of crystal-clear recycled sewage. "Absolutely beautiful. Great stuff."

By the time he had repeated the stunt four more times for the cameras yesterday, Mr Lucas had proven his bladder was as strong as his stomach.

"I feel a bit waterlogged now," he quipped, before calling a press conference to spruik the safety of recycled effluent, which will provide up to a quarter of southeast Queensland's drinking water by February.

Queensland Water Commission staff were right behind their minister - drinking bottled water.

But they would not let inquisitive media sample the recycled liquid, because it had undergone only five of the seven stages in the treatment process.

Mr Lucas's public display of support came as new questions were raised about the timing of the introduction of recycled water into the Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast supplies.

A Queensland Water Commission spokesman confirmed hospital waste would be put into the system for recycling into drinking water.

"Hospital waste is very closely regulated, so they have very strict rules about what goes down the drains," he said.

And Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg has broken what was bipartisan support for the scheme.

Mr Springborg told The Australian that recycled water was being added "too soon" to the drinking supply.

The state's Liberal National Party has promised not to add recycled water to the drinking supply of southeast Queensland if the dams were over 40 per cent full, and they currently are 41.2per cent full.

He said that unlike state government policy to have recycled water as an integral part of the drinking supply, a Liberal National government would use recycled water only as a last resort.

"Nowhere around the world are they doing what's being proposed for Brisbane," he said. "We need to go into this very carefully, not the way the Government's rushed into this.

"You don't want to be adding recycled water to the system on a routine basis. It only takes one thing to go wrong and the whole system breaks down."

Mr Springborg said he anticipated that adding recycled water to the drinking water would become an election campaign issue.

The hundreds of families invited to inspect the Brisbane water purification plant at Luggage Point during a public open day yesterday were handed bottles of Coles spring water as they walked in.

"We haven't got any of our own bottled water because there's no place to do that at the moment," a Queensland Water Commission spokesman said.

"There's quite a lot of technical things to go through to put it into bottles."

Mr Lucas, Queensland's Minister for Infrastructure and Planning, brushed off claims that recycled sewage could not be guaranteed safe to drink, saying Queensland's waste-to-water would be better than Sydney and Canberra's drinking supplies.

He said industry was already using the recycled effluent from two other purification plants in southeast Queensland, to generate electricity.

But the effluent - filtered, purified and disinfected in a seven-stage process - would not be introduced into the drinking supply until February or March, after six months of certification and testing, he said.

"We want to make sure that everything is 150,000 per cent right, and it's been going very well," Mr Lucas said.

"If you're in Sydney and drinking water out of Warragamba Dam, it doesn't get any of this treatment. It goes into the river system from sewage treatment plants in Goulburn and Lithgow and goes into the Sydney supply.

"Canberra water waste goes into the Murrumbidgee system."