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.


Anonymous said...

Still had to get that last swipe in about not being able to photograph the Bundamba plant. Maybe the QWC should give this journo a free tour os the sites and a nice lunch. Maybe that it what he has been angling for all along...

Anonymous said...

Where are the contact details for Citizens against Sewerage.. I want to join

Anonymous said...

"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"

Too true, Bring it on Snow!!

Stuart Khan said...

Hello Anonymous #2,

That's a good question. Most of the campaigners against water recycling have preferred to remain anonymous. Accordingly, I have no idea where to direct you to for membership of CADS. If I could help I would!


Anonymous said...

Andrew Bartlett still commenting. Thought he was well dead and buried.

Anonymous said...

Queensland Parliament Petitions:
Subject: Prohibit the use of recycled sewerage effluent for drinking purposes
Eligibility: Queensland Citizens
Sponsoring Member: Ray Stevens MP
Principal Petitioner: Dahl Cummins
PO Box 763

Num of Signatures: 3656

Anonymous said...

Gold Coast Water Watch

Anonymous said...

Chemist unconvinced

MICROBIOLOGIST Peter Collignon says there are a million times more germs in a millilitre of sewage compared to the famously dirty Thames water.
Will two treatment processes block every single one of those million tiny bugs from entering Toowoomba people's mouths? The Australian National University infectious diseases physician is unconvinced. They say there are seven steps (in the process), but really from a virus point of view, they have only added two to the current process - a reverse osmosis membrane and advanced oxidation. Speaking from Canberra this week, Prof Collignon told The Chronicle that tests had found reverse osmosis only removed 92 per cent of antibiotics at the Brisbane plant. While he acknowledges the technology used in the Queensland system is the best in the world, he believes the project's testing systems are inadequate. They need to be much more frequent and accurate. The new technology detects 1% or higher leaks but you have to be able to detect leaks of much lower order of magnitude than that for viral reduction. Hospital and industrial waste entering the system posed another concern. €œHeavy metals such as lead, arsenic and solvents that might spill and damage membranes need to be kept out of the system along with medical waste which has a higher concentration of viruses. Prof Collignon supports using recycled effluent for industry, as is done in Singapore, but said its addition to drinking supplies should be a last resort.
รข€œHuman and machine error has occurred in treatment facilities in Canada, Europe, America and even Canberra, causing thousands of people to get sick, he said.
€œOne would hope one does not have to boil water in Australia.€.....

Mark said...

Quote: "... 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.""

Stuart, have you seen this evidence? Where can I read about this evidence and weigh it up for myself?

Stuart Khan said...

Hi Mark,

No. I have not seen the outcomes of any of the testing from SEQ. I would also love to see it and i think it should be public information.

As you probably aready know, I would never go so far as to say "there is no risk". Drinking water supply always carries risks that need to be very carefully managed.

Mark said...

Hi Stuart,

Thanks for that. I'm not sure I would understand the test results myself, but I sure would be happier if someone like you were able to pull their data apart and make judgment on it either way.

Surely they don't have anything to hide ....

I find this quite frustrating that we have this emotional debate where the Captain criticizes opponents for "kooky, wacky, voodoo science", but I can't see how the advocates can be basing anything on science either: You can't have science without data.

Anonymous said...

Well said Mark - A debate based on data and science - NOT SPIN - wouldn't that be great! I wonder: Is anyone listening to the concerns of those scientists who are brave enough to oppose this? Or are they just ignored as kooky, wacky, voodoo scientists?

Anonymous said...

Industry may use all recycled water: Bligh

Anna Bligh says industry may use all of the recycled water.
(ABC News: Cate Grant)

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh says it is possible, but not likely, that all of south-east Queensland's recycled water will be used by industry and nobody will have to drink it.

Treated waste water is due to go into Wivenhoe Dam from early next year.

Anna Bligh says she would like industry and irrigators to use more recycled water and less drinking water so there would be no waste water left over for drinking.

"That's possible, but I think unlikely in the short-term. We've been discussing this matter with the Lockyer Valley irrigators," she said.

"We've always said that industry would have the first call and that any left over would be going into the dam to supplement supplies, so that we stay ahead of the game.

"But I don't anticipate those things to make any difference in the next 12 months."

Anonymous said...

Hi Stuart,

Thank you for your efforts here.

Could you direct me to sources that would address my concerns: whether water recycling is environmentally sound in terms of greenhouse emmissions, the cost/benefits analysis compared to other water conservation strategies, and the risks associated with recycling industrial waste.
What are costs/benefits, including maintenance costs and are these factored into the $2.5 billion Qld project?
Have such schemes been evaluated on greenhouse emmissions and how do they stack up against other water conservation alternatives?
As there is "limited knowledge on the detection and prevention of such discharges [industrial waste] and currently there appears to be no understanding of the likely compounds that should be monitored in future (p.81 Queensland Water Commission)", what independent research (not just the Urban Water Security Research Alliance which is funded by the Qld gov) will be conducted into such contaminants?

Anonymous said...

How can you have a balanced debate about this water issue .. with secret test results .... ? I would feel happier to trust or drink this water if ALL the test results and "real time" recycled waste water samples were freely available to the wider scientific community for their study and debate? How can a balanced decision be made by just ONE panel - of possibly like minded individuals?

Amazed said...

Qld "Government sources said if the plan to pump 60 million litres of recycled sewage and industrial effluent a day into the drinking water supply proceeded, the results of testing would be made public only in exceptional circumstances if they indicated very high levels of contaminants."

Surely this is a crazy decision by the Qld government?

Amazed said...

If they want the people in Qld to have confidence in recycled water, planning to keep problems secret isn't the way to go about it.

Anonymous said...

Shhhh - don't tell.

Sounds like a kindy class

Anonymous said...

Uni defending Queensland's recycled water plan receives funding from project's backers

THE university at the forefront of the Bligh Government's campaign to defend the safety of southeast Queensland's recycled waste-water scheme is receiving millions of dollars in funding from the two companies behind the project.

French water infrastructure giant Veolia and the Queensland government-owned Western Corridor Recycled Water Pty Ltd are funding staff salaries and research programs at the University of Queensland's Advanced Water Management Centre.

The companies are involved in developing the $2.5 billion western corridor scheme, under which recycled sewage and industrial waste will be pumped into drinking water storages in southeast Queensland from early next year.....

The Government says an expert advisory panel is providing independent advice on the scheme and water quality.

The panel is headed by University of Queensland vice-chancellor Paul Greenfield.

Other members of the panel include Linda Blackall, who until recently was professor of microbiology at the university's water centre, and Ian Frazer, the university's Diamantina Institute for Cancer Immunology director.

Queensland Water Commission chairwoman Elizabeth Nosworthy is an adjunct professor at the university.....

Veolia Water has been advising the Government on the scheme's installations and infrastructure, and will be operating its treatment plants....

Professor Blackall said she saw no difficulty with the university providing advice while receiving money from the companies. "I can see how people might think there is a conflict of interest," said Professor Blackall, who now works at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. "I believe any conflict would be extremely minor, if it existed at all.".....,,24701883-36418,00.html

Anonymous said...

Over 9000 people have now signed the Queensland Paarliament Online E - Petition:

Subject: Prohibit the use of recycled sewerage effluent for drinking purposes

Num of Signatures: 9070

Anonymous said...

Bligh backflip on water recycling; Traveston dam delayed,23739,24703793-952,00.html

Mark said...

Fran Kelly interviewed Anna Bligh last week on RN

The Captain promised (right at the end of the interview) that all the tests would be made public. This seems to contradict some other statements made in the week.

Lets hope she is right ...

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