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
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.

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