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Seven propositions on water

March 29th, 2006

A few weeks ago, I chaired a session at the Water ’06 Conference. Among the speakers there was the Chairman of the National Water Commission, Ken Matthews, who raised a number of claims often made about water issues that would require future community debate and discussion. These included:

1 that recycled water will never be acceptable in Australia for household use
2 that additional urban water supplies should not be sourced through market purchases from irrigators
3 that additional water for the environment should be sourced from the market only after all alternatives have been exhausted
4 that urban water use restrictions introduced during the drought should continue indefinitely into the future
5 that any water not abstracted for consumptive use is necessarily doing good to the environment
6 that uniform water quality and pricing should be maintained across all urban water users including industrial users, and
7 that water and sewerage are natural monopolies and should therefore be provided by governments.

There’s a bit more here (hat tip, David Adamson). Of these, I disagree with 1-4, and broadly agree with 7. Propositions 5 and 6 are too complex for a Yes-No answer.

Update I should add, if it’s not obvious that Matthews means to imply that all of these propositions are both widely accepted and overdue for sceptical scrutiny.

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  1. Farmer Pete
    April 3rd, 2006 at 19:12 | #1

    Terge said (agreeing with Seeker) “We need full cost recovery user pays and we need any residual laws preventing self sufficiency repealed.” I agree wholeheartedly with repealing laws that discourage self sufficiency. I also agree in principle about implementing full cost recovery user pays, although I worry a bit about the potentially regressive nature of some full cost recovery regimes. These extra costs could be pretty savage on low income earners and people on fixed incomes. Perhaps a way to address it is to set a basic charge for minimum efficient household requirements, and full cost recovery thereafter.

    But self sufficiency, while laudable, may not necessarily be cost effective or in some circumstances, always appropriate. Tanks can undoubtably make a real contribution to urban water supply requirements, but I’m really not so sure do-it-yourself sewerage in urban areas is a good idea, even in modern well-designed systems.

    Stand-alone sewerage systems undoubtably work, but they need a reasonable amount of understanding and commitment to operate successfully, which is why I question whether they are suitable for widespread use. How many people in your acquaintance don’t even know how to change a tyre these days? If there are breakdowns that the householder isn’t onto quickly (particularly in the sterilisation system) then they’re a potential hazard. Recycled water produced without the sterilizer running would be full of faecal coliforms, you wouldn’t want it sprayed about on your lawn. They also have a continuous power supply requirement of 0.6 amps, 144w at 240v, 24 hr a day, and an intermittent pump power requirement of 750w. Not a lot in the scheme of things admittedly, but it adds up. And each complete system is a substantial piece of engineering. So there may well be economies of scale in having a centralised system, instead of having one in every back yard. However, I’ve not seen any comparitive modelling, and have no idea how much energy a centralised system uses.

    Seeker, you’ve obviously thought your own proposed system through pretty well. A tank stand is also a great idea – am considering that myself, and filling the header tank with a solar powered pump running directly off a PV array. Another way is a 12v pump that can be run off a battery if the power goes off, plumbed in parallel to a regular pump. It would be worth costing a couple of 45 000 L concrete tanks, or even a 100 000 L, poured-on site if they are available locally – water stays cooler, a factor in the tropics and even here in the south, where water gets noticeably warmer during summer – and b*freezing in winter – in metal or poly tanks.

  2. Graeme Bird says:
    April 13th, 2006 at 02:25 | #2

    You just gotta price the stuff coming from the rivers is all?

    For Petes sakes it aint complicated.

    And no you don’t need to have State ownership of ‘natural monopolies’. You can sell them off on a Georgist basis and that will do just fine.

  3. Graeme Bird says:
    April 13th, 2006 at 02:36 | #3

    1 that recycled water will never be acceptable in Australia for household use

    Wrong. If the non-recycled stuff is copping a huge price whenever water levels are below average (yet next to free when they are above average) THEN YOU BETTER BELIEVE THE RECYCLED STUFF WILL BE ACCEPTED IN A FREE MARKET.

    2 that additional urban water supplies should not be sourced through market purchases from irrigators.

    Why the hell not? Are you worried about supernormal profits? Bring the tax down on river-sourced water when the water falls to the lowest 25th percentile. Or some such other formula. But buy the stuff commercially for the love of small children.

    3 that additional water for the environment should be sourced from the market only after all alternatives have been exhausted.

    This is unmitigated idiocy.

    4 that urban water use restrictions introduced during the drought should continue indefinitely into the future.

    What the f……………. Are you some sort of communist?

    5 that any water not abstracted for consumptive use is necessarily doing good to the environment.

    No that’s bullshit. That’s only true during a drought (paradoxically enough) or at least during those times where the rivers are lower then average.

    6 that uniform water quality and pricing should be maintained across all urban water users including industrial users, and

    That is ridiculous. Resign you idiot. You are not an economist.

    7 that water and sewerage are natural monopolies and should therefore be provided by governments.

    Just to repeat:

    (a) you don’t need to have State ownership of ‘natural monopolies’. You can sell them off on a Georgist basis and that will do just fine.

    (b) Its a stretch to say they are natural monopolies and the main thing that makes this plausible is past compulsion.

  4. James Farrell
    April 13th, 2006 at 07:17 | #4

    Update I should add, if it’s not obvious that Matthews means to imply that all of these propositions are both widely accepted and overdue for sceptical scrutiny”

    To some, still not obvious even when explicitly pointed out.

  5. Greg Cameron
    May 29th, 2006 at 16:03 | #5

    Rainwater tanks are dismissed as an option for Toowoomba’s future water supply based on cost estimates which are incorrect.

    The “Toowoomba Water Futures� plan estimates that the cost of fitting a 10KL rainwater tank to 35 000 Toowoomba houses is $175m while the water yield per house is 25KL. On these figures, a rainwater installation costs $5 000 and yields 25KL of water per household at an average cost of $7/KL. Obviously these costs are not affordable when the cost of mains drinking water in Toowoomba is $0.64/KL.

    A 5KL rainwater supply system involving one or more tanks will yield 77KL of water (under current drought conditions) and will cost $2 500 per house if installed for 35 000 existing houses.

    The cost of rainwater will be about $1.40/KL and the addition to the water supply will be 2.7 billion litres per year or 25% of all drinking water used in Toowoomba. Rainwater yield of 77KL will supply 57% of the indoor water needs of an average Toowoomba household each year.

    The low cost is achieved by using a blow moulding machine for manufacturing plastic rainwater tanks, and by training teams of specialist installers.

    The cost of the machine and tooling to manufacture 1250 litre plastic rainwater tanks is about $8 million. A single machine makes one tank every five minutes and can produce 70 000 tanks a year.

    Crews of plumbers, electricians and installers can install 50 systems per day. This means that within two years, every house in Toowoomba could be supplied with its own rainwater system delivering one-half of indoor water requirements.

    The investment in technology and work crews is justified if every house is supplied.

    Tanks of 1250 litres capacity are rectangular, slim and low. They fit neatly and unobtrusively beneath the eave of a house. More importantly, they enable four tanks to be positioned to capture water from all downpipes of an average house.

    The Federal Government has conditionally offered Toowoomba $23M for the proposed water recycling scheme. Were a grant of $8M to be made to finance the cost of one blow moulding machine, this would ensure that the cost of tanks would be limited to the variable cost of manufacture – comprising labour and materials.

    Using Council’s own figures, the subsidy would be worth $2 500 per household. The machine can supply 175 000 houses between Toowoomba and Brisbane over the next 10 years and therefore it will be fully utilised. The cost of the subsidy over 175 000 households is $45 per household.

    The State Government owns mains drinking water. It has the legal right to mandate reduced mains drinking water consumption and it can do so at point of sale of property to ensure that the cost is captured as part of the transaction and is fair to all. Rainwater tanks can be deemed to comply with a mandatory requirement to reduce mains drinking water consumption. Installing a rainwater supply would be 1% of the average cost of a house in Toowoomba.

    Properties are sold on average every seven years.

    Plastic blow moulding technology is just one example of how to secure lowest cost of rainwater tanks. Other technologies exist for high volume manufacture of steel rainwater tanks.

    Tank making technology and installation systems exist to make rainwater tanks a cost effective source of additional water supply if Local, State and Federal Governments will undertake a serious appraisal of the possibilities.

    Greg Cameron

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