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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. doug
    March 29th, 2006 at 10:27 | #1

    re 1: isn’t all water already recycled? But I guess ‘natural’ recycling seems nicer than ‘artificial’. Then again, with global warming we might occasionally drink water that’s never been through human kidneys before!

    Re 4: As someone who grew up in Perth I’ve long been appalled at the profligate urban use of water in the Eastern states (using drinkable water on parks, reserves, ovals, etc.).

  2. wilful
    March 29th, 2006 at 10:32 | #2

    1 – rubbish (IMHO). It’s a claim easily made, with no facts to back it up. Melbourne is starting well on the way to a third pipe for gardens etc, and within 20 years I predict the South Eastern Treatment Plant will be pumping filtered water back into the system.
    2 the only thing stopping that is politics. Happened a lot in teh 60s and 70s, if the need is really there it will happen again. I do give a little bit of credence to the argument that trying to grow food is more important than a lush garden, but aren’t we supposed to live in a market economy? Or doesn’t that apply to the farming sector?
    3 all alternatives already have been exhausted!
    4 that’s a bit socialist isn’t it? But yes, washing your concrete down with a hose is a bad thing. Whetehr it should be regulated or socially determined is I guess what’s up for debate.
    5 “necessarily” is the logic killer, however it’s impossible to argue against the fact (unless you’re Jennifer Marohasy) that in general our waterways are highly stressed by lack of water, and in all practical situations that I’ve seen, yes, more water would be very good for the environment. I’m sure taht somewhere there’s an exception, but it’s not helpful to advance the argument that the rivers are doing fine and don’t need any more water.
    6 if you don’t do that then you’re subsidising one user aren’t you? But should a distinction be made between ‘aesthetic’ and ‘productive’ use? Probably yes. CityLink wasn’t paying 1/100th of the amount I was paying to keep their tunnel suitably wet.
    7 that’s in the Victorian constitution now. I think that’s the overall view of society, it’s what we all seem to want. So be it.

  3. jquiggin
    March 29th, 2006 at 10:48 | #3

    Wilful, I agree with your take on 5.

  4. Terje
    March 29th, 2006 at 11:30 | #4

    In Sydney private rainwater tanks were illegal for decades. Now they are compulsory for new developments. I think that the former situation was proped up by the “natural monopoly” thinking.

    Sewerage is different to water. It is quite feasable to be independent of the water utility if you build a rainwater tank of the right size. And urban rainfall is usually more than adequate if the tank is big enough.

    More pricing solutions and less rationing would be a good start. Rationing is very subject to good will and policing in any case.

  5. March 29th, 2006 at 12:07 | #5

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

    That depends on how you define “household use”. If you mean “ALL household uses”, then probably not. If you mean “for gardening water and toilet flushing, but not cooking/washing/drinking”, then it would probably be acceptable to most people.

  6. still working it out
    March 29th, 2006 at 12:42 | #6

    Its weird that anybody would really belive that recycled water would never be acceptable. It will be disproven easily enough over time.

  7. March 29th, 2006 at 12:46 | #7

    Less than 10% of Australian water is used by all the urban areas (includes Toowoomba, Bendigo etc) and much of that saves money as it is essential for health reasons. There isn’t really much room to manouvre at all on actual urban water usages as seperate from PR feel good excercises.

    The odd squirt to hose down a drive way might look bad but doesn’t really add up in national terms.

    I don’t have figures but Cubby Station probably uses more water than does Adelaide. Mind you we all know Adelaide water is only fit for hosing down drive ways.

    1 People do have a resistance to drinking septic tank water but there are myriad ways of recycling water along the chain. Grey water is pretty acceptable to most people and if it was made simple to do more recycled water would be used.

    2 that statement assumes that all irrigators are paying the right price and being efficient. Easily disproved. Irrigators should be the first target for using recycled water.

    3 doesn’t make any sense. I mean I don’t understand what they are saying.

    4 Some maybe, but many of the restrictions are just window dressing.

    5 – is irrigation consumptive use?

    6 – possibly as a general rule but wouldn’t some places and uses cost more to deliver and remove and shouldn’t that be reflected in price. We have to decide what amount of water is essential to good health and disease prevention and then make that as cheap and affordable as possible. I think my water bill already does that to some extent by a two tiered pricing regime.

    7 seems obvious – but might there be a market in recycled / treated water (or water substitutes – I haven’t read anything on water substitutes) that is better performed outside the monopoly?

  8. Dogz
    March 29th, 2006 at 13:31 | #8

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

    Doesn’t hold up if you throw desalination into the mix. What is a natural monopoly is the distribution networks for urban water at least (the pipes), and they should stay in government hands.

    But if I want to spend a hundred million dollars on a desalination plant and pipe the results into the Adelaide urban supply it doesn’t seem like the government should be able to (or for that matter, want to) stop me.

    I say unbundle the local water loop.

  9. March 29th, 2006 at 15:30 | #9

    About right:

    WRT Proposition 1, Toowoomba is already planning to recycle water for drinking.

    2 is irrigator appeasment, 3 is nonsense, and 4 is nanny-stating.

    I’ll leave 5 to the experts.

    WRT 6, why shouldn’t industry be able to buy lower-quality water at a lower price if they so choose?

    7 isn’t necessarily true, if things like desalination and recycling come into the picture. Dams and distribution networks strike me as natural monopolies though.

  10. MN
    March 29th, 2006 at 15:45 | #10

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

    To refute statement 5 implies the marginal value of water for the environment may vary from positive to zero (and potentially negative). This is certainly possible, as wilful pointed out.

    I think the broader point is that the marginal value of water for the environment will vary according to temporal and spatial characteristics. To put it into a practical context, an ABARE paper (presented at AARES 05) estimated the cost of providing water to the environment by purchasing water when it has a lower opportunity cost (ie when water is less scarce due to a “wetter” season being experienced). If the marginal value of water to the environment is equivalent across all possible seasons, this represents a cheaper method providing water to the environment. Is this reasonable? I am not qualified to say.

    * I have no current relationship with ABARE, although many moons ago, I was a paid “vacation” student (in the trade section if you must know).

  11. Uncle Milton
    March 29th, 2006 at 15:46 | #11

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

    Why can’t they be privately provided with the price and quality regulated by governments, like electricity distribution and gas reticulation?

  12. Paul Norton
    March 29th, 2006 at 15:49 | #12

    It’s worth bearing in mind that only about 10% of household water usage is for drinking and cooking. Water used for other purposes need not be eau potable, although people would probably feel more at ease showering in drinking quality water. The current issue of Dissent magazine carries a proposal by Patrick Troy, Darren Holloway and Bill Randolph for how Sydney could reduce its potable water consumption by 80% through household water conservation and recycling, including capture and use of water of less than potable standard.

    Having gone on my fair share of cycling trips in the Brisbane Valley, I’m familiar with the wide variety of farm runoffs, dead animal remains, human corpses, etc., which gets into the tributaries of the Brisbane River upstream of the Wivenhoe and Somerset dams, not to mention the fish species in the dams which live, die, poo and rot there. A similar story could be told of the catchments in the hills from which Sydney and Melbourne get their drinking water. It’s difficult to see why people would be fastidious about recycled water when they are already drinking water from these sources.

  13. wilful
    March 29th, 2006 at 16:14 | #13

    A similar story could be told of the catchments in the hills from which Sydney and Melbourne get their drinking water.

    Not really, for Melbourne. Nearly 100% closed, forested catchments, which is why we have excellent water quality with minimal treatment.

    If Bracks is re-elected (highly likely) and Thwaites and or Hulls are Water and Planning Ministers, third pipes will probably become mandatory in new estates.

  14. Uncle Milton
    March 29th, 2006 at 16:18 | #14

    A problem is it costs a fortune to redo the plumbing of existing houses to split water into potable and recycled, which can be used for watering the garden and flushing the toilet.

    It’s cheaper with new housing, but there’s still no financial incentive to do it.

  15. rog
    March 29th, 2006 at 16:39 | #15

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

    Agreed, too long it has been accepted that drinking from a tap is OK. It will take a massive PR campaign to turn that around.

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

    no, user pays is a better prescriptive (Hunter Water introduced same and reduced consumption dramatically)


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

    what about recycled?

    7 that water and sewerage are natural monopolies –

    like wheat?

  16. Seeker
    March 29th, 2006 at 16:39 | #16

    Terje says: “Sewerage is different to water. It is quite feasable to be independent of the water utility if you build a rainwater tank of the right size.”

    Agree completely that, for most purely domestic consumption (not including water used on non-food gardens), rainwater tanks can deliver virtual independence from utility supplied water. But disagree about sewerage not having similar possibilities. It is quite possible to be independent of sewerage utilities using currently available and legal off-the-shelf technology, which is improving dramatically all the time.

    FXH says: “There isn’t really much room to manouvre at all on actual urban water usages as seperate from PR feel good excercises.”

    Don’t agree. A substantial fraction of utility supplied potable quality water is used on purely decorative private gardens and public nature strips and parks, etc. In some areas it is as high as about 50% of domestic consumption. This is unacceptable when there are perfectly good local native plant species available which require no additional water, especially once established. There is also no good reason toilets have to be the water-flush kind hooked up to utility supplied removal and treatment process. Full, stand-alone, on-site sewerage treatment is a very realistic, though by no means problem-free, alternative.

    And I don’t know of any substance that can effectively substitute for water on any meaningful scale, in a way that is both economically and environmentally sound.

    Disclaimer: I practice what I preach on this important issue. My large garden is currently most of the way through a planned transition to ultra-low water use, with the vast bulk of that water being used on substantial food producing plants (avocado, citrus, papaya, etc, plus vegies) for personal consumption. I am saving up for the installation of around 100 000-150 000 litres of rainwater storage tanks for full independence from water utilities. And I am also already fully independent of sewerage utilities.

    Lastly, I would be grateful if anyone could refer me to any serious work that has been done on assessing what fraction of food costs in Australia, particularly distribution costs, is accounted for by the weight of the water component of food. (Remember that 1 litre of water = 1 kilo of weight.)

  17. rog
    March 29th, 2006 at 17:07 | #17

    Seeker, all rural dwellers use rainwater. You should buy a generator, to run the pump during blackouts.

    On point 7, “that water and sewerage are natural monopolies”, Sydney turned to the commercial suppliers of water after the crypto spiridium scare and havent looked back.

    And rural folk are well aware of using contractors to manage their on site sewage.

    So the monopoly has provided opportunities for commercial entrepeneurs.

  18. Terje
    March 29th, 2006 at 18:08 | #18

    Terje says: “Sewerage is different to water. It is quite feasable to be independent of the water utility if you build a rainwater tank of the right size.�

    Agree completely that, for most purely domestic consumption (not including water used on non-food gardens), rainwater tanks can deliver virtual independence from utility supplied water. But disagree about sewerage not having similar possibilities. It is quite possible to be independent of sewerage utilities using currently available and legal off-the-shelf technology, which is improving dramatically all the time.

    Yes I agree with that qualification. A backyard septic tank is quite feasable. However unlike a rainwater tank poor maintenance of a backyard septic tank might impact households other than your own.

    Also with both sewage and water it is the distribution system that is a monopoly like structure. The final processing of sewage could in theory be privatised and operated on a compative basis. Likewise with water storage and supply.

    In fact in Sydney there are private operators trying to get the respective distribution systems recognised as a “declared facility” under the terms of the trade practices act.

  19. Terje
    March 29th, 2006 at 18:12 | #19

    I should qualify the above statement further. Even though there is a public health issue with backyard septic tanks in urban areas and the maintenance of these system, there are also plenty of leakage issues in the public sewer system. So the current solution may not be much better.

    Although a lot of work has been done to fix leaks there is still a lot of sewage that goes into the stormwater system and a lot of stormwater that goes into the sewage system.

  20. rog
    March 29th, 2006 at 19:46 | #20

    Backyard septic tanks are where we came from, noisome, leaking, a hazard to health and hardly a step forward.

  21. Terje Petersen
    March 29th, 2006 at 20:45 | #21

    As a kid on the farm I remember Dad having to dig up a section of pipe that fed into our septic tank. The blockage turned out to be caused by some lego construction that one of us kids had said farewell to down the royal doulton.

    Personally I think there is a lot of life left in Spetic Tank technology. Dismissing it too quickly would be like dismissing water recycling as an option.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septic_tank

    QUOTE: “Approximately 25% of the U.S. population relies on septic tanks, mostly in rural communities and small towns.”

    If free standing urban homes could be made self reliant in water supply and sewage treatment in a manner that was both economical and healthy then I think there would be lots of ecological benefits. It seems such a waste to build dams and catchments on areas that would otherwise be wilderness or farmland when all those city roof tops get hammered with fresh water every time it rains. And sewage really should be treated as close to the source as possible.

    A typical problem with recycled grey water is the need for a secondary reticulation system. However if you recycle on site a lot of these issues go away.

  22. SJ
    March 29th, 2006 at 23:01 | #22

    Point (1) is simply false. In many places in NSW, water is drawn from river flows downstream of the discharge of sewage treatment plants. This occurs even in (outer) suburban Sydney.

    The yuk factor
    September 5, 2005

    In NSW, for example, tertiary treated effluent from nine Sydney Water treatment plants is discharged into the Hawkesbury-Nepean river system, upstream of the North Richmond water filtration plant. The plant treats up to 50 megalitres of water a day from the river that is used by people in the Hawkesbury region including Windsor and Richmond and towards the Blue Mountains as far as Kurrajong.

    In fact, until the cryptosporidium scare of 1998, all of Sydney was copping pretty poorly treated sewage directly into Warragamba Dam from the Blue Mountains and Oakdale, plus into tributaries from Lithgow, Goulburn, etc. Since then, the quality of the treatment has improved, and the Blue Mountains flow has been diverted from the Coxs River to the Nepean River where it adds to the Windsor/Richmond sources. But basically, most of the population of NSW currently relies on recycled sewage.

  23. SJ
    March 29th, 2006 at 23:04 | #23

    “most of the population of NSW currently relies on recycled sewage.”

    Sorry, that’s an overstatement. I should have said “most of the population of NSW currently relies on water sources containing recycled sewage”.

  24. Seeker
    March 29th, 2006 at 23:20 | #24

    Terje and rog:

    Things have moved on considerably since the days of passive septics tanks. There are now a range of full on-site active and passive sewerage treatment systems available at reasonable cost. They aren’t perfect, but they are effective, environmentally benign and fairly user friendly.

  25. March 30th, 2006 at 00:14 | #25

    Point 7 is wrong in a number of respects.

    First off, there are several ways of dealing with natural monopolies. Even if you pick allowing the monopoly, that doesn’t necessarily imply that the government should be the monopolist. Devolved systems can allow municipalities to do some, and more generally they can be assigned to public works (Rum Hospital, anyone?).

    The real catch – revealed by the Rum Rebellion – is that the monopoly on violence moves in; if it doesn’t, and there are devolved sources of violence, they move in (Rum Rebellion, anyone? also, what the Russian Mafia did to the hospitals’ import monopolies in the early post-Soviet days).

    But you can still deal with the natural monopoly issue without making all natural monopolies come under one head. Governments that adopt an umpire rather than an activist perspective can do this, until they fall prey to that peculiar temptation. So it’s only natural for governments to run them because governments are so dog in the manger.

  26. March 30th, 2006 at 00:49 | #26

    7. I agree that the water distribution system is a natural monopoly: in the same way that the National Grid is (if you actually have one of those in Australia, sorry, dunno).
    But supply into it? Why? If someone wants to build a desalination plant to pump into that system, why not? Why not allow them to do so privately?

    More importantly, the existence of a natural monopoly in the distribution system does mean regulation required. But most certainly not direct government provision.

    The privatization in the UK led to England having private for profit suppliers. Wales a mutally owned not for profit. Scotland a government owned for profit (if it could) and N Ireland direct provision by the department of the environment.

    In terms of cost, water purity, leakage from pipes, sewage run off etc etc, with a couple of minor variations the best to worst performers were as they are in the list above, England, Wales, Scotland, NI.

    It does require the right regulatory environment (as the California electricty debacle showed) but if done right private companies are more efficient providers.

  27. econwit
    March 30th, 2006 at 04:17 | #27

    Most of these “water issues” being promoted by the inefficient public sector are a smoke screen to hide the real issue.

    The siphoning of large sums of cash out of water authorities and the squandering of the monies in consolidated revenue, whilst at the same time neglecting to maintain and upgrade infrastructure- is the real issue. This equates to the pilfering of the retained earnings of these water corporations- money that should be earmarked for the expansion and the replacement of depreciating infrastructure is being misappropriated.

    The Labour Government in NSW siphoned off $5 billion out of Sydney Water Corporation over the last 10 years and pissed it up against the wall. More than enough money to build 2 Warragamba dams. They expect Warragamba, a dam built half a century ago and designed for 2 million people to cope with 4 million. Then the wankers had the audacity to crank up water rates and tell us the “water crisis” is our fault because we are using too much water.

    The water cycle dictates we never run out of water. Incompetence or neglect to efficiently exploit the water cycle could dictate that we run out of potable water or not have enough water on hand for other uses (as is happening in NSW). It is incompetence and neglect not to build new dams, especially when we had the money and time to do so.

  28. Pingu the penguin
    March 30th, 2006 at 07:04 | #28

    I’d love to know where we build these new dams.

  29. El Poppin
    March 30th, 2006 at 07:41 | #29

    Re: water recycling (grey or otherwise), sewerage, and using it for the garden or drinking – what are the health implications? Will all households/industries be able to maintain the high level of maintenance required to prevent legionnaires, typhoid and to a lesser extent cholera plus a host of other bugs that won’t kill you but you certainly won’t feel great. These would have to be considered a cost factor somewhere.
    Regarding water tanks – Is there a tank on the market that can have silt and other residues easily removed? This should be easy enough to fix but I haven’t come across one.

  30. wilful
    March 30th, 2006 at 08:59 | #30

    Yeah econwit, where are these dams being built, where is the water currently being ‘wasted’?

    The water cycle dictates we never run out of water.

    Que?

  31. Hal9000
    March 30th, 2006 at 09:22 | #31

    Toowoomba update: the federal government has buckled under the insubstantial weight of yuk-factor complainants (the NIMBY organisation being the Campaign Against Drinking Sewage) and will hold a referendum on the issue. The other, more expensive and less environmentally palatable, options to resolve the Toowoomba water shortage (eg artesian bores plus desalination, or pumping water up from the – also dry – Brisbane valley) will not be put in the referendum.

    http://www.news.com.au/story/0,10117,18588920-29277,00.html

  32. derrida derider
    March 30th, 2006 at 12:12 | #32

    What Seeker has done may be praiseworthy, but he really shows a lot of the “I did it, why can’t you?” mentality. By the list of crops he is growing with his recycled water, he clearly has plenty of space and (most importantly) a wet climate.

    Many Australian cities (Adelaide, Perth, Canberra) are just too dry for rainwater tanks to replace piping water from big dams. And it’s true that well-maintained home sewerage treatment plants work well, but they cost (its a loss of efficiency of scale), they take space (a lot more important in some areas than others) and (to put it mildly) you can’t trust everyone to keep them well maintained. I reckon their widespread use in suburbia would be a public health disaster.

    But generally I agree with the views of some of the righties here – why go for this intrusive regulation when there are perfectly good market instruments available which will do the job? As I said elsewhere, you’ll be amazed how quickly people will overcome the ‘yuk’ factor in recycling once it saves them money.

    As a final point I reckon big dams, especially ones for drinking water, get more flack from environmentalists than they deserve. They lock up lots of bush from further development – there’s no way, f’rinstance, the Burragorang Valley and surrounds would have survived the Askin government if Warragamba Dam wasn’t at its head.

  33. econwit
    March 30th, 2006 at 13:24 | #33

    I know for a fact the Hunter District Water Board is buying land when it comes on the market just north of Dungog.Six months ago they bought 500 acres neighbouring my friends property.

    The Shoalhaven could do with a wall and so could the Franklin. How many rivers are there along the east coast Pingu? The greens are the new reds and the ALP are their bumchums.

    Wilful forgive my ignorence, I thought h2o could only change its state- liquid, gas or solid, but I could be wrong?

  34. wilful
    March 30th, 2006 at 15:28 | #34

    Wilful forgive my ignorence, I thought h2o could only change its state- liquid, gas or solid, but I could be wrong?

    Oh yep it is ignorant. Water in this context is a lot more than just a molecule, it’s a massive infrastructure, engineering, economics, social isses and expectations, politics etc etc etc. Maybe you didn’t understand that.

  35. econwit
    March 30th, 2006 at 21:07 | #35

    Sorry wilful, I do not know what planet you are on but the one I am on can not run out of water- water can only change the state it is in.

    This natural phenomenon “the water cycle” is a little more significant than:
    “just a molecule, it’s a massive infrastructure, engineering, economics, social isses and expectations, politics etc etc etc.”

    You can read about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrologic_cycle

    As we have an endless supply of naturally distilled water falling for free from the sky, it makes economic and environmental sense to do what beavers do naturally and build dams.

    A dam would only flood a very small proportion of Australias huge land mass and as derider alluded to above “They lock up lots of bush from further development” due to the large catchments required.

  36. Pinguthepenguin
    March 30th, 2006 at 21:30 | #36

    errrmm…econowit I think we are all well aware that water is a molecule and that there is a water cycle. I don’t think anyone is disputing that.

    Seems you are just throwing up red herrings for the sake of being argumentative. I prefer my herrings battered and fried, but you take what you get.

    I don’t know if dams are the answer to all our problems, but I suspect that as usual the answer is not so simple. It may be that a combination of water saving strategies and new water collection methods (perhaps including new dams) is the answer.

    Just because warragamba was designed for 2million people at the water usage levels of previous generations with less efficient technology and more wasteful water practices does not mean that we should just whack on another damn and let people continue to waste water on ornamental rose gardens and washing the HSV every weekend. It may well be that with better water conservation practices and recycling it would be enough for 4 million people. Of course we still have an expanding population so…

  37. March 30th, 2006 at 23:09 | #37

    Interesting discussion. As a long-term user of rainwater tanks and septics I can offer a couple of quick comments on them and water supply generally. Pardon me for being a bloody know it all.

    ElPoppin, the trick is to not get the sludge and silt in there in the first place. It’s possible to install a diverter that stops the first hundred litres of so of a fall of rain from going into a tank. This first flush usually contains most of the mud, birdcrap etc.

    Seeker, good on you. 150 000 l is a lot of water, most tanks are not that big except the ones with liners, and some big concretes. I wouldn’t recommend the liner types, they seem prone to leak and I’ve seen the aftermath of two bursting. Very spectacular. Several smaller tanks is a better option. At least you don’t lose all your water if you have a tank leak.

    Terje, there are much better solutions than septics now. Clivus multrum waterless systems for example, although not as convenient as a flush dunny. Many councils won’t allow new septics now – they insist on these multi-tank complicated things which are essentially mini treatment plants. I hate ‘em – use electricity, complicated bits to break down. I agree, there’s life in septic technology yet, as long as some mug doesn’t pour disinfectant down the drain and kill the bugs that do the work, making them stink and necessitating a pump-out.

    Derrider, Canberra and most of the capitals still generally gets enough rain to sustain a household on tanks if they have enough storage capacity. In 25 years on tanks in south eastern NSW, not far from Canberra, I’ve never run out, even in the worst of the drought(s), although I must admit that I have a substantial roof collection area, and we don’t waste it. But it would be difficult to water a garden of any size and run a household too. And even a 5000g (23000 l) tank, is a biggish object in a suburban backyard, and not nearly enough for most households, although it might be in Sydney, which seems a lot wetter than here. And tank water can be a health hazard if things like frogs get in and die there. On the positive side though, it makes great tea!

    As for new dams – well, in this part of the world, probably a waste of time and money. The drying trend here (south eastern inland Australia) means that rainfall events producing run-off seem to be much less common, so new dams would probably be difficult to fill. Just because it rains occasionally doesn’t mean it runs off – the ground has to get saturated first, and rain events are often too short for this. How long is it since you saw a report of water going over the wall at Warragamba? WA is worse. Our farm dams take much longer to fill too most years. Climate change is real, folks, like it or not. But State and local governments have also ignored the growing population, living on what they thought was excess storage capacity. They ignored it for too long, and bingo, water supply problems and perpetual restrictions. And lunatic solutions. Now I’ll go back to lurking. Great blog, always intelligent discussion. Sorry about the intrusion.

  38. Jimmythespiv
    March 30th, 2006 at 23:59 | #38

    Derrida derider is right on the money re locking up the forest around the catchment areas. Canberra was built where it is because of the ability of the surrounding hills to provide top sites for dams to provide water to the city to be. The Namadgi National Park is in effect the catchment protection for the Bendora, Corin and Cotter Dams. The poor old Paddy’s River (my favourite ACT trout stream) suffers because it’s catchment is not protected and is used for pine plantations. And look at the state of water quality in Lake Burley Griffin (whose catchment via the Molonglo River is urban Canboring).

  39. Terje
    March 31st, 2006 at 11:59 | #39

    Regarding water tanks – Is there a tank on the market that can have silt and other residues easily removed? This should be easy enough to fix but I haven’t come across one.

    I grew up on rain water. We lived on a 200 acre farm. We had a concrete tank that was built under the garage. It was filled from rain water than landed on the roof of the house.

    The tank did fill with silt. This accumulated at the bottom of the tank. The pump intake was about 30cm from the bottom of the tank and it had an intake filter so the water quality was fine (so good I had problems getting used to town water). The silt built up to a point where it needed be be manually removed after about 20 years.

    Removing the silt was a case of getting into the tank when it was low on water and using a bucket to remove the silt. I imagine that some type of sludge pump with a filter could have done the job. The silt at the base of the tank was the consistency of pumpkin soup.

  40. Terje
    March 31st, 2006 at 12:01 | #40

    Actually the silt issue is dealt with using a pump/filter all the time in swimming pools.

  41. O6
    March 31st, 2006 at 14:44 | #41

    derrida derider Says:
    Many Australian cities (Adelaide, Perth, Canberra) are just too dry for rainwater tanks to replace piping water from big dams.
    (March 30th, 2006 at 12:12 pm )

    Sorry to come in so late, but not true. I live 6 km from Victoria Square in an Adelaide suburb and run house, garden and pool on rainwater. Yes, the garden is low water natives in the main, but we also have some fruit-trees and a vegie bed.

  42. Steve Munn
    March 31st, 2006 at 17:10 | #42

    derrida derider says: “Many Australian cities (Adelaide, Perth, Canberra) are just too dry for rainwater tanks to replace piping water from big dams.”

    Actually tanks can make a tremendous difference even in places like Adelaide and Perth. Even in Horsham, my country town of origin, which as been in drought for 10 years a water tank easily meets most water needs.

    In Melbourne the amount of water annually discharged as storm water is roughly equivalent to the annual amount of water that enters the cities storage dams. Utilising this largely untapped resource is in my view a much more attractive option that building more dams.

  43. Seeker
    March 31st, 2006 at 20:51 | #43

    Pingu the Penguin: I would also like to know where all these dams are going to go. And why dam advocates refuse to learn the sad environmental and economic lessons of the history of dams. (I am not saying dams haven’t played an important role in development, just that they are not the way of the future, generally speaking.)

    El Poppin (great handle): As others have said, rain water tanks can be easily filtered at the input side. The water quality in properly constructed and installed rainwater tanks is equal to and often higher than utility supplied water.

    Farmer Pete: Thanks for that. You are welcome to intrude anytime. My basic plan is:

    Phase 1. Install install a single 25 000 litre injection-molded plastic tank on the ground for basic storage, and use that to regularly refill a 5000 litre tank up on a 7.5m stand. This gives me the basic system with good gravity feed pressure for at least several days if the pump (for filling the 5000 litre tank) breaks down, as it inevitably will one day. Or if the power goes off for a few days.

    Phase 2. Add more 25 000 litre tanks as finances allow (they are $2500 each here, with a 30 year warranty). I am going to put isolation valves between the tanks precisely for the reasons you advised, to prevent losing all of it if one tank leaks.

    The reason I am allowing for a final capacity of at least 100 000 litres is that we have virtually no rain between late April and early October, sometimes the rains don’t break until Xmas. I have to allow for at least 5, and possibly 8 months without any significant rain. Furthermore, as virtually all the rain here falls between December and March, I need a large storage capacity compared to locations where less total rain may fall each year, but where the rain falls more evenly over the year.

    The better quality multi-chamber sewerage treatment systems work well. A plumber friend of mine installed one at his place and the only upkeep over the last 7 years was replacing the small air pump once for $100. The final product is clear water, though it is certainly not drinking quality. Very impressive.

    derrida derider: Yes I have space, and it makes it a lot easier. But that is a bit of a red herring, because it is very possible and fairly easy to produce considerable amounts of food from very small areas, just a few square metres. Most of the human population does it and without much technology. We urbanised societies have become too used to food being available cheap and easy at the local store.

    I do agree that lack of space or inappropriate design in many existing buildings limits, though not necessarily eliminates, the options for rain water storage.

    And yes, I live in the tropics, and get guaranteed minimum annual rainfall of around 1000mm, but most falls in a short time which increases storage capacity requirements, and hence initial capital investment.

    Even in densely populated areas with low annual rainfall such as Adelaide, Perth, Canberra, and some areas of Melbourne, it would make a big and probably crucial difference.

    For example, an average annual rainfall of around 500mm a year, like in Adelaide, an average size urban house with a roof area of around 250-300 square metres can still collect an average of 125 000 litres a year, which would cover the vast bulk of the domestic (non-garden) needs of a water-wise family of four.

    We don’t have to totally replace the utility supplied water, just reduce its use by a substantial fraction to make rainwater tanks very worthwhile.

    And there is also all that wasted urban stormwater runoff, as Steve Munn pointed out. Billions of litres a year of good quality water just straight down the drain.

    On the issue of on-site sewerage treatment systems, you say “I reckon their widespread use in suburbia would be a public health disaster.” I accept that there would probably be some problems during the 2-3 decade transition period, but I otherwise totally disagree with you on this one. There are many systems around the world and in Oz that have been running successfully for 2-3 decades. Learn a bit more about the current technical quality of the products and have a little more faith in the adaptability of the end users. One of the few remaining significant (and unjustifiable) barriers now left to widespread use of this technology is the sort of ill-informed attitude that you just displayed.

    As to your comments on the economics of scale, how expensive do you think it is to install and maintain the current sewerage collection system, and build and run the treatment plants, and deal with the considerable environmental problems resulting from the large volumes of often only partly treated output of these plants?

    Everyone: If you are interested in more info about these issues I suggest the following: A very good introductory text to on-site recycling of human waste is ‘The Composting Toilet System Book’, by David del Porto and Carol Steinfield, (ISBN 0-9666783-0-3). For a good example of how a inner-city Sydney terrace house can become self-sufficient for electricity, water, and sewerage treatment, check out ‘Sustainable House’ by Michael Mobbs. And Renew magazine is a good and cheap source for general, up-to-date, consumer level info. The Mobbs book can be bought through the Renew office. Renew can be found at . (Disclaimer: I have no connection to any of these publications or the individuals concerned.)

    Lastly, I might be slightly left of centre on most issues, but I also understand the importance of proper price signals in the market place. Water, (and energy, especially electricity, and no doubt sewerage) are heavily subsidised in Oz, and very few people directly pay the true full cost, which is ultimately not good either economically or environmentally. I would support gradually phasing out all water (and energy) subsidies over, say, ten years, with a few exceptions. These subsidies are probably the single biggest barrier to the widespread take up of rain water tanks and renewable energy in Australia.

  44. Terje Petersen
    March 31st, 2006 at 21:04 | #44

    Seeker you may be a little left of centre and some people regard me as being to the right of Genghis Khan but I have to say I agree with you on this one. We need full cost recovery user pays and we need any residual laws preventing self sufficiency repealed.

  45. Seeker
    March 31st, 2006 at 21:48 | #45

    Terje, you’re a pussycat. :-) If I want Genghis Khan wannabes (or just no meaningful life) I will go to Blairville, or similar.

    Conservationists and (genuine) conservatives have a lot more in common than either side might like to conceed. My very conservative Granma who went through the depression and lived on remote cattle stations all her working life, installed a large rainwater tank when she first moved into her new suburban retirement home. Despite now being financially comfortable, she always turns lights off when leaving a room to save electricity, still uses 60 year old pots, and refuses to throw just about anything out if it has the slightest chance of being reusable.

    You may recall one of the biggest greenies in US history was Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. Who, sadly, looks like having all his (and other’s) good work undone as GW Bush is currently trying to sell off 300 000 acres of some of the finest national parks on earth. Very sad. And criminal. Once they are gone, they are gone forever.

  46. Terje Petersen
    March 31st, 2006 at 22:00 | #46

    Terje, you’re a pussycat. If I want Genghis Khan wannabes (or just no meaningful life) I will go to Blairville, or similar.

    I think that you just offered a compliment but either way I will take it as such. I am not sure what Blairville is?

    My folks tend to use the word greeny only in a disparaging manner. However my mum diligently bottles the cold water that precedes the hot water out the hot water tap. She does this each morning when running a shower. Personally I just let the water run down the sink until the hot arrives.

  47. Seeker
    March 31st, 2006 at 22:46 | #47

    Yes, it was a compliment.

    Blairville = Tim Blair’s site.

    Ciao for now.

  48. April 1st, 2006 at 04:29 | #48

    When I went to school it was always possible to tell the country boys from the townies:

    The townies let the water run as they cleaned their teeth and did their hair.

    The country boys turned the tap off while they abluted, only giving the toothbruth or the comb the briefest squirts when necessary.

    Water squandering will stop dead only on the day when users have to pay real money for their water.

  49. April 1st, 2006 at 13:41 | #49

    Somebody once worked out a simple filter for drawing water from streams or ponds. Just place an upturned, weighted basin on the bottom, and run a draw pipe under the bed to come up with its intake under the basin. The silt itself is the filter.

  50. Geoff
    April 3rd, 2006 at 16:05 | #50

    Whether you agree or disagree with using recycled water for drinking, the application submitted by the Toowoomba City Council to the National Water Commission is deficient.

    No funding should be granted on the basis of this document.

    As an example, the RO waste stream may be sent to Acland Mine. They haven’t decided. If not, add another $66 million to the project cost for 600 hectares of evaporation ponds (the application states that the 68 hectare alternative is full of unknowns). Even if Acland Coal takes the RO waste stream, at the end of the mine life (possibly as early as 2018), that extra $66 million would need to be spent. That’s on top of the $70 million estimated project cost.

    Many Toowoomba residents are also worried about the misleading information coming from the Council. We were told that there were no other options (both the State government and State opposition are now examining other options). We were told that the recycled sewage project would solve the current water shortage (the Council’s chief engineer now says it won’t.) We were told by the Mayor that 70% of the community supported her project (now she has “no idea” how many support her). We were told nothing got through the RO membranes except pure water (now we find out that certain organic molecules get through as well). Council even had pictures of Disneyland in their brochures and told us they drink recycled sewage there (they don’t).

    You can see why Toowoomba residents are highly sceptical of anything the Council now tells them.

  51. Farmer Pete
    April 3rd, 2006 at 19:12 | #51

    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.

  52. Graeme Bird says:
    April 13th, 2006 at 02:25 | #52

    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.

  53. Graeme Bird says:
    April 13th, 2006 at 02:36 | #53

    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.

  54. James Farrell
    April 13th, 2006 at 07:17 | #54

    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.

  55. Greg Cameron
    May 29th, 2006 at 16:03 | #55

    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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