Water is heavy

I just did an interview with ABC Radio Lismore about the latest proposal to divert water from the Clarence River to the Murray Darling Basin. Apart from the environmental effects (disastrous according to the studies I’ve seen) proponents of ideas like this seem to be unaware of a crucial fact. Water is heavy. A megalitre of water (worth maybe $200 as bulk supply to irrigators) weighs 1000 tonnes. Pumping that much mass over even a low mountain range is prohibitively expensive. You can overcome that with tunnels if the gradients are steep enough, but the Great Dividing Range is pretty broad in Northern NSW.

And, don’t get me started on the really crazy projects like Colin’s Canal.

90 thoughts on “Water is heavy

  1. Yes, this rubbish just keeps re-emerging, notably from Alan Jones of course. It relies (apart from an ignorance of engineering problems as you point out) on a view of rivers as mere channels for carrying distilled water which can be exchanged, at whim and will, between any two water catchments. The ignorance of the effects of mixing micro-organisms, as well as insect species and others, between two ecosystems escapes them (nor would they care if they knew). No ecological concern must ever be allowed to get in the way of big business/agribusiness making money by ignoring the environment.

  2. “You can overcome that with tunnels if the gradients are steep enough, but the Great Dividing Range is pretty broad in Northern NSW.”

    To be fair, even the Romans could do a aquaduct 92.5km long, and through mountains. I’ve no idea how hard it would be to do it in the proposed geography.

  3. Well folks it’s been done in Victoria!

    The North – South pipeline lifts water up and over the Great Dividing Range. Fortunately it is not too high at that point but I estimate the water is raised approx 300M.

    This could have been significantly reduced [maybe 50 – 70%] by a relatively short tunnel through the highest section but a considerable amount of energy would still be required.

    It is an energy intensive short term solution which takes water from the stressed MDB system.

  4. Water from the Murray gets pumped over most, not all, of the Mt. Lofty Ranges from Mannum in SA to the hills reservoirs and from there to Adelaide.
    The critical numbers, how much water, how far, how high, and at what costs [electricity plus infrastructure and maitenance] should be available to research savvy folks such as inhabit this site [ beyond my ability I suspect but I’ll have a go] and inform the debate about the Clarence.
    And it would be interesting information in itself.

  5. Good point, Factory. Of course it would help if we had several armies of slaves to do the grunt work, but the modern context is machinery. I think that in another 10 years tunnels for water might take precedence over tunnels for cars. In between time high speed rail might occupy peoples minds if we get another serious oil price shock as Peak Oil settles in. The trigger for that would be a sharp drop in the value of the $OZ.

  6. As a Keynesian I thought you would be overwhelmingly enthusiastic about possible public infrastructure projects which neither made financial nor engineering sense?


  7. I see the crazy proposal to pipe/channel water from north Queensland (Tully, Herbert, Burdekin rivers) through the GDR to the Thompson River, down the Thompson and then back through the GDR to the Warrego and hence to MD is also on the cards again. Bob Katter’s proposal to pipe water from these NQld rivers through the GDR to the Flinders River to use for irrigation on the Flinders even looks much more sensible in the light of the first proposal!

  8. @Rationalist
    You obviously dont get that public infrastructure projects can a) be seed financed by the public and b) employ so many of the public that it will spill over into their incomes Ratio and pay it back. No use not discussing public infrastructure projects when an increasing number of the population are facing unemployment and poverty here and in the US. An oxymoronic comment as usual unless of course you are taking the micro individual project view of the public infrastructure project…a classic error made by rationalists. If “the individual project isnt profitable it mustnt be worthwhile” That net profit to the government or no net profit matters less after paying wages to the newly employed. Part of profit went to jobs.

  9. Couple of flaws in the “the Romans did it so we can to” argument. First, to my knowledge the Romans didn’t cross mountains with water pipes. What they were doing is bringing water from a high point, by gravity, to a low point, using aqueducts to cross valleys, and planning routes to involve as little tunelling as possible. Secondly, they were bringing water for town use, not irrigation. Third, the scale of things both geographically and in terms of population is vastly different to Australia. At its height, for example, Rome had about a million people, all the other Roman towns being at most about the size of regional centres in Australia today. The amounts of water they were shifting were relatively small.

    And I come back to my biggest concern. Crossing the Great Divide takes you from one biogeographic region to another (as does coming from the Northern Territory. Biogeographic regions have distinctive plant and animal species as a result of more or less separate evolution over millions of years. Dumping the biological contents of inland or northern rivers into southern ones is asking for the kind of trouble that introducing feral aquatic animals (carp, cane toads, mosquito fish) and plants (water hyacinth) from overseas into our waterways has caused. And that is without taking into account the potential of the different bacterial and invertebrate species to have dramatic and disastrous consequences.

  10. @Rationalist
    Rationalist – try telling that to the Americans – and how you can say unemployment is low from a booming private sector when unemp,loyment is around 16% for 15 to 19 year olds and there are millions in this country getting one or two casual shifts a week

    Ratio – I donty subscribe to BS about booming private sector unless you mean the miners who are about the only ones booming in this country (and the telcos and banks and grocery giants).

    Give me a break Ratio, for once, and tell it like it really is.

  11. @Alice
    Oh well the US is a whole different kettle of fish.

    A lot of 15-19 year olds are unemployed since they have no useful skills or the skills that they have are not in demand in their location. They should enrol in higher education such that they can develop skills that the economy needs or move to where the demand is.

    There should be no unemployment problem for 15-19 year olds. If those individuals had any sense, they would either have a job, be in school, at university or doing vocational education.

  12. @Rationalist
    Ratio – are you suggesting 15% OF 15 TO 19 Year olds have no sense?
    Ridiculous blame game only you are missing the real culprit. The economy is as booming and wonderful as you think. Id like to shake the casuals, temps, contract workers, and others who are living on the margins of your wonderful world out for you to see (including the lawyers and other grads who are out there driving cabs).

  13. Alice, are you suggesting that if the actual percent of teenagers not having sense existed in sync with unemployment, that most teenagers would be out of work?

  14. I have heard that purely from an energy point of view, and ignoring economics completely, desalinating water is equivalent to either pumping it 1500 km horizontally, or 2km vertically. So on energy considerations alone it is always better to desalinate than to pump water greater than this distance (provided one is on the coast and has access to sea water of course).

  15. Note that only 6% of 15-19 year olds were unemployed in 2009 — the higher ‘headline’ figure is because labour force participation is low in that age group due to so many being in education.

    On water: we should simply extract the heavy water for nuclear reactor moderation, then moving the remainder will be easy. Win-win 😉

  16. @Sam

    It would require in theory 2.72 GWh to elevate 1GL of water 1Km. In practice of course, it’s not going to be 100% efficient.

    I’m not sure how high you’d need to elevate the water between either Ballina or the Gold Coast and the Border River region.

  17. @Alice
    “Ratio – are you suggesting 15% OF 15 TO 19 Year olds have no sense?” –> Bluntly, yes.

    People studying full time at school or uni are not unemployed. Unemployed 15-17 (or even 18) year olds should be a non existent phenomenon since higher schooling is provided until this age. Perhaps young people should be forced back to school if they become unemployed. Why bother supporting these individuals on welfare or lost tax receipts when the government cannot expect them to yield a return on investment over their lifetime from meaningful employment? It is all about mutual obligation.

    In many ways the government agrees/will agree with me. As the labour market tightens and a body of young people still “unemployed” will remain a thorn in Gillard’s education agenda. The only way to move forward is to financially cajole some of these people into education through the tightening/removal of benefits. I have heard the current and previous minister refer to this kind of activity in interviews as the labour market tightens – it clearly makes a lot of sense!

    Anyway, this is getting a bit off topic but it was fun nevertheless :).

  18. @Rationalist
    Of course the government agrees with you Ratio. Apparently to get unemployment benefits a school leaver must be “in trainin”.
    Once “in trainin” with many private sector “trainin agencies” making a nice subsidy – hey presto the unemployed young person isnt counted in the unemployment statistics. A whole generation of schoolleavers left out of the stats. Of course the government likes it because it makes unemployment appear lower than it really is.
    So what is the real unemployment figure Ratio and why do so many private sector training agencies need this subsidy? – if the market were truly rational the private training agecncies would exist without subsidies. The market is now exploding with RTOs who only exist because of government handouts.

  19. @Alice
    As well Ratio – how do you hide slack capacity at either end of the labour market? You decree “young people should be trying to find training” and “old people should still be trying to find work for longer”.
    Should wouldnt exist if the jobs were really there and they are not.
    Its a blame the victim mentality Ratio. Governments who have mostly been pushing neoliberal ideas like yours love to blame the victim. It means they can wipe their hands of any responsibility for underperforming economies and poor policy decisions.
    Same with the recent electricvity hikes which is forcing poor people to seek food vouchers.
    Whats the market solution there Ratio… ??
    that these people should go and enrol in an MBA when they cant afford a tin of baked beans?
    There is a bit of a reality check needed by the have mores.

  20. @Fran Barlow
    Hi Fran, that’s correct, the calculation is m*g*h/3600. What I was saying though, is that with current technology, however much energy it actually takes to push a unit of water up 2km (or along 1500km), it takes about that energy to desalinate the same unit of water.

  21. Of course we could have the best of both worlds by first desalinating some seawater and then piping it to the highest inland destination of choice. Think of the jobs in constructing the thing, oh I can see it being sold to a politician now – PowerPoint firing up…

  22. Pr Q said:

    Water is heavy

    Mountains are High.
    And Australia is Big.

    These important discoveries should be branded on the foreheads of the people who call for our Northern rivers to be diverted inland.

    I remember being attracted to liberal economics during the early eighties after seeing free-market economists demolish these perennial proposals. Ahh those were the days when statists were much easier to make fun of.

    Its a bummer that most of Australia’s fresh water drops in places no one much wants to live in, apart from crocodiles. But we shall just have to be brave about that.

    OTOH, would the Snowy River Hydro scheme pass Pr Q’s rigorous economic rationalist cost-benefit test? Not to mention ecologics. Just askin’.

  23. From listening to a Zero Carbon Australia address yesterday there will actually be some occasions of excess solar energy capacity from any or all of the 17 odd solar thermal farms dotted around the semi arid regions of Australia. Linking all these expansive (wind and solar) energy farms will require a new trans-continental grid at a cost of many billions. But if the occasional pulse of ‘off-peak’ energy were applied to a few pipeline pumps on Katter’s scheme, it might be enough to get the folks in Canberra thinking real infrastructure spending.
    Meanwhile I’d suggest the NSW Government get a bit more practical on removing diversion works and too many farm dams across the western slopes of the GDR. It won’t cure too much allocation of licences to irrigators but it might give them a bit of breathing space to get the MDB back into some balance

  24. Pablo. most of those farm dams are now full, and the Murray is flowing strongly, what more do you want?

    You may note that the majority of the farm dams were bone dry for the 5 or so years before this one. Which didn’t help the Murray.

  25. It occurs to me that the inhabitants of the Clarence catchment might also have something to say about the regional economic and social impacts of diverting their water over the GDR, which as well as being broad is some 1000+ metres high west and south-west of the Clarence.

  26. Interestingly, if you run your eye across the terrain from Ballina NSW to Lyra in Queensland near the Dumaresq River in the Border Rivers country, which might be the dump point for desalinated water from Ballina, Lyra is only 374m, Lismore is 11m and Casino about 26m. As the crow flies it’s less than 200km.

    Casino has about 10,000 people and Lismore about 25,000.

    So moving water from Ballina to the Dumaresq ought not to be all that energy intensive and you might have markets for water along the way..

  27. @Donald Oats

    Of course we could have the best of both worlds by first desalinating some seawater and then piping it to the highest inland destination of choice. Think of the jobs in constructing the thing, oh I can see it being sold to a politician …

    Indeed. What we need is a project. Lots of highly skilled jobs in rural NSW aimed at environmental remediation. Requires local steel and concrete, so the big industrial centres share in it. The stimulus lasts for years and effectively ensures the iconic MDB will survive.

    What’s not to like? I’m betting the opposition would have trouble objecting to that one in the current context.

  28. Fran, I’m not sure how you get an elevation of 374m for Lyra. I’ve cycled through there from Stanthorpe to Wallangarra (and vice versa), both of which are over 800m up, and I would have noticed if I’d descended nearly 500m from Stanthorpe and then gained over 500m again, all within a space of 38km.

  29. @Paul Norton

    Fran, I’m not sure how you get an elevation of 374m for Lyra.

    I was relying on Google for these elevavtion quotes, as I have never been to Lyra. Here’s the source:


    [Geographical information for Lyra: Country: Australia; State: QLD; …
    Elevation / Altitude: 374 m ]

  30. That said paul, it is said that Girraween national park, adjacent to and East of Lyra has an average elevation of about 900M.

    I’m not sure about the others along the topographic line to Ballina. Apparently there are some disused rail lines in the area so the engineering might not be that complex.

  31. @Sam

    I have heard that purely from an energy point of view, and ignoring economics completely, desalinating water is equivalent to either pumping it 1500 km horizontally, or 2km vertically.

    Pity the Victorian government didn’t know or care about the first of these. The Forth River in north-west Tasmania is 400km from the desalination plant on the Victorian coast but for some reason the Victorian government seems to be completely unaware of the amount of energy the plant will use.

  32. it is said that Girraween national park, adjacent to and East of Lyra has an average elevation of about 900M.

    According to Google Earth, the lowest part of the Great Divide near there is about 900m. I think the lowest part of the Great Divide within a couple of hundred km of there is south-west of Killarney where it is 500m.

  33. Fran Barlow :
    It would require in theory 2.72 GWh to elevate 1GL of water 1Km. In practice of course, it’s not going to be 100% efficient.

    Fran, I’ve been too lazy/busy to do this calculation. Can you supply the workings?

  34. @jquiggin

    I’ve been awaqre of this figure since my first sorties into the feasibility of pumped storage, in the days when I was keen on wind + PS as a solution.

    Sam is right on the Ug = g*m*h (potential gravity = gravitational acceleration * mass * height but that’s not really very serviceable. There are also complex calculations from footpounds to kWh but again why bother?

    You get 0.272 kWh of energy by releasing 1m3 of water (=1Kl) at a head of 100m and consequently, in theory, you need the same amount to raise it back 100m again. A fabulously efficient pump might achieve round trip efficiency of 80-85%.

    So forgetting about practical efficiency, to raise it 1000m (i.e 1km) you need 10*0.272kWh (= 2.72kWh). Raising 1 Gl of water to that height is 1 million times as energy-intensive (i.e 2.72GWh).

    I suppose in theory you could recover some of that energy as it flowed down the other side of the slope to whatever level was consistent with delivering it into the Dumaresq, though of course that would entail a hydro station being build up there at the high point of the Girraween National Park, which wouldn’t necessarily be the most environmentally friendly thing to do. If you could sell that energy commercially, then the cost of delivering the water would decline however.

  35. SAWater do sell electricity generated from water falling down the other side of the hills in SA after being pumped from the Murray to the dams.
    They have been doing so for about 6 years I think.
    There is a figure of how much they generate online, but don’t bother looking for it, its not much, better than a slap in the face with a wet fish but only by a bit.

  36. @Fran Barlow

    John, I can confirm Fran is right on the theory and the calculations. I get the same numbers.

    Trying to dig up practical efficiency numbers for pumps is hard, but I get numbers around 80%.

  37. Hi John, the energy in JOULES required lift m kilograms h metres against a constant force of gravity g is given by

    To convert from joules to watt hours, just think,
    1watt hour=1 joule/second * 1 hour=1 joule/second * 3600 seconds=1 joule*3600.
    1 joule=1/3600 watt hours
    x joules = x/3600 watt hours

    Thus, the energy in watt hours required to lift m kilograms h metres against gravity g


    When dealing with water, recall 1 litre is 1 kilogram.

    In Fran’s example she used a mass of 10^9 kilograms (1 gigalitre is 1 gigakilograms), and a height of 10^3 metres. Gravity is 9.8 m/s^2.

    Thus energy in watt hours is

    E=10^9*10^3*9.8/3600=2.7*10^9 watt hours = 2.7 giga watthours

  38. @Sam

    Which means, assuming a pumpe efficiency of 80% and a height of 900m that 1Gl of water could be raised to the average height of the GDR (not East Germany! 😉 for about 3.06GWh. Raising 4Pl of water per annum to go into the MDB via the Dumaresq would be about 4000*3.06 GWh or about 12.24TWh or assuming a constant 24/7 flow of about 0.45Gl per hour, or if it only ran during 8 hours of off peak 1.3698Gl/h.

    This would assume a power supply during that 8 hours per day of 1.3698 *3.06GWh i.e. 4.191GW … so not a small plant, especially when you are already doing desal.

    The point is that if the plant had a capacity much smaller than this and scaled to something like NSW demand — say 1.4GW, it could fit a reasonable project (say 1PL per annum) into its idle off peak capacity. An extra petalitre for my Darling! I like the slogan.

  39. Shiping water could be a cheaper option than piping. Water is shipped to parts of the Mediterranean and Middle-East. Bruno Oreste Bellettini Cedeño estimates the cost of shipping water from the Amazon river to Morroco at 41 US cents a ton. I don’t know how practical shipping water is in an Australian context, but it should make better economic sense than some pumping ideas.

  40. Fran, I’m not following the last step. I get (1-0.8)*0.9*2.7=0.49, which actually looks surprisingly good. Can you check my math?

  41. The above calculation assumes that 1GL needs to be shifted every hour. That’s the same as shifting the entire contents of Sydney Harbour every 3 weeks. That’s alot of water.

  42. @jquiggin

    I’m not entirely sure what I’m verifying PrQ. What does the 0.49 represent?

    Assuming 1Pl (i.e. 1000 Gl), 2920 working ohours per year, pump efficiency of 80%, height of 900 metres (0.9Km) and 2.72GWh per Gl raised 1000m …

    Obviously if your pump is only 80% efficient then you need 25% more power to raise each Gl to the height needed. Hence 2.72 * 0.9 (the height) * 1.25 (the inefficiency adjustment) * water volume in Gl …

  43. An old comment of mine from John’s Bradfield in reverse post:

    You need to put some numbers to it to really get a feel for whether the energy costs are significant or not.

    A kilolitre of water weighs one thousand kilograms, and it takes 0.27 kWh of energy to raise a thousand kilograms to a height of 100 m.

    In the Shoalhaven scheme, mentioned above, the water has to be lifted about 850 m. That takes 2.3 kWh for each kL. Assuming that the pumping and other losses make the process only 50% efficient, we’re looking at 4.6 kWh. If we can get off-peak electricity for 6 c/kWh, each kilolitre costs about 28 c in energy.

    For the ACTEW proposal, the difference in elevation is only about 120 m, costing around 4 c/kL in energy.

    Compare that to the $1.50/kL price John gave for desalination.

    Of course, the $0.28/kL is just the energy cost, so we’d need to come up with some estimate of amortised capital cost.

    The Shoalhaven scheme cost $128m in 1977, which is about $625m in today’s dollars.

    Let’s say that annual amortised cost is about 10% of that, i.e. about $63m.

    Before transfers from the Shoalhaven were suspended, the annual transfers were of the order of 150 GL/year, which was probably as much as was possible to pump during off-peak hours. So the amortised capital cost adds something like $63m/150 GL = $0.42/kL, for a total of $0.70/kL, or $700/ML.

    This is just a ballpark costing, and the numbers can be quibbled about, but there it is.

    John mentioned (from memory) a Murray-Darling buyback price in today’s AFR of $1500/ML, but I wasn’t paying enough attention. Was this a price for a one-off quantity of one megalitre, or was it a price for a permanent entitlement of one megalitre per annum? This makes a huge difference to the question of whether the pumping scheme would make sense economically.

  44. The Tony G Scheme,

    You build a few little pipes, viaducts and tunnels to get the water to flow by gravity from KOOMBOOLOOMBA DAM (Elevation760m) which has an annual rainfall of 2.7 metres to somewhere in the Upper Warrego north of CHARLEVILLE (Elevation 302m). from Charleville it is all down hill and water already flows for free to ADELAIDE (Elevation 48m).

    Hey presto you have got water to flow from the wettest part of Australia to the driest.

    p.s. JQ water flows down hill for free. It already flows for free from north of Charleville to Adelaide with only 254m of fall. So water could easily flow for free from KOOMBOOLOOMBA to the Upper Warrago with 458m of fall; considering it is a much shorter distance.

    The only hurdle is the greenies as everybody knows the Snowy Mountain Scheme would never be allowed to be built today.

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