As the state premiers negotiate a deal with the PM over the future of the Murray Darling Basin, the broader debate over where our water will come from – now that the skies are dry – still has a long way to go, and water recycling is close to the top of the agenda.

Last year Toowoomba voted “No” to reusing water, but what many of us don’t realise is that water recycling is already a reality. The decision has already been made. 

When lodging their votes, Toowoomba residents should have spared a thought for those living in Dalby, a small town downstream which draws its drinking water from the Condamine River, the same river which carries away Toowoomba’s treated effluent. Mindful of the health concerns surrounding recycled water, Toowoomba’s town mayor offered this sensitive assessment of the arrangement on SBS’s Insight program:

…I’m just trying to check up that all the blokes in Dalby don’t get really cheesed at us saying they’ve got small pen-ses and they’re feminised because we’ve been putting this water down for 70 years…So let’s put it out there that the boys are fine in Dalby. I’ll just stick up for them here. And they’re not growing b-obs so they’ll be happy with that.

The Dalby Footy Club breathed a sigh of relief – it wouldn’t have to become the Dalby Netball Club after all. It’s just one Australian example of treated effluent being returned to a waterway only to be used again by the next mob with an oval to water, clothes to wash, or rice to cook. As the Toowoomba shire website says, “we all live downstream.” Does it affect you? Quite possibly.

  • Penrith discharges water into the Nepean River which feeds the Richmond water supply.
  • The Lilydale sewerage treatment plant puts water back into the Yarra upstream of Melbourne’s water supply.
  • Canberra discharges water into the Molonglo which runs into the Murray and which feeds Wagga and Mildura among others.
  • Adelaide residents drink treated waste water after it’s channelled into the Mount Bold reservoir.
  • Kingaroy discharges effluent into Kingaroy Creek which runs into the Stuart River, which is then dammed at Gordonbrook and pumped back to Kingaroy.

And the illness caused? One person per ten million falls ill from consuming treated waste water. More Australians contract leprosy each year; seven times more Australians are struck by lightning each year; 25 times more Australians are killed in plane accidents; 180 times as many people are murdered; and nearly 1000 more Australians will die in a car accident.

But don’t let the facts get in the way of an emotive vote winner. Cue South Australian premier Mike Rann, 27 January 2007:

We believe (recycled water) should be used for irrigation water, not for drinking water.

Someone needs to tell the premier that his water has already been recycled numerous times before it reaches his tap, including by the Hahndorf wastewater treatment plant in the hills north of the South Australian capital.

Maybe someone should also tell Mr Rann what the Murray Darling deal is all about: ensuring that there is some water to recycle.

Postscript: Last week, Toowoomba’s dam was 16.9% full.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey