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Aug 30, 2010

Experts slam easing of water restrictions as “political opportunism”

Water groups have labelled an easing of water restrictions in South Australia and Victoria as “political opportunism”, as disquiet grows over the delayed construction and cost blowouts of desalination plants.

Water groups have labelled an easing of water restrictions in South Australia and Victoria as “political opportunism”, as disquiet grows over the delayed construction and cost blowouts of desalination plants.

Both the Victorian and South Australian state governments declared last week that they would be easing water restrictions, after years of onerous constraints on public consumption.

Respite in Victoria will see restrictions eased back to stage 2 just three months before the state heads to an election, while relief in South Australia comes on the back of growing criticism over construction of an Adelaide desalination plant.

But Dr Ian Douglas, national coordinator of water group Fair Water Use, has told Crikey that the easing of water restrictions is merely an “opportunistic” political ploy to get voters onside, as public opinion continues to turn against desalination plants.

“They’re in panic mode now. It’s basically trying to justify the mess that is the desalination construction,” Douglas told Crikey. “It shows a total lack of understanding of the causes of the water crisis. These have not been unduly high falls that we have had recently.”

Premier John Brumby cited heavy winter rainfall and the upcoming completion of the state’s $5 billion desalination plant as reasons for the respite. Melbourne’s dams are currently sitting at 41%, after sitting at a record low of 25.6% just a year ago.

The announcement by South Australian Premier Mike Rann to ease restrictions was more surprising. Just last week, Water Minister Paul Caica ruled out any relief in South Australia until a desalination plant was online.

“He (Caica) talked about December 1 being for the end of water restrictions and can I just announce today, well, let’s just do it, let’s just do it, I can announce today that water restrictions will be ended on December 1,” Rann told reporters. “(It) is the right time to end water restrictions because that’s when there’s hot weather there is no point in doing it now when it’s raining all the time.”

Ian Douglas said that both the South Australian and Victorian governments were in panic mode and that they were sending “all the wrong messages about wise water use”.

“They’re saying that it’s back to business as usual, when it was business as usual that got us here in the first place,” Douglas told Crikey. “To say that we can remove water restrictions is absolute myopia and stupidity.”

Victoria’s Target 155 program has been credited with saving almost 38 billion litres in the 18 months since its inception. Meanwhile, South Australians have also reduced water consumption, with the government putting their savings at 29 billion litres this year compared with 2002.

Environment Victoria Chief Executive Kelly O’Shannessey agreed with Douglas, telling Crikey that there was a likelihood that an easing of restrictions would see an increase in water use.

“What we’re worried about is that the government have lifted restrictions without providing more incentives to keep on saving water,” O’Shannessey told Crikey. “People have worked really hard to but there is a worry that they will go back to wasting water.”

Correction: The original story said 38 billion litres had been saved by the Victorian government in six years. The figure should have said 18 months. Also, according to the South Australian government, that state has used 29 billion litres of water less this year compared with 2002.

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20 thoughts on “Experts slam easing of water restrictions as “political opportunism”

  1. Jenny d'Arcy

    The problem lies with the way people are billed for water – in most cases the supply charges make up the bulk of the total bill. In my case it’s something like 93-94%. From September last year we were given estimates for how much water an “average” customer would use per day – we (there are two of us) are using, between us, about half the amount of the “average” person living in a flat with no garden. (We have a smallish garden which we don’t water aside from a few potted plants, and we use our shower water for flushing the toilet).

    The supply charges are based on the value of the property – so a person living in an affluent suburb can end up paying far more than somebody living in a less affluent suburb, regardless of actual usage.

    I’d like to see the service charges scrapped, and charge the water at its full market value to take into account usage and cost to infrastructure (and treatment of sewage). A sliding scale could be use to discourage heavy use, and there would be no need for restrictions – which were a joke since exemptions could be obtained by anybody wanting to establish lawn (or a subdivision) – because people would have a real incentive to use this resource sparingly (and wisely).

    It would be interesting to see how many water-wise gardens planted in response to the restrictions stay? Whatever happens, we’ll all be paying a levy on this environmentally costly appeal to the lawn vote.

  2. Dave Donohue

    While not wanting to reinvent the wheel so to speak.

    Perhaps it’s time to look at desalination plants as sources of potable water while we continue to flush good water down the drain and out to sea.

    The new breed of wastewater treatment options can and do produce Class A water through a range of processes much more cost effective than desalination. Google “membrane bioreactor” and review the first couple of entries for an idea.

    There is a probably justifiable psychological barrier for people to consume their own waste, but noting that a huge proportion of urban potable water use is in irrigation, industrial process water and other civic uses, it seems madness to treat waste water to high standards, then pump it out to sea or into waterways.

    If every waste water (sewerage) facility in Australia was converted to a membrane bioreactor-based facility we could cost-effectively reduce the strain on our natural water storage.

    Or an I missing something basic?

  3. zut alors

    When SE-Queensland’s dams were down to less than 20% capacity approximately 3 years ago the public were re-educated on water use and the restrictions were harsh (by Australian standards). In fact, public consumption actually dropped BELOW the allocated usage which was set at 140 litres per person per day as we were making the effort as a community. Since the danger period has passed and dams are at a healthy capacity the restrictions have been raised to more generous usage – but the majority of people didn’t lobby for that, we were accustomed to the new lifestyle.

    I am originally from Adelaide and understand the seriousness of scarcity of water. But, on return trips to my old hometown, I have been scandalised by the misuse of water and abuse of the restrictions, particularly in reference to gardens. People I had previously rated as intelligent were not averse to cheating the system to revive flower beds or, away from prying eyes, hose wash their car. Their shortsight dismayed and saddened me.

    All Australians need to be re-educated in minimal use of water – it’s called forward thinking. It’s farcical to imagine we have any choice in this.

  4. Fiona Haines

    Easing of water restrictions is consistent with an aim to increase consumption of water that will bring in additional revenue needed to pay for the desalination plant(s). Easing of restrictions, then, may be one way to ‘re-educate’ people to consume more water, pay more money and hence pay for the desalination plant. Or perhaps I spend too long reading the business pages …

  5. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    I wish that it was better known in Victoria how we will all be paying for the desalination plant. Over time both the fixed and usage based charges will nearly double.

    For those who usage is below average their major cost is the fixed component. Even if they don’t increase their water usage now that restrictions have eased, these users will pay significantly more to fund the desalination plant.

    By making everyone pay much higher fixed costs, the price of water is kept low. So those who use lots of water will be heavily subsidized by those who use little water.

    But if the cost of the desalination plant was only paid for by those who use above average water, then the price of using above average water would be so high that many would decide to reduce their usage back down to average. And then we would not need the desalination plant.

    Those Victorians who use average or less water should be very cross with our state Labor government. Not only have they broken their last election promise by building the plant, they are making the water wise pay for it.

  6. Rick Hosking

    Can someone please explain why we do not have a water market place and a genuine price for water based on real costs of collection, storage, purification and delivery? We live in the Adelaide Hills and have no access to mains water; I know much it costs to be self-sufficient.

  7. nicolino

    Here in South East Queensland we have/haven’t a desalination plant. It was supposed to come on stream well over a year ago and it did operate for a short time before it went off stream again due to corrosion. Needless to say our open government has decided not to give any information out as to cost overruns. On this issue alone – and there are many many more, Bligh should be tossed out at the earliest opportunity.

  8. Malcolm Street

    I can see some state Labor governments getting very nervous about their desalination plants (which were unpopular to start with) turning into white elephants. Solution – increase water consumption and create a new water crisis which will require the operation of the plants.

    What a disgusting waste of money these plants were!

  9. mark

    I dont think there would be too many people that wouldnt agree that we need to achieve long term shifts in use of water, power, oil etc to provide for a more sustainable future. Even Andrew Bolt would agree with that one!

    So why on earth would we wind back restrictions that everyone had adapted to? Could someone ask Brumby just that question so we get a clear answer?

  10. Tom

    from memory, the de-sal plant funding got up in Vic on the back of a 1 – 100 year drought, the impending climate calamity and the fact that 4 jobs would be saved in marginal seats cultivating rice in various deserts around the state?

    Am I to presume then that we can expect 99 years of non-drought, climate change is now working ‘for’ us and the marginal country seats are either no longer marginal or are not required for a working majority?

    …. or am I being overly cynical??