In a time of crisis, common sense and strong leadership are vital. Victoria is facing a water crisis, yet the Labor government is failing on both counts.
The 2007 government decision to build a desalination plant at Wonthaggi short-circuited the community consultation process and by-passed cheaper, more sustainable water conservation methods, arriving at an expensive, inefficient and environmentally unsound solution.
Early in the crisis, common sense prevailed. The 2002 report, 21st Century Melbourne: A WaterSmart City, identified that an end to logging in Melbourne’s water supply catchments would yield, on average, an additional 20 gigalitres per annum. It makes sense when you think about it – new plants transpire more water than mature forest. Water yield drops by 50 percent, and returns to normal about 150 years later.
By October 2006, the government’s Central Region Sustainable Water Strategy was still on the right track, with plans to increase production of recycled water at sewerage plants, to increase water reuse and to improve the efficiency of water usage, storm water harvesting and rainwater tanks. Public comment was invited, submissions received and reviewed. An independent panel assessed the strategy and found it “to be an impressive first step towards rigorous and effective planning to ensure the long-term sustainability of water resources in the Central Region”, that region covering an arc around Melbourne.
Desalination was also recommended for consideration, but the panel expressly warned against “hasty decisions based on incomplete analysis”, fearing this would lead to wasted investment, lack of community support and adverse water resource and environmental outcomes.
Nine months later, without offering the public a glimpse of background analysis – complete or otherwise - the Labor government announced plans for the $3 billion (now closer to $5b) Wonthaggi Desalination Plant.
That was in June 2007 and debate still rages over many aspects of the desal plant’s development, not least the choice of location. Wonthaggi’s sewerage effluent outlet is located 3km from the desal intake, causing risk of contamination. Prevailing Bass Strait currents are being cleverly utilised to provide ‘fresh’ sea water to the intake and flush away the salinated output, except for those months every year when the currents reverse, short-circuiting the process and reducing plant efficiency.
To achieve the ‘carbon neutral’ label, the plant’s sizeable greenhouse gas emissions will be offset with the purchase of renewable energy – a cost passed on to the consumer in water charges.
The plant is being constructed by the private consortium AquaSure in a public-private partnership (PPP). In September this year it was revealed in Parliament that the PPP includes ‘water security payments’ to AquaSure, even if Melbourne’s reservoirs are high enough not to require desal production. That is, consumers will be paying for water that is not being produced, as fixed charges on their water bills.
|A gantry offshore associated with the Wonthaggi desalination plant|
Added to this, the normal privacy rules don't apply to PPPs, as they are not public agencies, and we have seen secret memoranda of understanding between police and the developers to share private information about potential protesters, and now spying on the workers on site - including passing on tax file numbers.
Over the past decade, the Labor government has had ample opportunity to show its true colours in a crisis, to demonstrate strong yet fair leadership and a level-head approach in dealing with water security. It began with a nod to preserving water catchments and making smarter use of the resources we already have. It ended with Victorians paying for water that may not even be produced, in a deal they were never asked about.