Recycling against the “instincts” say Toowoomba residents
|Toowoomba’s Cooby Dam has fallen to a dangerously low 26 per cent of capacity.
Community emotion is the biggest threat to recycling sewage for potable reuse. Can desperately dry councils pursue – and sell – this option? By Garth Lamb.
Treating sewage to a level suitable for reuse is reasonably easy, at least in a technical sense. The real difficulty lies in economics and emotions. The cost of new piping to transport the reclaimed water dampens the market opportunities. Distributing it with fresh water overcomes that hurdle but a 2003 study found while 99 per cent of people would happily water the lawn with recycled water and 49 per cent would wash socks in it, less than one per cent wanted it in their drinking supply.
Still, two councils are taking on the challenge of indirect potable reuse, Toowoomba in Queensland and Goulburn in NSW. They have gone about things very differently, however. The 117,000 residents of Queensland’s “garden city” are embroiled in a heated public debate after the council last year proposed cycling reclaimed effluent back into the drinking water supply. Goulburn has so far managed to keep things quiet.
There are numerous international examples of planned effluent reuse dating back to the 1950s in the US, and it has gone on unplanned for much longer. However, the gut reaction for many Toowoomba residents remains flat out rejection.
“It’s as simple as that, as an ordinary person, my instincts were that [drinking recycled effluent] isn’t a place I wanted to go,” says Rosemary Morely, head of Citizens Against Drinking Sewage (CADS). “If we were in the middle of the desert like Namibia . . . they recycle their water and they drink it because they have no other option.”
The proposed $68 million project features an advanced water treatment plant using ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, UV disinfection and oxidation to purify reclaimed wastewater to a six-star level. The treated effluent would then be mixed with the fresh water in Lake Cooby (one of Toowoomba’s three dams), providing a buffer between treatment and reuse, before being treated at the existing Mt Kynoch Water Treatment Plant and then entering the city’s water supply. It would contribute up to 25 per cent of the city’s potable water.
There are other possibilities though, says Morley, such as approaching farmers to trade recycled effluent for fresh bore water. Toowoomba’s Mayor, Dianne Thorley, counters these were all investigated and the recycling scheme was economically and environmentally preferable. A new council costing study showed recycling would cost $0.80/kL, with capital expenses accounting for $0.24/kL and running costs $0.56/kL. This comes in well below other options, such as taking by-product water from nearby coal seam gas operations ($2.07-3.72/kL, depending on subsidies) or trading with bore water users ($1.50-3.12/kL).
While the plan may make sense on technical, economic and environmental levels, the emotive undertones threaten to derail it – as they have done in all similar Australian proposals. CADS wields significant political power, collecting 10,000 signatures of residents opposed to the scheme. Others have responded by forming an opposing community group, Pure H2O, which aims to get 20,000 signatures supporting recycling.
The plain-talking Thorley sees public opposition as simply unavoidable: “You will never get around people’s perception of the water coming through a sewage plant, being cleaned up and going into a dam”. She claims the bigger problem is “a lack of political courage... to make decisions on behalf of the public good”.
Morley’s translation of the council message is, “we will have this and if you don’t like it you can go buy bottled water”. It sounds much like the NSW Government, which said the desalination plant was so important it was not up for debate. That didn’t go down well either.
The council has given in-principle support for the recycling project but is awaiting federal funding approval before formally voting on it. Thorley is holding back the public education campaign until then. While this reasoning is understandable – why spend money and political capital talking up an unpopular idea before it’s really an option? – any information vacuum has a tendency to get filled.
“People just want information,” says associate professor Greg Leslie from the University of NSW. “In the absence of either the council, or people helping the council, providing [the community] with that information, it becomes adversarial. You need that third party independence to come in.”
That’s where regulators come in, in this case Queensland Health. Rather than wait for a plan to be submitted, Leslie would like it to come out and say that recycling is internationally accepted, the risks can be managed and “we will make sure as good regulators that we have all the checks and balances in place”.
Goulburn close to crisis point
Goulburn Council in southern NSW has also applied for federal funding to support a recycling proposal similar to Toowoomba’s. To date, public dissent has been much quieter, possibly because Goulburn’s 24,000 residents are closer to the crisis point (storage dropped to around 10 per cent, compared with 25 per cent in Toowoomba). Newly appointed water manager, Greg Finlayson, is keen to keep the community onside.
“[We want] to make sure our community consultation doesn’t [take off in the wrong] direction before we start it, that the community doesn’t lead the information dissemination, and particularly not individuals who might have a particular angle on the story,” says Finlayson. “We want to make sure we start the community consultation properly.”
While there is a long road ahead before residents in either town actually drink a glass of recycled water, a successful example should open doors for other water-strapped localities.
“I’m sure there’s other councils sitting there [saying] ‘let’s see what Toowoomba and Goulburn can do and we’ll come in behind that’,” says Thorely, who predicts recycling will be common in the next decade. “We’re now at the stage where we can’t knock anything back.”