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Massive new water resource 'found'

By Peter Dillon - posted Monday, 21 October 2002

Many people have commented that Australians inhabit the world’s driest continent, yet we are spendthrifts in how we use our water. To take one example, 86 per cent of our water from sewage treatment still runs to waste.

The good news is that attitudes to water are starting to change – surprisingly quickly, actually – and this is especially promising for agriculture and regional communities, who stand to gain most from new water becoming available.

If we go about it intelligently, Australia need hardly be short of water for anything. This is because a massive amount of extra water is potentially available, simply from wise re-use of our existing water. The total volume of recoverable water is immense, over 2000GL – enough volume to support an urban population of 16 million people.


However to make such a ‘discovery’ reality, many things need to happen first. Community attitudes and values towards water must continue to change, as they have been, and we also need a coordinated approach to solving some of the serious technical, health and economic issues that might otherwise prevent widespread water reuse.

To give an idea how far we’ve come, before the 1990s practically all the water in Australia was used once – then thrown away. Then the penny started to drop – policymakers became increasingly aware of the need to water the environment, or risk losing it, and the public began to notice the deterioration of our rivers, coastlines and estuaries.

In 1998, we were reusing about 113 gigalitres (million kilolitres) of water from our sewage treatment plants – or just 7 per cent of what was flowing through them. By this year, the level of reuse has doubled to 14 per cent – and is likely to keep on climbing.

Local research and international water companies have helped bring in new technologies for better treatment of water, so it can be safely reused. The result has been spectacular growth in the amount of high-quality reclaimed water available – and hence, opportunities for re-use.

Some of the highest proportions of re-use are in regional Australia: the Albury, Goulburn and East Gippsland water utilities are already achieving up to 100 per cent re-use.

The volumes of potentially recyclable water from most of our cities are very large, and generally far exceed the amount the city itself is likely to need. An estimated 1350 GL of effluent is currently lost. The amount of stormwater is greater still, though we cannot recapture and store it all. In total our recoverable water is likely to exceed a full Warragamba Dam (2050GL or 4 Sydharbs) – which holds enough water to support Sydney for four years.


This water could potentially be available for irrigated agriculture or for the environment and become a significant "new" resource. This water can be treated to a suitable quality for such uses and is available year-round and can be stored in surface or underground storages for use in dry periods.

If this extra water were to replace mains water use it would relieve the pressure on stressed water supply catchments. Surplus water can be piped to irrigation areas, or treated and released to restore our rivers and wetlands, where it would generate economic growth and enhance sustainability.

It is not intended we duplicate every pipe in every city, although when it comes time to replace water pipes that may be an option. In new subdivisions the cost of a second pipe adds only a tiny amount to the price of each block, and is well worth considering the higher water-use efficiency achievable for generations. Planning to leave land adjacent to creeks will provide opportunities for future stormwater harvesting and leave ribbons of nature within new subdivisions. In existing suburbs where water use is concentrated for irrigation and cooling water it may be economic for playing fields and parks and water intensive industries to harvest stormwater and reclaimed water. At domestic scale, changes to plumbing codes and a host of emerging new products in building supplies will enable more efficient water use and reuse.

Having said that, plans to recycle urban stormwater, sewage effluent or irrigation water are still sparse across the continent, and there are many issues we first need to check out. These include issues of public health, environmental sustainability, food quality, social acceptability, treatment technology, monitoring, the economics of recycling and the availability of the necessary skills.

In a nutshell, Australia still has a lot of pioneering water research to do, the present effort is fragmented and uncoordinated and needs to be focused nationally as well as locally.

But if it meant we could unlock a new resource on our doorstep and build a whole lot of new industries as a result, simply by recycling our existing water, it’d have to be worthwhile, wouldn’t it?

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About the Author

Dr Peter Dillon leads the CSIRO's Water Reclamation research group.

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CSIRO's Water Reclamation Group
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