Australia is the driest continent on earth but Australians use more water than any other nationality except for Americans, Canadians and Saudi Arabians. This is somewhat misleading because both Australia and America have an extensive agricultural component that uses much of that water. Australia is also in the midst of a multi-year drought.
The Bracks government has issued a Green Paper for Discussion on Securing our Water Future. Melbourne Water Corporation has published Catchment to Coast: Our Long Term Plan to make Melbourne the World’s most Water-sensitive City (pdf, 2.7Mb). Both of these documents discuss challenges and goals related to adequate water supply.
Managing the water resources in an environmentally sustainable manner, protecting water quality, managing the fixed assets in a fiscally sound way, smarter use of water in urban and irrigation settings, managing salinity, working with the customers and developing new sustainable water supplies were all part of these plans.
Technology development is key to the successful and safe implementation of a water recycling program. Technology oscillation has a habit of laying waste to the best-laid plans.
In 1854, John Snow was the first to use epidemiological principles to notice that public water supplies could be a source of infection. Wastes and water were not being adequately separated. In 1892 Robert Koch found evidence that filtration was an important mechanism for bacterial pathogenic removal from water. In 1908 the introduction of chlorination to inactivate waterborne pathogens was thought to be a panacea. Of course it was not. The discovery of disinfection byproducts of chlorination that are toxic to humans has once again swung the pendulum of technology oscillation.
Since then toxicological studies have identified low-level contaminants that cause negative human health outcomes. New analytical methods are now able to identify contaminants at very low levels. New treatment technologies such as ozonation, membrane filtration, UV and membrane bioreactors have been developed to produce water that meets the ever more stringent water quality goals and regulations.
As Yogi Berra, the famous New York Yankee catcher and coach once said, “It is always dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future”. We cannot wait to take action because we know that there will be new public health risks uncovered in the future. We must do the best with what we know.
Victoria has a stated goal of recycling 20 per cent of the wastewater flows by 2010. Thus far in the urban setting there has been much discussion and goal-setting but not a lot of action. Government must play the lead role in bringing water recycling to the marketplace. For any significant action to take place there must be a champion to take the risk and carry the ball to the goal line. For example there are quite a few opportunities that, if seized, can set the whole water-recycling program on the right track.
Government must lead by example. Parks Victoria is a good place to begin. Membrane bioreactor technology has been trialled and demonstrated to be effective at the King’s Domain Gardens and Albert Park Lake. These sewer-mining projects match up the proximity of the supply (sewage in collection pipes) with urban non-potable water demands. By investing in these projects government can show it is taking action. Thus government will gain the moral imperative to mandate water recycling in other venues.
The Docklands development, the Commonwealth Games development and the Melbourne Zoo are three places where water recycling can have a significant impact. That is not to say that these three entities are doing nothing, but why go only half way?
There is an internal feeling in these entities that recycling storm water or grey water is acceptable to the public, but recycling “black” water is not. Just because black is the colour of the Kiwis is no reason to eschew it. This attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the management of these entities believes that the public will not accept wastewater recycling, they certainly will not. But if these organizations take the risk and move forward with a no-discharge development they will show the public that this is not only safe but also it is the right thing to do.
These successes will then breed more success and government will actually have a chance at meeting the grand goals they have set out for themselves.
By leading the way with action, government can then be in a position to work on the issues of reallocation of water in the various over allocated catchments areas. It will be easier to mandate urban recycling and agricultural water management schemes if government is doing their part.
Government may argue that the cost of sewer mining is too expensive. But the real value of this option is higher than the net cost. Sewer mining in urban settings turns a liability into an asset. It becomes the vehicle by which government can implement policy initiatives that dictate who owns the wastewater assets, who is responsible for treatment and who is responsible for delivery. It is good strategy and good public relations. It reduces flows to wastewater treatment plants and eventually reduces discharge to oceans and bays. It replaces water in rivers for environmental purposes. It lessens the stress on urban water infrastructure as residential units increase dramatically in the Central Business District. The value of the recycled water is greater than its cost.
There are opportunities available now. If they are ignored they will be gone forever. Who in government will take the lead and make the water recycling goals a reality?
This article is based on an address to the annual symposium of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering on 17 November on the topic "Water Policy and Appropriate Technology".
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