Desal plant an unnecessary corporate hand-out

February 1, 2008

Although it stated at the last state election in 2006 that it would not go ahead with the construction of a desalination plant, the Victorian Labor government is now pushing for a desalination plant at Wonthaggi, on the South Gippsland coast. Before the environmental impact statement has even been completed, test drilling and compulsory land acquisitions have begun at the proposed site.

South Gippsland residents have formed a Your Water Your Say action group to oppose the development and have organised public meetings and street protests of around 500 people in Wonthaggi.

Melbourne's wasteful water consumption is at the centre of the campaign against the plant. This was highlighted in a December 9 National Party press release. The Victorian Nationals, who are opposed to the desalination plant, advocate a compulsory "water substitution target" of 30% for Melbourne by 2020 through the capture of stormwater run-off and use of recycled waste water for non-drinking purposes.

The Nationals propose that those who reduce use by more than the set targets would be issued with a tradeable certificate, which could then be bought by users who choose to continue to waste water.

The Victorian Greens, who are also opposed to the desalination plant, suggest water-saving measures as an alternative, including stormwater capture, and also improving domestic, commercial and industrial water-use efficiency.

The proposed Wonthaggi desalination plant will produce 150 gigalitres of drinking water a year, but will discharge 250 gigalitres of concentrated brine into the sea, potentially devastating the local sea life.

The proposed plant will consume vast amounts of electricity. The government has talked of buying electricity generated from renewable sources, although this may only mean in the words of Tony Cutcliffe of the Eureka Project policy and consultancy firm, the plant "will be greenwashed by robbing every iota of wind energy now produced in Victoria".

Writing in the December 13 Melbourne Age, columnist Kenneth Davidson argued that the greenhouse emissions from the plant "will be equal to putting another 240,000 cars on Melbourne's roads... What's worse, all the alternatives — from building new dams, banning logging in the catchment areas, recycling and conservation — would be a fraction of the cost of desalination both to the environment and to taxpayers."

Cutcliffe has pointed out that Melbourne's annual rainfall run-off is in the order of 200 gigalitres a year, most of which runs off impermeable roads and roofs straight into rivers and Port Phillip Bay, causing many environmental problems in itself. The Nationals puts the run-off figure at 500 gigalitres.

Melbourne's private water companies lose about 50 gigalitres per year through old leaky pipes, and about 300 gigalitres of Melbourne's treated waste water is dumped into the sea each year.

Water savings are another area that needs to be addressed. After much public pressure, the Victorian Labor government released a list last October of the state's top industrial water users. Real savings can be made here, with some publicised voluntary savings showing what is possible.

Nestle's ice-cream factory in Mulgrave reduced its water use by 22% during 2007, partly by installing more efficient cleaning equipment, and by recycling water in some operations such as rinsing. Such measures should be replicated across industry.

Most current water restrictions are aimed at households. The ban on home car-washing has no doubt been a boon for the commercial car-wash industry, but it is restrictions on watering gardens that have caused most controversy. There are no restrictions on inefficient toilet flushing mechanisms, but vegetable gardens can only be watered two days a week.

That the government is backing a $3.1 billion desalination plant instead of conservation and efficiency measures poses questions about its motives. Popular characterisations would have it that Premier John Brumby likes big-dollar, big-profile projects that he can attach his name to for posterity.

Another view blames the government's ongoing commitment to private ownership of public resources. In this view, the lucrative construction contract for the Wonthaggi plant and its 85-kilometre pipeline are an enormous government handout to construction contractors. The contract will be a public-private partnership.

This raises the possibility of rising water prices for Melbourne residents. As Cutcliffe pointed out in the December 14 Age, "The cost of operation and investment return could reach $500 million a year, in a contract that would typically bind taxpayers for 30 years or more".

Instead of being used to retire old, dirty (but still profitable) coal power stations, the state's renewable energy will be gobbled up by the desalination white elephant.

On the other hand, home water tanks are not owned by the big corporations that the Labor government likes to do business with. Likewise, water savings from conservation and efficiency measures do nothing to prop up sales to the public of what we used to own anyway — our water.

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