Desalination plant damned by government's own figures

March 14, 2008

Campaign group Your Water Your Say (YWYS) has warned that Victorian state government policy will see the state "swimming in water but drowning in water bills" by 2014 if the proposed $3.1 billion desalination plant goes ahead at Wonthaggi.

YWYS member Neil Rankine researched government planning documents and reports to write a report that shows that, even with severe climate change and increasing population, there will still be as much as 60% excess water available annually by 2016 without the controversial desalination plant.

A March 11 YWYS statement explains: "The choice is between environmentally sustainable options such as storm water capture and a desalination factory that will exacerbate global warming and damage the environment. Melbourne does not need the government's 'rainfall independent source of water'. The more environmentally sustainable options in this report secure Melbourne's water supply."

The report also shows that without the planned (and also controversial) north-south pipeline to draw water from the Goulburn river, inflows to catchments will still give 46% more water than will be consumed by 2016.

The state Labor government already plans significant augmentation of Melbourne's water supply by a number of large measures, including upgrading the Eastern Treatment Plant and swapping its recycled water for the good drinking water currently used to cool power stations in the Latrobe Valley, which will supply an extra 100 gigalitres (GL) per year. Melbourne's 2007 water consumption was 369GL, and the desalination plant would provide 150-200GL per year.

Victoria's water minister, Tim Holding, claims that the report mis-estimates water catchment inflows and population growth. However, Monash University Professor Barry Hart, a water policy expert who reviewed the report, said: "The information ... is sufficiently robust for there to be concern over the long-term need for the desal plant."

Rankine's report canvasses a number of further options for conserving water. Stormwater capture and treatment has potential to provide in the order of 300GL annually in Melbourne. Stopping logging in Melbourne's catchments could increase inflows to the city's dams by 65-85GL annually within 60 years (as forests re-establish). Desalination of brackish or waste water is also suggested, as it only takes about one-third the energy of seawater.

The desalination plant is scheduled to be finished earlier than many of the other schemes planned by the government, and Hart and YWYS campaigners are concerned that there will be little public impetus for other, more sustainable, water conservation measures once the large input of desalinated water becomes available.

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