Desal plant restart elevates water policy war


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The government’s sale of poles and other assets meant it had fewer entities to extract money from, with the result that agencies such as Sydney Water had been squeezed “for hundreds of millions of dollars” to boost the budget, he said. That had stymied investment in water-saving or recycling projects that could have at least delayed the need to restart the desalination plant.

Government ministers on Saturday sought to downplay the additional cost of restarting the plant, saying annual water bills would rise by $35. Under the contract with the private owners, the plant will operate for at least 14 months.

“Under the NSW Liberals and Nationals, Sydney Water customers now have the lowest water bills of any major city in Australia, compared to the second highest bills in the country under Labor,” NSW Resources Minister Don Harwin said, adding “everyone should be mindful of not wasting water in this extended dry spell”.

Caught in the middle: Green Square's next stage is struggling to get approval for water-harvesting measures, even as Sydney's dams drop.

Caught in the middle: Green Square’s next stage is struggling to get approval for water-harvesting measures, even as Sydney’s dams drop.Credit:Wolter Peeters

‘Extreme’ approach

However, Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore said government regulations were hurting recycled-water operators and developers “who want to do the right thing” at a cheaper price than desalination.

“Desalination is an extreme way to manage water,” Cr Moore said. “Removing salt from seawater to make it drinkable not only carries a massive price tag, it can release unregulated chemicals into drinking water supplies, uses large amounts of energy, pollutes waterways, and threatens fisheries and marine environments.”

The City of Sydney says it spent $11.3 million to build the largest stormwater harvesting system in the metropolitan area at Sydney Park to capture 850 million litres a year for local irrigation.

Similarly, it had supported urban stormwater recycling at the Green Square development, which would allow residents to use water for washing machines and flushing toilets, and to water parks and gardens.

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However, further expansion for Green Stage 2 to allow the treatment of wastewater to near-potable standards had effectively been blocked by a 2017 ruling by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) that made the viability of recycled water schemes “near impossible”, Kim Woodbury, the council’s chief operating officer, said.

In effect, industrial ventures were being treated more leniently than residential ones, he said.

The government had asked IPART to review its so-called “retail-minus” price policy and a clear stance could shift the regulator’s position, Mr Woodbury said.

“They are looking at the short term,” he said, adding that Sydney’s population was headed for 8 million and “we’re not getting any more dams”.

Justin Field, the Greens water spokesman, also called for changes to the recycling rules.

“The legislation guiding Sydney Water is making projects like Green Square harder than they should be,” Mr Field said.

“Conserving water and water efficiency is not one of the objectives of the state-owned corporation,” he said. “It is being driven by short-term profits and business efficiency at the expense of long-term community benefit, water efficiency and environment.

The Greens plan to bring legislation to Parliament when it returns in April “to put water security, and efficiency at the heart of the city’s water utility purpose”, he added.

Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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