Expert says water shortages require rethink on resources

Researchers tell the ABC that providing the nation with a safe and reliable water supply is one of the biggest challenges facing governments — and according to one expert the answer is not more dams.

Aug 24, 2020, updated Aug 24, 2020
The role of Wivenhoe Dam has come under intense scrutiny since the 2011 Brisbane floods.(Photo: Supplied)

The role of Wivenhoe Dam has come under intense scrutiny since the 2011 Brisbane floods.(Photo: Supplied)

For many people in southern Queensland, water is in such short supply that the issue is constantly on their minds, and experts are saying across Australia not enough is being done to address the issue of water security.

Inland towns like Clifton and Stanthorpe continue to face water restrictions and drinking supplies are being trucked in daily as the drought drags on.

Two-thirds of Queensland is still drought-declared and, despite recent downpours, water remains a pressing issue in many people’s minds.

Wivenhoe Dam contains less than half its capacity, while storage in dams across the southeast Queensland water grid has fallen to 61.3 per cent.

Researchers have told the ABC that supplying safe, reliable and affordable water was one of the biggest challenges facing governments across the country and there was a need to shore up long-term water security, even when it is raining.

According to one former national water commissioner, the time has come to find new and better ways to source water.

Who is hardest hit?

In the town of Clifton, south of Toowoomba, shelves at the local nursery would usually be full for spring plantings, but this year they are almost bare.

The town’s water supply ran dry last year and since then more than 12 loads of water have been trucked in daily by the Toowoomba Regional Council.

Kate Flynn works in the nursery at the local hardware store and said it was a “devastating” decision to close it because of water restrictions.

“There’s a lot of people would love to be gardening and they just can’t,” she said.

Flynn said the nursery had slowly started to restock after it acquired rainwater tanks for the plants and urged the State Government to “come to the party” with financial assistance for water carting costs.

“People are frustrated that nothing else has been done and fixed out here,” she said.

“Country towns have been doing it tough for a long time and the expense of the carting of the water is going to go onto everyone’s rates, which they then can’t afford.

“So they [government] need to step up.”

She said constantly thinking about water usage “weighs on people”.

“Every time they wash the gray water from their washing machine, they’re bucketing it back out to their gardens so that they can keep basic trees and shrubs alive,” she said.

“They walk outside and it’s just a dust bowl most of the time.”

Toowoomba councillor Rebecca Vonhoff said issues with water security were widespread.

“Everybody across our region thinks about water all the time,” she said.

“If I were to triage things, I’d say that Clifton is the most urgent situation in our region, but our whole region is still in drought and our dams are at less than 32 per cent and there’s bores across the region that are stressed.

Last month, the council wrote to the State Government seeking financial support for the $92,000 monthly water-carting bill.

“Southern Downs Regional Council is getting financial assistance for the carting costs to Stanthorpe and we want the same consideration shown to us for our carting costs to Clifton,” Vonhoff said.

“I don’t think I could overstate how important this is for local government, State Government and Federal Government, it’s such a pressing issue for us.

“We are in intense discussions about water security for our region more generally.

“We produce food for the entire country and export that as well.”

Toowoomba Regional Council had advanced plans for a water pipeline running south to Clifton, but at the end of 2019 the State Government announced a $1 million feasibility study to investigate a potential pipeline to link from Warwick to Wivenhoe Dam.

Natural Resources Minister Dr Anthony Lynham reiterated the Premier’s promise that “no Queensland community will run out of drinking water” and said the Government was considering Toowoomba Regional Council’s proposal.

“My department is currently working with Southern Downs and Toowoomba regional councils on longer term regional water security — including continuation of carting to Stanthorpe if necessary [beyond February],” Mr Lynham said.

Between 40 and 50 truckloads of water a day are carted to Stanthorpe.

Southern Downs Regional Council said that would continue until Storm King Dam had been replenished to a “sufficient level”.

Mayor Vic Pennisi said there was enough water in Warwick’s Leslie Dam to last until 2022.

Glenda Riley from Granite Belt Drought Assist, a charity that helps to distribute donated drinking water, said rainfall had been patchy across the region and restrictions had become the new normal.

“Even though our rainfall is an average year, add that onto the three years of no rain — it takes a lot to catch up,” she said.

“We’re still in stress…but people are feeling optimistic.”

What about the South-East?

Seqwater said with the water grid approaching 60 per cent of capacity, Wivenhoe and Somerset dams were “under the most pressure”.

Mike Foster from Seqwater said levels were a “little worse off than last year”.

“But we’ve certainly seen consumption come down which is really welcomed over the last couple of months and we’re encouraging people to continue to watch their water use,” he said.

The average resident in the southeast is currently using approximately 150 litres per day.

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He said if combined capacity dipped below 60 per cent, Seqwater would crank up production at the desalination plant on the Gold Coast to full capacity.

When will water restrictions kick in?

Mr Foster said restrictions would not be contemplated in southeast Queensland until combined storage fell to 50 per cent.

“Certainly our modelling at the moment is indicating that we have another wet season ahead of us before we have to consider restrictions,” he said.

“The [Bureau of Meteorology] is giving us a bit of hope and optimism that we’ve got some decent rain on the way.

“We’ll prepare for the worst, but hopefully we’ll get that rain before the end of the year and certainly into summer.”

‘Start thinking smarter’

Australian Rivers Institute director and former national water commissioner Professor Stuart Bunn said water security was a significant issue “that’s not going away”.

“The big challenge is, when it’s out of sight, it’s no longer a priority because why would you worry about water security when your dams are full and it’s raining?” he said.

“(But) particularly for urban water supply and regional towns or remote communities, the recent drought has exposed how vulnerable they are.”

The State Government said it was funding a number of initiatives for the Southern Downs and Granite Belt region, including committing $13.6 million to the proposed Emu Swamp Dam.

Queensland’s Liberal National Party has proposed a statewide water asset audit if elected to government in October.

The LNP has also thrown its support behind the New Bradfield Scheme to provide drought-relief to the western and southern parts of the state.

Bunn said building more infrastructure would not solve the issue of prolonged dry spells.

Recently, he put together a bid for a Commonwealth research centre “to resolve how you might deal with [water security] in a different way”.

“A lot of these issues are not technical issues — we know how to desalinate sea water and build a wastewater treatment plant,” he said.

“A city like Brisbane generates in stormwater runoff enough water to keep the entire city running, if you could capture it and store it and treat it safely. But it all just runs off in every storm event.

“There are a lot of ways of dealing with this differently, but the institutional arrangements at the moment don’t make it easy to happen.”

Riley said now was the “time to start thinking smarter” about water security.

“We can talk about water rebates and doing this and doing that, but that’s only putting a bandaid on it,” she said.

“Long term, we need to look at how we harvest water and reuse it.”

– ABC / Elly Bradfield and Kate McKenna

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