Friday, January 22, 2010

Water's quick fix a long-term drain for Australia

Natasha Bita in the Australian: Rusting in sea water, the $1.2 billion Gold Coast desalination plant required repairs soon after it opened. The showpiece of a Queensland government strategy to drought-proof the state's booming southeast, the project has been plagued by so many construction flaws and unscheduled shut-downs that the government is still refusing to take possession from the contractors who built it.

A year after it was supposed to be pumping 125 megalitres of water a day into the water supply, the Tugun plant is running at two-thirds capacity. Cracking concrete and corroding components forged from substandard steel necessitated several shutdowns last year. Despite the fiasco, the Bligh government plans to press ahead with four new desalination plants for the state's southeast, driving a national trend to divert investment from dams to desalination.

Within two years, 30 per cent of the water supplied to Australia's capital cities will flow from the ocean, as water utilities in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Perth splash $9bn of taxpayers' money on new desalination plants. By 2013, desalination will be producing more than 450 gigalitres of drinking water - almost the volume of Sydney Harbour - every year.

The new technology is an insurance against drought on the driest continent on earth but it comes at a high and growing cost, economically and environmentally. The plants guzzle so much energy that detractors describe desalinated water as liquid electricity that is already adding hundreds of dollars to household water bills.

The Water Services Association of Australia, representing the bulk of Australia's urban water utilities, predicts water prices will continue to rise. "The cost of building desalination plants will be reflected in water prices across Australia," says executive director Ross Young. "Electricity prices are only going to go upwards so operational costs are probably going to climb steadily. But whatever the cost of desalination, it's certainly less than the cost of a city running out of water."…

Boree Creek water tower, New South Wales, shot by Mattinbgn, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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