Amid the debate over the Opposition’s proposed Kimberley-to-Perth aqueduct, Joe Poprzeczny examines why neither major party will embrace the markedly cheaper option of tapping the South West Yarragadee aquifer between Bunbury and Augusta.
Colin Barnett’s temporary wrong footing of Premier Geoff Gallop over water, by commandeering and varying former Labor water resources minister Ernie Bridge’s 1980s so-called ‘pipe dream’, can give the impression Western Australia has no other water options.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The state has several longer-term options beyond more intensive recycling of what’s called grey water and refreshing of the slightly saline waters within Wellington Dam.
Two of them are:
• use of 300,000 tonne super-tankers to ply Lake Argyle water, from a loading facility inside Cambridge Gulf for discharging into Perth’s hills reservoirs via offshore facilities adjacent either Rottnest Island, Rockingham or Two Rocks; and
• a pipeline from Lake Argyle southwards to the Giles-Uluru region, near where the South Australian, Northern Territory, and Western Australian borders meet, after which there would be two spur pipelines, to Adelaide and to Perth, via Kalgoorlie.
Both were canvassed in the now forgotten Binnie & Partners Report, prepared for Mr Bridge in 1988.
Whichever is eventually realised it’s essential to remember Emeritus Professor Martyn Webb’s recent warning: “The era of cheap water is coming to an end”.
All options now before taxpayers will cost more than last century’s approach of constructing reservoirs along Perth’s timbered hills.
Last year Dr Gallop could have announced the go-ahead for the tapping of the massive South West Yarragadee aquifer that lies south of Bunbury and east of Augusta.
Such a decision would have meant drawing 45-gigalitres of pristine water annually, well below this huge source’s yearly replenishment.
Instead, he chose the high-cost energy-guzzling path of building a $350 million Kwinana-based desalination plant that further threatens Cockburn Sound’s viability by constantly boosting its waters with recycled brine.
At the same time as State MPs – including Mr Barnett – were confidentially briefed by Tenix engineers on their $2 billion Kimberley aqueduct plan (KAP), MPs were also briefed by Osborne Park-based Tyco Water Pty Ltd of the benefits of the Yarragadee aquifer plan (YAP).
According to Tyco’s estimates, capital outlay on the YAP would be $368 million, or $18 million more than for the Gallop Kwinana desalination plant.
But costings dramatically altered after considering downstream and operating costs of a desalination plant against the YAP.
It would only cost $10 million annually to operate Yarragadee compared with $24 million for the desalination plant.
Moreover, Yarragadee’s life would be 100 years compared with only 25 years for the desalination plant, meaning four desalination plants would be sequentially needed to match one YAP.
Now, when a modest 4 per cent discount factor on funds is introduced, the YAP’s present cost to taxpayers is $613 million compared with $1137 million for the desalination plant that only has one quarter the longevity.
The Tenix/Barnett KAP, which was wheeled out to wrong-foot Labor in the election campaign, will cost, at minimum, $2 billion, according to Tenix engineers.
But taxpayers haven’t been shown Tenix’s fine print.
It would, for instance, be helpful to know the KAP’s estimated lifetime, its annual maintenance and running costs, and its discounted present cost.
Does Tenix’s $2 billion figure include purification of the planned shipment of 200 gigalitres of northern aquifer water at both the Kimberley and Perth ends?
If yes, what is the additional cost for the treatment plants and their annual operating costs?
Even if the KAP only cost $2 billion to build – something many claim is an under-estimate – then the discounted present cost would be even far higher, perhaps well over $4 billion or $5 billion.
The KAP is Rolls-Royce stuff where a sprightly Corolla would do the job admirably to help cover longer-term water needs.
Because of the lack of detail about the Tenix/Barnett KAP all that can presently be said is that by opting for desalination Dr Gallop went for an option that was twice as expensive as YAP (a Mercedes rather than a Corolla), while Mr Barnett has opted for more than double that, so a Roller.
This doubling by Dr Gallop, and at least re-doubling by Mr Barnett, raises at least one still-to-be-answered question. Why won’t either opt for the YAP?
Why, to continue the automobile analogy, are both leaders steering clear of YAP?
They’ll probably claim they’ve shied away from the closer Yarragadee aquifer for an array of seemingly tenable reasons, including, no doubt, environmental ones.
But such a case is considerably weakened by the fact that the Tenix/Barnett KAP would also envisage tapping an aquifer.
And according to Tenix the drawing rate from the KAP aquifer would be more than 200-gigaliters, or more than four times greater than proposed from Yarragadee.
Leaving aside that inconsistency and the cost disparity between tapping Yarragadee and desalinated water, and the most expensive Tenix/Barnett KAP, what’s the real reason for avoiding Yarragadee?
The answer has nothing to do with cost or environmental consideration.
It is, rather, wholly and solely political, and is overlayed with tight-fistedness by people living in the South West.
The greater Bunbury-Augusta region, which sits over the Yarragadee aquifer, embraces no fewer than six lower house seats – Collie-Wellington, Bunbury, Mitchell, Vasse, Capel and Warren-Blackwood, five of which are held by Labor or the Liberals while Vasse is held by former Liberal, Bernie Masters.
All these MPs and their challenging candidates have told their respective party bosses and campaign strategists that proposing to tap Yarragadee would be a political minefield for their parties, meaning they would probably lose seats.
Greens backers reinforce the local stand against Perth water users gaining access to what they see as ‘our water’.
Both Premier Gallop and Opposition leader Barnett realise this localised tight-fistedness exists and dare not confront it.
Put bluntly, they fear losing seats, which explains why both have turned to promoting options that are twice or potentially more than four times more expensive with taxpayers and water users having to carry the additional cost.
Both parties simply lack the courage to confront local tight-fistedness.
In addition, the South West has seven upper house seats – two held by Labor, three by the Liberals, and one each by New Country Party and Greens.
None of the 13 upper and lower house MPs dares say that Yarragadee doesn’t belong only to South-Westerners, but to all Western Australians.
It’s worth adding that years of the Water Corporation highlighting the state’s so-called water crisis has meant that moves to tap Yarragadee could spark a repetition of the South West’s 1970s anti-wood chipping and 1990s anti-logging movements.
What better way of avoiding returning to such confrontations than by spending more than four times more on the tapping of a Kimberley aquifer?
But it may be premature to assume that this is politically viable since Labor’s Kimberley MP Carol Martin has already warned of a 1980s Noonkanbah-style resistance against taking the region’s waters for granted.
It appears the Kimberley residents may also have been afflicted by water tight-fistedness.
For those who may have forgotten, the Noonkanbah Affair involved hundreds of policemen escorting, to Noonkanbah station, an oil drilling rig road trained from Perth.
With Dr Gallop and Mr Barnett so easily scared off by South West tight-fistedness over Yarragadee, the early signs are that both will steer clear of Kimberley opposition to tapping of local-derived water.
Because Lake Argyle is a man-made reservoir it would be far more difficult to attribute sanctity to its waters, something naturally created Kimberley aquifers may not be immune to.
It may well be that tapping Lake Argyle’s water, either by piping to Adelaide and Perth via Giles-Uluru or tankering to Perth, and perhaps even on to Adelaide, emerges as the politically safest option in decades to come.