23/04/2009 - 00:00

Coyne salinity plan

23/04/2009 - 00:00


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Coyne salinity plan

IMAGINE you could solve Perth's water crisis for generations and recover vast tracts of salinity affected agricultural land without expending a single tonne of carbon after construction.

Think how much Treasurer Troy Buswell would embrace you if you could tell him to scrap the Binningup desalination plant, saving around $1 billion.

Wouldn't every Perth gardener be happy to discover that water was available in abundance for decades to come?

And how would the farmers of the Wheatbelt feel about returning life to hundreds of thousands of hectares of land lost to production?

Imagine doing this with a home-grown solution that drives itself using clean, green power.

And how about doing it at a fraction of the cost of other, more limited attempts to achieve a small proportion of the same outcomes?

You'd be a state hero wouldn't you?

Underwriting the future of the metropolitan population, returning thousands of hectares of farm land to fruitful productivity, and saving the planet from CO2 emissions. What more could the state ask for?

It's the sort of ingenuity that would have amazed Western Australia's legendary engineer CY O'Connor who developed Fremantle Harbour, Mundaring Weir and the Goldfields Pipeline.

But after a frustrating period stretching out to a decade, Victoria Park engineer Peter Coyne has not received the accolades he would richly deserve, if proved right.

In fact, according to Mr Coyne, no-one seems prepared to take his vision seriously enough to test it. Instead, he feels thwarted at every turn as successive governments and their associated bureaucracies ignore his simple idea.

Sitting in his nondescript offices overlooking Albany Highway, Mr Coyne can't understand why he's not being listened to.

"I don't know," he says, perplexed.

"I have heard comment that they don't like me because I am too pushy.

"But I tried the Mr Nice Guy approach."

Mr Coyne would not be the first maverick engineer to find themselves up against a fortress of bureaucratic doubt and stonewalling.

History is littered with bright ideas that took too long to come to fruition, often at a terrific cost to their creators. In WA, Mr O'Connor is surely the most extreme case, taking his own life due to doubts about the workability of the pipeline to Coolgardie, which had endured considerable political attacks from start to near finish. The project, of course, succeeded and the region is still supplied via this century-old infrastructure.

A decade ago, Mr Coyne was drawn out to the bush to look at the salinity issue.

He came up with a solution that involved a system of canals within the various catchments in the Wheatbelt, which would drain the saline waters of the region, diverting them away from the river systems across to the southern edge of the Darling Scarp where they could be flushed out to sea, producing hydro-electric power as they flowed into the Indian Ocean.

The scheme would lower the watertable to recover once arable land and rescue natural river systems from the destructively brackish water.

In the Blackwood catchment, an area of about 1 million hectares, Mr Coyne said about 300,000ha had already been lost to salinity at a commercial cost of around $100 million a year.

"To fix salinity is a piece of cake," he said.

"All you have to do is lower the watertable."

He believes his scheme could recover 80 per cent of that lost land by lowering the watertable by a metre. The total recovery of the land lost to salinity, as well as the full return to health for the region's rivers and lakes, would require the watertable to be dropped by two metres, roughly where it was before wholesale land clearing removed the forests of the area.

Mr Coyne does not believe that reafforestation is a commercially viable solution, given the extent of the damage and the continuing deterioration of the land.

The next element of his scheme, using the Blackwood catchment as an example, is a second canal system from Duranillin cutting across the Collie River catchment, tackling salinity as well as helping to restore the quality of water in the massive Wellington Dam, by far the biggest water storage reservoir in the state's populated south.

Finally, 400 gigalitres per year would run down a 220-metre drop to generate 20 megawatts of electricity before flushing water that is less than a third as salty as the sea into the ocean near Bunbury.

This hydro-electric option would produce enough clean energy to run a desalination plant that would capture some of this water or, better still, treat the much less salty Wellington Dam water which is released to the sea each year.

And that is just the Blackwood catchment.

Mr Coyne's scheme involves two additional catchments with similar outcomes - canals flushing saline water and driving small power stations on the way to the sea.

"If we diverted 20 per cent of the water from the Wheatbelt away from hydro and into reverse osmosis [desalination] we could create 250GL [of fresh water] per annum," he said

In 2002 this scheme was estimated to cost about $200 million. Today, Mr Coyne believes it would cost $500 million - still half the cost of the Binningup desalination plant, which will produce 45GL of water along with significant power consumption and resulting emissions.

"We have taken something useless and unwanted and detested and given it a value by generating hydro power," Mr Coyne neatly summarises the scheme.

It's hard to pin down the critics of this scheme within the rural community.

It appears that, over the decades, numerous schemes and proposals have met with varying degrees of openness or scepticism, and have been trialled in ways ranging from the professional to the haphazard.

Drains are just one of many ideas that have been applied in this way. This patchwork of concepts has resulted in isolated successes and failures - leaving the rural constituency divided.

WAFarmers climate change and natural resources spokesman Dale Park, who farms near Badjingarra, said that the drainage system remained controversial.

"The [agriculture] department has done experiments on them and they did work to a certain extent," Mr Park said.

He said while there was considerable passion on the subject in the bush, he believed the real issue was cost.

"If you work it out on a cost-effective basis no-one would ever do it," Mr Park said.

And while Mr Park was unfamiliar with the concept of generating power from the water, he could see potential.

"That is different," he said. "That is saying there is another use for the water and, maybe, that tips the balance on the economic side of things."

Mr Park said that, in his experience, governments were reluctant to embrace innovation.

"What I have been running into in recent years, and it's a problem in government, unless they have the idea, it is no good," he said.

"There is a paranoia inside the public service, [they think] 'I am the expert and if I didn't think of it, it's not worth looking at'."

Mr Park suggests such thinking has been exacerbated by the Corruption and Crime Commission's work in unveiling the influence of private sector players on bureaucrats.

That paranoia has been used against the idea in politics.

Indeed, in parliament two years ago, opposition leader Paul Omodei highlighted the Agritech scheme, only to face an interjection from then premier Alan Carpenter.

"I hope the leader of the opposition is not pushing a private business venture here; is he?," Mr Carpenter asked.

Resistance to drainage is not just found in rural circles.

Another engineer who has privately sought to tackle the problem of salinity, Genero Management principal Robin Sanders, is critical of Mr Coyne's drainage concept, even though he believes it is well meaning.

Mr Sanders told WA Business News he was involved in several Wheatbelt projects, including at Trayning and Narembeen, where drains were part, but not the whole, of the solution.

His view is that Mr Coyne's scheme has two flaws - it removes the water, and the minerals contained within it, from the area where it fell.

"We have to fight like crazy to hold it in," Mr Sanders said.

He said a more holistic approach had to be taken, using drains in the lower catchments to direct water to localised evaporation points, but also making changes in the middle and upper areas of the catchment.

That is where salinity issues were less of an issue because the problem was exported to lower-lying areas.

"Everybody is upset about what is happening in the lower catchment but the problem starts in the upper catchment," Mr Sanders said.

"Most farmers up there don't want to do anything because they see no reason."

Instead, the engineer said, there had to be economic reasons for unaffected areas to cooperate in the salinity battle. He suggests that dams for aquaculture and household use as well as alleyways of trees that can be cropped should be used in combination with drains in the catchment.

"You have to show the catchment community the way forward," Mr Sanders said.

"Farmers want to leave something for the next generation, they want to be shown something that will continue to allow them to exist."

As for Mr Coyne's scheme, Mr Sanders admits he is a reluctant critic because he appreciates the innovation and thinking that has gone into it.

"Yes, it achievable, but it is not the solution," he said.

From his giant Wheatbelt scheme, Mr Coyne has also proposed a spin-off idea to desalinate the waters of the 186GL capacity Wellington Dam using its own pressure due to the 150 metre height of the structure above the coastal plain.

That alone would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars by foregoing the cost and emissions of developing Binningup, a plant that would be operated by two Spanish companies.

A study by Resource Economics Unit commissioned by Mr Coyne's Agritech Smartwater found the cost of water produced by his Wellington Dam proposal, at 57 cents per kilolitre, to be nearly a quarter of that expected for Binningup over 20 years ($2.18kL).

His solution was also much cheaper than the Kwinana desalination plant with an estimated cost of $1.74kL.

Mr Coyne said the reduced cost was due to the fact that the much lower salinity levels of Wellington Dam - less than 2,000 parts per million of salt, compared to about 35,000ppm for sea water - allowed gravity to produce enough power for desalination.

The state government acknowledges that Wellington Dam ought to be restored and has set aside funds for research, but Mr Coyne remains perplexed by a lack of progress under the Liberals after enduring eight years of Labor power.

"(Water Minister) Graham Jacobs is a fan of this but since he became minister there been nothing, zip," Mr Coyne said.

The Water Corporation defends its position on Binningup, noting that its top executives, including chief executive Sue Murphy, have met with Mr Coyne in recent months to discuss the Wellington Dam project.

"Prior to those meetings we were well aware of Agritech's proposal for Wellington and we have repeatedly stated that the Water Corporation does not have a mortgage on drinking water source proposals and we welcome input and ideas/proposals," a spokesman said.

The state utility said that his solution was only conceptual and it has taken the decision that Binningup is the only major water source that can meet the needs of the state by 2011 when it will be needed.

"We have also advised Agritech (through Mr Coyne) that post the new desalination plant it is unlikely that another major water source will be required until 2015 at the earliest and this could extend out to 2020 assuming we can keep demand management measures in place," the spokesman said.

"In that context we will be seeking competitive interest for such a source in that timeframe but the legislation that we operate under requires us to look at various solutions, which we will do."

The spokesman also said that the WA government was preparing a report on all options for the future use of Wellington Dam and the Water Corporation will study that report before making any further proposals in that area.


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