30/05/2006 - 22:00

Realistic water debate needed

30/05/2006 - 22:00


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Now that the $5 million Kimberley water report is collecting dust in Parliament House, and disputation over transferring northern water southwards has again subsided, it’s worth reconsidering why tapping it has – in the medium to longer term – been discou

Now that the $5 million Kimberley water report is collecting dust in Parliament House, and disputation over transferring northern water southwards has again subsided, it’s worth reconsidering why tapping it has – in the medium to longer term – been discounted.

To understand southern Western Australia’s long-standing desire for northern water, it helps to recap several forgotten developments.

The first is that WA has a proud record of transferring sweet water between higher and lower rainfall regions.

The pre-eminent example is the 1898-1903 Mundaring-to-Kalgoorlie pipeline project, which assured exploitation of the work-generating and foreign exchange-earning Golden Mile. This is something most Western Australians learned about in school history lessons that highlighted the legendary CY O’Connor.

Another is that, progressively since the 1960s, the Agricultural Water Supply Scheme has provided Perth catchment water to much of the economical important sheep- and grain-producing belt.

A key but forgotten impetus for looking beyond Perth for its growing water requirements was the realisation by about 1960 that the CSIRO’s cloud seeding experiments to induce rainfall over selected areas weren’t a goer.

Visionaries aware of CY O’Connor’s successful Goldfields and the Wheatbelt watering moves understandably took the next step; why not transfer water from a region of water abundance to Perth and environs?

This initially prompted suggestions of towing icebergs from Antarctica, something that was quickly forgotten because of insurmountable technological problems.

But the Kimberley idea showed greater staying power, as the convening of an inquiry headed by Professor Reg Appleyard demonstrates.

A crucial kick-along unexpectedly appeared in 1986 with Kimberley country and western singer, Halls Creek station owner, and Labor MP, Ernie Bridge, throwing his weight and publicity skills behind tapping that distant northern water.

Mr Bridge was unique – an Aboriginal, a Kimberley MP, singer of outback ballads about WA’s parched landscape, and, between 1986 and 1993, water resources minister.

But after his first blaze of publicity, the idea was dubbed ‘Ernie’s pipe dream’.

After 2001 came several bad winters with ongoing media reports of Perth’s rapidly emptying dams inevitably making politicians conclude that something had to be done.

But what if the understandably mounting community wide concerns could be turned into a kick-along for someone to retain or better still gain political power?

This explains why, in December 2004 – just two months before WA’s February 2005 election – the Gallop government announced the Appleyard inquiry, and why Liberal opposition leader Colin Barnett decided to go a huge – in fact an enormous – step further.

In January 2005, without telling Nationals coalition and Liberal colleagues, Mr Barnett undertook, during his televised campaign election eve address, to build a 3,700 kilometre, plastic-lined California-style canal linking the Fitzroy River and Perth.

There were no ifs or buts about his pharaoh-like commitment.

It would happen, come what may, allegedly for a cool $2 billion, a seventh of WA’s latest budget.

And all this without hydrological, economic and engineering feasibility studies and related essential investigations having been undertaken.

Interestingly, the Appleyard report calculated the alleged $2 billion Barnett guesstimate to be more like $14.5 billion, seven times larger.

Among other things, Mr Barnett’s vote-buying ploy to win the premiership he’s so desperately sought for so long overturned the entire election campaign, put perceptions of his judgement into grave doubt, and meant a halt to further examination of Dr Gallop’s mediocre and big-taxing governance record.

The following pre-2005 election day exchange between now-premier Alan Carpenter and former opposition leader, Matt Birney, is instructive and shows the latter was far more loyal to Mr Barnett than Mr Barnett was to him just one year later.

Interviewer: “He’s [Barnett] captured people’s imagination in a way that Labor hasn’t been able to do.”

Mr Carpenter: “Yeah. Well, so do snake oil salesman. You know, they’ve got the magic elixir. Sort of, like, Colin Barnett’s magic swamp root juice. The sort of stuff they used to sell in the old west medicine shows. But when you actually analyse it and say, ‘Listen, what we need to know is does this work, first? The canal – does it work? How much will it cost? How long will it take to build? And what are the environmental and other implications?  There are no answers.’”        

Interviewer: “Matt Birney, comparisons have been made between the canal promise and Mark Latham’s Medicare Gold policy. Is it going to suffer the same fate?”

Mr Birney: “Oh, look, I don’t think so and I think this needs to be put into some kind of perspective. This isn’t a Johnny-cum-lately proposal. Tenix, a private company, have been working on this for the best part of three years. They have, in fact, done a study on it that includes a map of the route that the canal will take. They’ve been to suppliers and they’ve asked for costings and they’ve come up with a price of some $2 billion...”

Well, the Appleyard report’s figure shows a $12-plus billion difference.

Who’s correct?

If State Scene was a punter – and this is said without Alannah MacTiernan’s Mandurah-to-Perth railway in mind – surely something closer to $14.5 billion, maybe even higher, would be closer to the mark. Why not $20 billion?

Could a state with an annual budget currently running about $14 billion consider such a risky and exorbitantly expensive proposal while cheaper options are available?

These costing disparities come on top of other uncertainties; is there adequate water available in the Fitzroy valley all year round for shipment by plastic canal, pipeline, super-tanker, or tugs towing 700-metre long rocket-shaped vinyl pontoons?

What of the need to extract 420 gigalitres from the Fitzroy to draw 200G/l in Perth, since half evaporates along the way?

Another canal problem is that WA’s north-west is cyclone-prone, flooding enormous tracts of rangeland for weeks on end, that threaten to make a canal inoperable during Perth’s summer months, maybe forever.

There’s also contamination by tropical insects, algae and bacteria growth, crossing rivers and combating feral animals attempting to break through its two canal-length security fences, particularly during droughts.

And there are many more issues, including the existence of cheaper water from sources much closer to Perth.

What of Perth’s love of those huge back and front lawns?

It’s worth noting that film star, Rene Russo, of Buddy and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame, has lead a protracted campaign against extensive lawns in water-deficient Los Angeles that guzzle water drawn from distant mid-continental Colorado.

Ms Russo urges replacing lawns with hardier, lower water-guzzling greenery. How many in Perth welcome that?

Perhaps the Carpenter government should invite her to WA to lecture.

Moreover, if government charged for her appearances, the tour may break even on such a potentially popular community educational tour.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the Appleyard inquiry didn’t rule out eventual tapping of Kimberley water.

Tucked away are these lines.

“Currently the Water Corporation has a number of existing sources under development and, if they are successful in implementing these, demand requirements will be met until 2017/18.

“However, by 2050 they predict that there will be an additional requirement of 137G/l each year that will need to be sourced.

“A number of options are under consideration to meet this demand, which include: further desalination; catchment management; exploitation of additional ground and surface water; water trading; and reuse of storm or waste water.

“Supply of water from the Kimberley is also included as a possible source for up to 300G/l each year.”

In other words, our visionaries may yet realise their dream.

If so, hopefully only after government resorts to empirical knowledge, research and objective assessment, not a belated election eve promise that, thankfully, enough voters recognised as silly.


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