By ERWIN CHLANDA
The public will be doing the heavy lifting in the bid to reduce water use by one sixth of the current consumption over the next two years. Just 14% of the 1.6 billion liter reduction will come from the Power and Water Corporation, by phasing in recycled water for irrigation south of the Gap. This is despite the fact that Power and Water will get the lion’s share of the $15m Alice Water Smart funding. Half of that comes from the Federal Government, some from the consortium involved in the program, and the rest is matched by Power and Water whose contribution can be “in kind” rather than cash. That raises the question whether Power and Water is declaring as its contribution the assets and services for which it is being paid by Canberra. Funding for the dearest parts of the project certainly is all going to Power and Water. These are listed in a media release from Environment Minister Karl Hampton in July:- • A $6.5m infrastructure project that would allow some large water users to use recycled water. • A $2m project to regulate water pressure and reduce leaks. A $1.2m project “to reduce water use in parks and gardens using smart technologies” will be under the auspices of the town council. Power and Water will also introduce “water pressure management and leak reduction throughout the Alice Springs water reticulation system”. This will hopefully avoid such massive leaks as the one in the Ilparpa pipeline, which remained undetected for a long time, whilst helping to make the nearby swamp a mosquito paradise. The rest of the water savings – 86% – will come from consumers cutting back, mostly by turning down the lawn watering tap which is currently using up more than half of the town’s supply. Meanwhile, almost twice as much as we’re trying to save, close to three billion liters, is being evaporated each year in the sewage treatment plant, water lost to the town forever as the vapour drifts wherever the wind may take it. The town seems doomed unless we tap that major source of water – fully recycling our waste water to drinking water quality – a solution commonplace around the world, including places far less dry than Central Australia. While the end is not nigh, it is foreseeable: the bottom line is that we are depleting our underground water at a rate 20 times greater than nature replenishes it. We’re drinking very old water – and pouring it onto our lawns. “Since pumping began at Roe Creek in 1964 over 250,000 ML of groundwater has been extracted, with minimal replenishment. This is half of the Sydney Harbour!” says Alice Water Smart (AWS). That’s 250 billion liters. Water expert John Childs says if we continue our current rate of consumption, and if we tap all the nearby underground supplies, we may have enough water for up to 300 and 400 years. That would mean a very substantial investment in bores, pumps and pipes to go beyond the current Roe Creek bore field (which is the best we have in terms of quality and accessibility), to take in Rocky Hill (not as good as Roe Creek) and everything in between. There is more water further west in the Mereenie basin but distance from town and flow rate make it a marginal resource, says Mr Childs. Power and Water is funding AWS. It is operating out of the Arid Lands Environment Centre offices, but while ALEC is a community-based pressure group, AWS is a promotional instrument of the government (which owns Power and Water), with a budget of $2.7m over two years. In a nutshell, we’re using the cheap water now and the objective of AWS is to avoid a major spend on new and less prospective sources for as long as possible. AWS, run by Les Seddon, recruited from NSW, gives itself a jaunty image. It seeks to rope in the private consumer as well as corporate ones and offers beteen $50 and $250 towards such gadgets as low flow shower heads, washing machines with a 4.5 star rating or higher WELS rating, rainwater tanks, and pool covers. But the elephant in the room remains the water waste through the evaporation ponds. Mr Childs says the opportunities, discussed now for well over a decade, are still staring us in the face:- • A fully-fledged recycling plant, to drinking water standard, would put an end to our most glaring water waste. • It could be set up on a couple of hectares of land. • Water not pumped back into the town could be stored in the aquifer underneath the Old Timers. • The two square kilometers now taken up by the ponds, freehold land unencumbered by native title, would be available a variety of uses, including housing. All this seems to make it worthwhile to investigate whether land sales, at the current high prices, could more than pay for rehabilitation of the land and for the recycling plant. And we would be doing away with the notorious stench emanating from the open ponds.
The Alice Springs News Online published a comprehensive dossier on the sewage plant in 1998.
Photos: At top – this seepage pond near the planned suburb Kilgariff is part of the recycling scheme under Alice Water Smart. Inset: Google Earth photo showing the expanse of the sewage evaporation ponds. Around three billion liters of water are wasted each year.