Sunday, July 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 17Getting all steamed up over water

Getting all steamed up over water

Water restrictions should not hamper economic development in Alice Springs. That has been the view taken to the town’s Water Advisory Committee since its inception by its members from the Town Council and the business community.
At left: Commonage sewage ponds, courtesy Bob Taylor. While we are arguing about water supply in 300 years’ time, we waste three billion litres a year by disposing of sewage through evaporation, at the Alice Springs treatment plant south of The Gap.
Anne Pye, former water planner with the Department of Land Resource Management, resigned at the end of June – judging by a leaked farewell letter to her colleagues – “because it is becoming impossible to see the benefits of my work” when the NT government decreed that the water availability for the town should be assured for 200 rather than 300 years.
She took the view, as does committee member Jimmy Cocking from the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC), that the government’s move is acting in disregard of community opinion. This is clearly far from the truth.
According to the committee’s website there were since April 2008 just 12 meetings, to none of which the public was invited, but which were open to the public. The committee recommendation to maintain the 300 year cap within a draft water allocation plan for Alice Springs was released for public comment earlier this year. It is believed that of the seven responses the Government received, five were supportive of the draft Plan and two were not.
Alderman Murray Stewart, on behalf of council representing the entire town, attended half of them. He was replaced by Councillor Steve Brown in 2012. Only one meeting was held in that year. Cr Brown went to attend but could not find the venue at which it was held.
The meeting proceeded nevertheless and recommended that the 300 year cap to be maintained.
Although Cr Brown repeatedly explained the circumstances of his absence, he has been accused of being indifferent to the committee’s functions by some of its members, including by Mr Cocking, and by Ms Pye in a clear reference to him in the farewell letter to her colleagues.
Following the announcement of the 300 year cap Cr Brown started a vocal – and ultimately successful – campaign for it to be lifted.
The other committee member representing a broad section of the community is Steve Shearer, from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the organ for the town’s businesses most likely to be affected by water restrictions.
Mr Shearer is the committee’s current chairman, has acted as chairman intermittently in the past and attended seven of the 12 meetings since April 2008.
He says water restrictions were not stopping any development at present and had never done so in the past.
However, the thrust of his submissions to the committee had always been that if there was “a blockage to any future development, then the water plan needs to be reviewed”.
Former alderman Mr Stewart says he always regarded water planning as a “moving feast” with policies being adapted to need, as well as evolving supply and conservation technologies, especially if the time frame is 200 to 300 years.
“We should not stop industries from setting up in Alice Springs so long as they are applying best practice in water usage,” says Mr Stewart.
“We can’t afford to hold the town back and we can’t have ideologues to tell us what to do.”
He said his brief was to keep the Town Council informed about the business of the Water Advisory Committee and he had done so, reporting back from time to time, and there had been “very little dissension” in the council.
He also felt that whilst encouraging people to save water, to say we had an assured supply for 300 years was counter-productive: “Why are we getting into a tailspin over water? The conservation message is being diluted by the message we don’t have to worry about water.”
The committee’s other members, what they represent and their organisations, respectively, are: Rod Randall (public water supply, Power and Water Corporation); Brenda Shields (Indigenous land management, Lake Eyre Basin CAC); vacant (native title holder, Lhere Artepe); Richie Hayes (agriculture, horticulture, Territory Grape Producers Association); vacant (sporting / recreation; Drag Racing Association); Rod Cramer (community, Rural Area Association).
It is noteworthy that Tourism Central Australia is absent from this line-up, given that the industry is doing its best to claw back the 50% loss in trade over the past 10 years.


  1. Perhaps it is time to renew and expand the Alice Springs Water Advisory Committee membership and increase the role of the committee to engage the community more broadly on water related issues. Meetings could be held in the council chambers instead of AZRI – not only will Cr Brown be able to find the meeting location but the public can participate too.

  2. The irony of Murray warning us that “We can’t afford to hold the town back and we can’t have ideologues to tell us what to do” must be cause for some despairing amusement.
    There is no need to expect that either he or Steve would get the joke; they are such fervent proponents of supporting development no matter what the implications, it is unlikely that anything that anybody raised as way of caution is likely to be considered seriously by them.
    They are certainly so locked into their parochial attitudes, it is virtually guaranteed they will never comprehend that they are two of the most dogmatic ideologues ever likely to be involved in these debates.

  3. Good suggestion by Jimmy Cocking, we need much more public involvement on this issue, too important to leave it to a few.
    Be good to get some input from CDU and Desert Knowledge as well I think.
    We can’t leave it to Jimmy to do battle with the Steve, the town’s expert on everything. Especially now Murray has weighed in, crikey.

  4. Three billion litres a year going up in evaporation? If true, surely there is a better way to deal with our effluent.
    Alice is a stand-alone system with no bleed in from neighbouring systems. This means that any innovative approach to any of our power and water issues can be comprehensively studied and quantified and conclusions can be drawn.
    By all means bring the Water Advisory Committee meetings into town, and then ask if there’s not a better, more efficient way of dealing with our sewer farm than either loosing three billion litres a year, and/or moving the whole show out beyond the next range.
    For instance, could we capture 100% of that evaporation and redirect it into municipal use?
    There are smart people all over the world looking at ways to maximise water use. This is an issue that will be gaining prominence in the coming decades, and Alice could have a significant voice in that debate, but only if we grasp the opportunity right in front of us.
    Two hundred years? Three hundred years? Maybe five hundred if we stop pissing it into the sandhills.

  5. During the most recent public meeting concerning the DRAFT ALICE SPRINGS WATER ALLOCATION PLAN and in my written submission, I raised the issue of the “knowledge gaps” mentioned in the draft plan.
    Basically I was saying “How will environmental impacts be determined with some degree of accuracy on groundwater if the many knowledge gaps and comprehensive baseline studies have not been done?”
    Obviously, if these baseline studies have not or will not be done in the immediate future and the knowledge gaps not filled, how can the community or business plan ahead for the short and long term if the powers that be in this matter do not invest resources in the necessary research and studies?
    If the steam rises to Top End on this matter funds could be invested in the necessary groundwater research.

  6. It’s nice of you to back me up for a change, Ian. That’s been my argument all along!
    Also, the course of action I and many others chose when confronted by the ASWAC report: “We publicised its intentions”!
    Jimmy of course has just arrived in this place thinking that he’s come up with a new idea not quite understanding that being dragged into the public’s gaze and asked to justify a position is exactly what’s just happened to him and cohorts!
    Yeh, it’s understandable, it’s a kind of dizzying process when you’re not used to it!
    The secretive bureaucratic policy making that openly expressed contempt for the political process and payed nothing but lip service to public consultation is over.
    The Minister is putting in place a new forward looking, growth orientated process. That will look to the future with a positive common sense outlook as opposed to one driven by those whose view of the future is tainted by a bleak doomsday view an all pervading sense of hopelessness, “The end is nigh.”
    This is an attitude which of course leads to the kind of decision making that involves sitting fearfully on hands, while doing and achieving absolutely nothing! Expecting of course that the rest of us will quietly and unquestioningly accept that outcome. Oops sorry Jimmy, I forgot to conform!
    Yeh, and you are right Hal, the disgusting waste of enormous quantities of water through evaporating our sewage water must be addressed with the utmost urgency! The opportunities presented by the clever use of our waste water are enormous, especially in a town where so many depend on welfare.


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