Darling, it hurts!

The Murray Darling Basin - photo by Debbie Stockwell

There has been a vast amount of publicity surrounding the recent release of the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA) Proposed Plan of Management for Australia’s most significant waterway. The Murray-Darling Basin is the home of the largest river system in Australia. It is the lifeblood for eastern Australia, stretching 1,061,469 square kilometres through Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

Despite an announcement by the NSW Government this week that ‘The Drought’ is now officially over, the Murray-Darling Basin has reached record-low levels and problems still facing the river system directly affect hundreds of cities and towns, not to mention countless species of fauna and flora. 3.2 million Australians rely on the Murray Darling for their everyday drinking water. The basin also provides about 41% of the country’s agriculture with water for crops like cotton, rice and wheat.

Farmers and irrigators are protesting amid screams of “We’ll all be ruined”. Green groups are saying that the plan doesn’t go far enough and that the river system will still be in grave danger. And politicians are looking at who’s making the most noise too see which way they should jump.

The MDBA was established in 2007 as a result of the Howard Government’s Water Act. Its main brief was to prepare a plan for the ongoing management of this crucial system. The Murray Darling is so vital that the Federal Government should be able to take control of the overall management from the four States that had, on occasion, previously acted in the interest of their own stakeholders and not with the whole system’s health (and survival) in mind.

The proposed plan calls for large reductions in water allocations from most of the catchment areas within the Basin. If they are adopted they will have a significant impact on the land users in those areas, especially irrigators. This will mean a reduction in production from these areas with subsequent job losses from both farms and service sectors.

According to the best available science, the river system needs an extra 7,000 Gigalitres of flow per year to restore the system to full health. The proposed plan states that the cuts in allocations needed to achieve this would have too great an impact on socio-economic life in the Basin. The Proposed Plan calls for cuts of between 3,000 and 4,000 Gigalitres per year. This is not enough for Environmental Groups and too much for irrigators.

So what’s the answer?

  1. Do nothing: The river system will die a slow and painful death with levels of salinity not only wiping out native treasures like the Red Gum and the Murray Cod but eventually making farming and living near the river unsustainable. Nobody Wins.
  2. Cut 7,000 Gigalitres from the allocations and seriously affect farm production in the entire basin, with massive job losses and social dislocation affecting the whole Nation. Some win but many lose, including taxpayers who pay to buy back water allocations.
  3. Establish a workable plan that, while affecting some people, minimises the social impact by providing alternative employment and income for affected people in returning flow to the system by efficiency gains (e.g. reducing evaporation losses, underground irrigation etc.) and establishing alternative industries. Most win but at a significant short-term cost to the taxpayers.
  4. Put more water into the system. The Bradfield plan was around for most of last century and looked at diverting high, wet season, flows from the rivers in the Gulf of Carpentaria to the headwaters of the Murray Darling system. It has always been thought of as too expensive, but perhaps it’s becoming more attractive.

Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi has managed to turn parts of the Sahara Desert into an oasis by running pipelines

Colonel Gaddafi

across his country. His Great Manmade River is a network of pipes that supplies 6,500,000 m³ of fresh water per day from beneath the Sahara to cities in the north of Libya including Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirt. The project consists of more than 1,300 wells, most more than 500 m deep. According to the 2008 edition of Guinness Book of Records, it is the world’s largest irrigation project.

Whatever plan the MDBA finally comes up with, there will be pain involved for somebody. Surely the massive amounts of Government funds presently being used to buy water allocations would be better spent on productive programs that help maximise efficiency. In lieu of consulting the Libyan leader, maybe a small proportion at least could be spent on having a serious look at the Bradfield Plan.

Have your say at the MDBA web site – http://www.mdba.gov.au/




Where there’s a drill, there’s a way

Coal Seam Methane (CSM) could be an important part of the great challenge we face as we switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

CSM produces 60% less greenhouse gases than coal when used to produce electricity. This makes it attractive as a ‘gap product’ that will help give us some more time to further develop renewable energy sources like solar, wind and tidal. CSM is also plentiful in Eastern Australia.

But as the Sydney Morning Herald reported last month, we need to be careful, as production of this gas is not without potentially serious environmental consequences (see: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/debate-about-gas-drilling-turns-toxic-20100924-15ql3.html).

Water and various chemicals are sometimes used to fracture coal seams to release gas, which is then collected and stored. Some of these ‘fracking’ chemicals (be careful how you say that!) can be quite toxic and may enter the aquifer or the water table or even surface waters.

There is also potential for water to be produced from gas wells. This water usually contains more minerals and salts and therefore should be treated before being used in vast quantities as it can adversely affect the local vegetation and soils.

Contamination from the actual gas may also occur if drilling is undertaken adjacent to water storage reservoirs, as is presently being proposed for sites near Sydney’s main water supply, Warragamba Dam.

Warragamba Dam

As with any potential environmental issue there are people and companies lining up on both sides of the argument. Some will swear that unless we tap this resource we will be doomed to a life without hot water and YouTube… others say that drill sites are a blight on the land and our water will be poisoned forever if one well is allowed.

Somewhere in the middle is probably right.

We need to proceed with extreme caution, but we do need to proceed. There are water treatment technologies available that can deal with the issues that CSM creates. They will cost someone some money to implement, but this is where Governments have to stand up and protect the environment for all users, not just collect royalty fees.

Brackish water produced as a side effect can be treated using a number of readily available technologies such as reverse osmosis or ion exchange. Water with byproducts from the gas itself will probably need a more complex solution involving three or more stages of treatment.

The solutions are there; and where there’s a will…

The Cost of (no) Maintenance

To most people involved in the Aviation Industry, quality maintenance procedures and systems are a ‘no brainer’. The consequences of operating an aircraft that’s not properly maintained are obvious.

Any thought of saving costs on maintenance charges have to be weighed directly against not only the very real risk of a drop off in performance, but also human cost and of course, the ensuing negative press. Every time Qantas (e.g.) has the smallest in-flight problem, there’s an immediate news story and the whole ‘off-shore maintenance’ situation is brought up.

Maintenance procedures and standards and their associated costs occur in all businesses… but the consequences of underperforming in this area are nowhere near as dramatic as they are for aviation. That’s why aviation companies just can’t skimp on proper maintenance and hope for the best!

It’s plain common sense that all plant and equipment across the board should be properly maintained so the business that operates it can continue to provide its goods and services. Unfortunately common sense and accountants aren’t always on the same page. In this age of bonuses paid for short-term returns, the need to maximise income can lead to cost cutting… and (along with marketing) one of the easiest costs to reduce is maintenance.

The water supply industry provides a classic case in point. Water supply infrastructure is getting old in many Australian cities, but is there a proper program in place to maintain and replace these aging systems? The option of saving big dollars and returning maximum dividends in the short term must be tempting, especially for senior management who are often rewarded bonuses based on dividends only.

How long can this go on before the system collapses and there are massive costs involved in not only replacing the broken infrastructure but in repairs and damages for clients and others affected by the breakdowns?

Perhaps the answer is for all industries to view the benefits of maintenance in a more positive light and reward efficient maintenance programs as highly as we reward short-term profits.

Come on in… the snorkelling’s fine!

I recently read an article in G Magazine (link below) that discussed the effects of washing cars on aquatic ecosystems.

Most factories and workshops now have systems in place to ensure that chemicals from spills and incidental run off are captured and prevented from entering the local ecosystem via the storm water system.

Aerial view of Sydney's Northside Storage Tunnel

The vast majority of contaminants that do make it into our local waterways come from the road. Oils from vehicle leaks, unburned hydrocarbons from exhaust fumes, together with general litter and animal waste, all combine to make a pretty nasty brew. Most urban storm water systems have gross pollutant traps and many have interceptor pits that help to remove most of the solids and some of the hydrocarbons… but they simply aren’t sophisticated enough to stop the heavy metals and dissolved contaminants that can accumulate over time and cause damage to marine life in particular.

There are a few ways to alleviate this problem:

  • Reduce the amount we litter (via education and awareness campaigns)
  • Don’t wash our cars and other vehicles on hard surfaces
  • Provide more sophisticated treatment processes within local storm water systems
  • Ensure better collection and disposal of storm water on a large scale

Sydney has partly achieved this last item via its ‘Northside Storage Tunnel’. This system collects much of the wet weather sewage overflow in Northern Sydney,  stores and then transfers it to the North Head Wastewater Treatment Plant for disposal. This polluted water used to flow straight into Sydney Harbour.

School of Luderick at Manly

As a regular swimmer who has always loved to snorkel in the Harbour, I’m certain that this stunning waterway is cleaner now than it was 20 years ago, with more aquatic life than I’ve ever seen. (Let me know if you agree.)

In the meantime, remember that we all have to do our bit to keep it that way. And if you live anywhere near Moreton Bay, please… look after the Dugong.

G Magazine article: http://www.gmagazine.com.au/news/2225/washing-cars-can-kill-wildlife

Lest we forget

It appears that the recent drought conditions in NSW (and most of eastern Australia) have finally abated.

In January this year, 82% of NSW was ‘drought declared’. Recently published data from the NSW Department of Industry shows that figure is now down to just 7%, with more than half of the state’s rural areas now considered in satisfactory condition.

There is plenty of water in Menindee Lakes (> 90%) and a good proportion of that will be sent down to the lower reaches of the Murray due to the recent agreements between State and Federal Governments. Combined with recent good snowfalls, this could even save the mighty Murray from Death’s door.

Water restrictions have eased slightly in most of Australia’s big cities… gardens are flourishing and lawns are green. And if ‘La Nina’ has her way and we soon return to normal rainfall patterns, how quickly will we forget the lessons the drought has taught us?

Perhaps the only positive to come out of this big dry spell is that we now have a new respect for water and just how precious it is. Drought-proofing our cities has not been cheap and de-sal plants, recycled water pipelines and other initiatives have added significantly to the base cost of water. Households and industries are paying more, even though many are using less.

The price of water to households has nearly doubled in the last 5 years, but it is still relatively cheap. However the increase has been noticed and people have cut back.

Water saving features are now standard in all new homes and most Government buildings. Industries are being rewarded for reducing consumption and recycling. We are becoming water savvy and will hopefully remain that way.

Aussie kids born in drought

A few years ago many local Councils would NOT allow rainwater tanks because they looked unsightly. Now they are required for each new dwelling.

Many new estates have recycled water pumped through a separate reticulation system for secondary use. Rural Australia has also looked at water-efficient crops and livestock, as well installing pipelines instead of channels to transfer irrigation water (to minimise evaporation).

Many of today’s young teenagers have only ever known drought… and all children are now taught that water is scarce and needs to be valued. This is a lesson that we should have all have taken on board years ago… but better late than never.

Solutions exist to beat waterborne killers

The current killer floods in Pakistan highlight the need to have effective drinking water treatment equipment readily available for use by Governments and aid agencies BEFORE disaster strikes.

While water is the main cause of this and many other natural calamities, it is also the most pressing need when infrastructure breaks down and people are displaced in massive numbers.

The simple fact is that people cannot survive more than a few days without drinking water… but consuming dirty water leads to many other problems and is often fatal. Already, as reported this week (http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE66T3RS20100813), hundreds of thousands of Pakistani flood victims are suffering diarrhea caused by waterborne bacteria. This makes the already weak, even weaker. Amazingly, though just a common (if uncomfortable) ‘inconvenience’ for most Australians, diarrhea is responsible for the deaths of more than 1.8 million people globally every year.

In the case of a natural disaster like the Pakistan floods, after diarrhea, the mosquitoes then take over and help cause other diseases to kick in, making an already terrible situation, catastrophic. People in Pakistan are likely to soon be suffering everything from dysentery to botulism, cholera and typhoid.

So what’s the answer? Obviously in this situation it’s not a lack of water, but a lack of ‘clean’ water that’s the issue. Decomposing human and animal corpses, raw sewage, oily or chemical wastes from destroyed factories, vehicles and storage tanks… all make for a challenging situation for any water treatment equipment.

Having witnessed many of these problems first hand in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Asian Tsunami, I can say that any effective water treatment plants used in such situations need to be:

  • Of sufficient scale… the nature of most of these disasters means that it is usually tens of thousands of people who need to access clean water; and therefore the flows required to provide just the bare minimum amount of potable water are significant.
  • Transportable… the plants must get to were the need is greatest… and quickly!
  • Self-supporting… reliable power is rarely available in most disaster areas so it needs its own power source.
  • Versatile… as described above, the contaminants can be many and varied. Even the most advanced Reverse Osmosis (R/O) plant will be quickly rendered useless if it’s working with mud or oils without the correct pre-treatment stages in place. Traditional filters will quickly become clogged and subsequent sterilisation by UV or Chlorination requires clear, clean water to be truly effective.

The technology does exist… but Governments and aid agencies alike need to know about it and pre-plan to avoid the human cost when disasters like that in Pakistan (and in Haiti and Asia beforehand) strike… as they inevitably do. Our thoughts and prayers are with the 15 million people of Pakistan already affected by this latest natural calamity.

Imagine – an airport with no wastewater!

The use of man-made wetlands as ‘natural born filters’ are popular within the waste treatment industry… but why aren’t they used more often at airfields and airports?

Constructed wetlands usually have four key components:

Typical man-made wetlands

  • Soil and drainage materials (such as pipes and gravel)
  • Water
  • Plants (both above and below the water)
  • Micro-organisms

Typical wastes that can and are being purified by these systems include:

  • Sewage
  • Storm water
  • Agricultural wastewater (including livestock waste, run-off and drainage water)
  • Landfill leachate
  • Run-off from highways
  • Partially treated industrial wastewater

These plants are perfect for airfields as they can treat most of the typical waste streams an airport generates… and most airfields have no problems accommodating the space required.

Constructed wetlands ideal for airfields

Problems arise because some of the more highly contaminated waste streams that are generated at airfields by typical MRO activities like corrosion control, paint shops and NDI can have nasty effects on these wetland systems… so that waste needs to be pumped out and transported off site.

But here’s an alternative… why not treat this highly contaminated wastewater on site, with the resultant treated water used to supplement the wetlands system? Water from the wetlands could then be filtered and re-used for normal airfield operations.

Imagine that – an airport with no wastewater!