More Desalination?

The Western Australian government is so happy with its water desalination plant in Kwinana, an outer suburb of Perth, that they are planning more plants. This week plans for a second desalination plant were announced at Binningup in the Shire of Harvey, 155km south of Perth and near the regional city Bunbury. This is after WA Premier Alan Carpenter

announced that he had shelved the Water Corporation’s plans to tap the massive Yarragadee aquifer in the state’s southwest.

The scraping of plans to tap the Yarragadee aquifer is welcome news, but I believe desalination is a wasteful use of resources. I discussed this in a comment at The Coffee House and I hope Matt doesn’t mind me repeating what I said, with some additions.

Perth has a dry climate and we can’t rely on rainfall for all our water needs. Thus, Mundaring Weir east of Perth collects rainwater, but other sources include: groundwater mounds and now desalination. The former is dependent on rainfall and so is not sustainable at the levels we extract it. Desalination is resource intensive (the second plant is expected to cost almost $1 billion to build). The WA government is proud that the desalination plants use renewable sources of energy, but these sources could be better used replacing current coal-generated electricity and then managing our water supply, rather than finding more and more sources of water supply.

While other states in Australia have total sprinkler bans, the Western Australian Water Corporation boasts that we don’t have total bans on sprinkler use. This is not something to gloat over, but rather a sign of people living in the past when a pristine lawn in the suburbs was an aspiration for all. Today we should be aspiring toward more efficient water use and recycling the water we do use.

Sydney, on the other side of Australia, has problems with water supply and desalination plants have been discussed as a solution. Patrick Troy, Darren Holloway & Bill Randolph believe desalination is unnecessary and wrote about practical measures to make households water-independent in their article “Saving Sydney’s Water” in the Summer 2005/06 issue of Dissent magazine. They believe households should collect their own rainfall (although this is not as reliable in Perth as it is in Sydney), but more importantly water should be recycled within the household. Recycling water does not mean drinking sewerage (black water). It means re-using grey water (from kitchen, laundry and bathroom) for flushing of toilets, laundry and use in gardens or landscaping. Black water from toilets may be treated on-site in composting toilets, etc (although this is not always feasible).

While household recycling of water is helpful, this only makes up 11% of total water consumption, as determined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in Water Account, Australia, 2004-05. Industry is the main user of water and the agriculture industry uses 65% of Australia’s water.

The ideas discussed by Troy, Holloway & Randolph can be scaled up for use by industry. Grey water would be used for different things and may need in-house treatment. The main point is that every company, factory, farm, etc, as well as every household, is responsible for their own water use and re-use. They may be connected to scheme water (particularly for drinking and washing), but making the best use of water will ensure water, and money, is not wasted. Users of large amounts of water, such as irrigators in agriculture, could be charged higher prices for their use of this precious resource. Some industries, such as rice and cotton, are so water-intensive that they might be better carried out in places with higher rainfall.

Government interventions through integrating water re-use into building codes, incentives for installing the necessary infrastructure, etc could make these ideas a reality. Already the WA Water Corporation provides cash rebates for the purchase of certain water efficient products and rainwater tanks.

The proposed [desalination] project will be subject to a stringent environmental assessment with significant opportunities for public comment.

Community or environmental groups can register their details with the Water Corporation to be advised when publicly available documents are released. And the general public will also be able to comment when these draft environmental scoping documents are available.


2 thoughts on “More Desalination?

  1. I agree with much of what you say regarding the use of resources on building the kind of solar desalination systems they are building, and here in QLD they are spending $10 billion dollars on water in a way that keeps control of water in a governmental monopoly, which of itself IS the main problem, I think.

    Think about it, use taxpayers money ( inefficiently ) to keep us paying them MORE taxes. What interest do such entities have in the best solutions, if they take away their power of monopoly…? How many rainwater tanks would $ 10 billion buy…? my guess is roughly $ 10 b worth more than the water boards would like to see, since the main flow they are interested in is a permanent one from our pockets to their coffers……

    On the issue of desalination plants themselves, the saddest part is that smaller cheaper and low tech options do exist to desalinate water using mostly just solar energy, as alluded to above, one suspects that they would also be LEAST preffered by those with a vested interest in centralized monopolies.

    If you dont believe solar desalination is low tech, I saw an article long ago about a Scottish engineer who built one ( …in Peru?.. ) back in the mid 1850’S, I think from memory. Now that was about 100 years ago, and it got around 2000 litres a day from a small solar evaporation system, if I recall correctly. This of course was not a multimillion dollar investment, no osmosis, no fuel imputs, no patented technology, and more to the point no water authority.

    As a counterpoint to that, the Sydney agency responible for waste water “treatment” spent 500 million dollars piping shit further out to sea, yeh thanks guys, thanks a million, no make that 500 million.

    Meanwhile, Australian standards for water teartment are the worst in the developed world, and a lost opportunity to make biogas, which might mean WE wouldn’t have to pay these monopolies OUR money, so they can pipe it out to sea too presumably…… sigh……

    ( They might be able to MAKE money on the gas, which would be cleaner energy than we have right now, and 20 times smaller greenhouse “footprint” than coal power. Methane is roughly 20 times more active as a green house gas than co2, and burning it would also replace the coal component…)

    In my opinion there IS a place for solar desalination, among other good ideas, the problem remains excessive influence of vested interests on not only policy, but implementation.

    Its high time both politicians and governmental employees started putting the interests of Australians ahead of their own, and stop treating us like a free money tree, me thinks.
    They should be making the pie bigger, instead of trying to get a bigger slice from us the tax payers all the time.

  2. I think the reason govts are so unwilling to give up their monopoly on water supply is to do with the health implications of unsafe drinking water. While this is a valid issue, if everyone collected and used their own water their could be regulations, inspections, etc. to ensure drinking water was safe to drink.

    My dad is a pathologist and whenever I talk about rainwater tanks he tells me how unsafe it is (he’s had cases of salmonella from contaminated rainwater tanks). I’m slowly working at convincing him and I’m about to write a post on the topic.

    Alternatively drinking water could continue to be supplied through govt monopoly and individual rainwater collection be used for the garden, toilet flushing, washing, etc. These are also condidates for reuse of grey water within homes and businesses (black water, from toilets, could still be piped away for sewage treatment).

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