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ABC 7.30 REPORT.PM says,"Recycled water inevitable".

Australian Broadcasting Corporation



Broadcast: 29/01/2007

Recycled water inevitable in NSW, says PM

Reporter: Peter McCutcheon

KERRY O'BRIEN: The politics of water continue to roll on in somewhat spectacular style, with the Prime Minister now backing Queensland's Labor Premier's dramatic embrace of recycled sewage water for human consumption. Mr Howard says other Labor States should follow Peter Beattie's lead. Mr Beattie had promised to consult the public in a plebiscite before committing to recycled effluent for both industrial and general household use in the State's south east. But he's now bypassed that promise because, he says, the rapidly escalating water crisis there leaves him with no choice. Other States aren't rushing to follow suit, but in NSW, where an election is imminent, Mr Howard says recycled water will inevitably be introduced regardless of who wins. Peter McCutcheon reports.

PETER BEATTIE, QLD PREMIER: The bottom line is, there is no choice.

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: I am very strongly in favour of recycling and Mr Beattie is right.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Whether Australians like it or not, putting recycled effluent into the water supply is back on the agenda.

PETER BEATTIE: Got to tell you, it's as good as anything you'll drink anywhere else and in fact it's probably better.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: And Queensland is setting the pace, with Premier Beattie's announcement that he would be scrapping a planned referendum on recycling water for the south east of the State and pushing ahead with the project regardless. But is it already too late?

ANNA BLIGH, QLD DEPUTY PREMIER: It is very tight. We've acknowledged that.

DR BRUCE FLEGG, QLD LIBERAL LEADER: It may have occurred in a drought, but it is a crisis of the Government's own making.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: And will there be a backlash?

JEFF SEENEY, QLD OPPOSITION LEADER: It is a very divisive issue and it's an issue that we shouldn't have to confront.

CLIVE BERGHOFER, FORMER TOOWOOMBA MAYOR: Look at England. They’ve got a problem with water over there. They tell me that 25 per cent of men are now infertile and the fish are turning into females.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Record low dam levels in South East Queensland have forced the State Government to face some politically unpopular options. A proposal to build a new dam near Gympie sparked angry demonstrations last July. It was at this time the Beattie Government started drawing up plans for recycling water, not only for industry but also for household use.

PETER BEATTIE: There is no choice because of the drought. This is the worst drought on record.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: A plan to hold a $10 million plebiscite on recycled water in mid March was spectacularly scrapped by the Premier yesterday, when he announced treated effluent would be pumped into Brisbane's Wivenhoe Dam from late 2008.

PETER BEATTIE: You'll get the scaremongers who will come out today who will make all sorts of outrageous claims to scare people. I urge the scaremongers to simply – don’t do it.

CLIVE BERGHOFER: People won’t come here. Others will leave, property values will drop and jobs will go.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: The Premier was referring to a campaign run in Toowoomba last year, spearheaded by former mayor Clive Berghofer. More than 60 per cent of the city's residents eventually voted against a recycled water plan, and Mr Berghofer says many people on the Gold Coast and Brisbane are also suspicious of purified recycled drinking water.

CLIVE BERGHOFER: There's 78,000 chemicals in the world. Now, the only way they can test those lots of times is to put them into use. They can do as many tests as they like. Look at thalidomide, look at Agent Orange, look at DDT, all those things over the years have proved an absolute disaster. Asbestos 60 years ago wasn't a danger, but today it is a danger.

DR GREG LESLIE, UNESCO CENTRE FOR MEMBRANE RESEARCH: It's safer than the water that comes out of our tap at the moment, because the level of treatment exceeds that goes on at existing water treatment plants.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Water recycling expert Dr Greg Leslie from NSW University says the technology is sure, and reliable. After going through filters, the water will be put through a complex membrane, in a process known as reverse osmosis. It will then go through a third barrier, involving ultraviolet light and peroxide.

GREG LESLIE: This system is much better than what goes on in London or, for that matter, here in Sydney. If you go to the community in Richmond, they're pulling water out of the Hawkesbury River that 17 kilometres upstream has been discharged from the Penrith sewage treatment plant. That scheme is safe. This water is treated to a higher level than what goes on at Penrith or Richmond.

ADVERTISEMENT: The process uses a multibarrier approach to remove contaminants from the water.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: This technology was explained to Toowoomba residents last year, and still they gave it the thumbs down. Nevertheless, Toowoomba mayor Di Thorley believes there'll be less opposition this time around.

DI THORLEY, TOOWOOMBA MAYOR: We're looking at, six months on, less water everywhere, so I think that the community is starting to have an understanding.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: But Queensland's National Party leader is still unsure.

JEFF SEENEY: It's more than just about science. Some people can rationalise this, some people can't. You're talking about using human waste as a source of water for human sustenance and that invokes a whole lot of emotive responses, almost instinctive responses, in people that need to be respected.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: In contrast to his coalition partner, the Queensland Liberals' Dr Bruce Flegg says he's personally comfortable with drinking recycled water. But the Opposition has focused its attack on the Beattie Government's timing, arguing it should have done something about the region's dwindling water supplies years ago. The Government has admitted its worst case scenario is for dam capacity to drop to a mere 5 per cent before the recycled water project comes on stream in two years' time.

BRUCE FLEGG: What we've got now in Queensland is a sprint race to the finish as to whether we run out of water first or they get the infrastructure built first and at the moment it's looking like it will be a photo finish.

ANNA BLIGH: We are confident that we will not run out of water. But everything does have to go to plan, and that's why we are determined to put our energies into getting this infrastructure in place.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: That plan no longer includes a plebiscite, which may make the task of selling the idea to the public all the more difficult. And while other States are now baulking at taking on such a political risk, many argue it's just a matter of time.

DI THORLEY: The dams are down. The rain is not coming, and it is not just not coming in Wivenhoe, it is not coming all over the southern part of Australia, and they are all struggling. It will be all over Australia that we'll have some influence, not only on us, but us on reverse back over the nation.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Well, I guess, as they say, effluent happens. We'll just have to see how that translates at the ballot box. That report from Peter McCutcheon.