Costly gamble with water could sink us

State government projects to secure the basic stuff of life – water – include an estimated $3.1 billion Wonthaggi Desalination Project, a $1 billion Food Bowl Modernisation program and the $625 million north-south pipeline, which will take water from the Eildon Reservoir to Melbourne (plus the recent Federal plans to have a plan).

As we know, estimates more often than not blow out up to five times the original figure. The problem with less costly and more sensible options is that they can’t be put into a package for the much-loved public-private partnership and flogged off to a foreign multinational. These projects will be a burden to taxpayers but a boon to private enterprise.

There are a range of cheaper alternatives, including water conservation measures we’ve not yet looked at, bans on logging in catchment areas and collecting stormwater and roof runoff, which could supply Melbourne with water at a fraction of the cost of the government’s chosen options. They would also reduce the burden on the dying Murray River.

The water that might be produced by the Wonthaggi desalination plant for Melbourne on a “take or pay” contract would be for 30 years. This would be under a public-private partnership and will provide a third to the volume of water currently used by Melbourne. But it will cost four times as much. In non-drought years, it will be pumped back into the ocean because it can’t be stored, but will still be paid for. The large amounts of energy needed to process the salt water is another issue again.

A doubling of Melbourne water bills within a couple of years is proposed to finance this. However, if they stopped logging in catchments, we would automatically have one third of the water the desal plant hopes to supply. Recycling for industrial use and household water tanks would provide a lot more as well. And, of course, stabilising the human population.

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