Today, Woolly Days went to Toowoomba to research a university project into what has been happening there since the recent vote against the proposal to treat recycled sewage for drinking water. Located 130kms west of Brisbane, Toowoomba is Australia’s second largest inland city after Canberra and has a population of about 110,000 people. Toowoomba is spectacularly sited 700 metres above sea level on the crest of the 3500km long Great Dividing Range which separates Australia’s crowded eastern seaboard from the sparsely populated harsh outback lands of the interior.
Toowoomba was originally a swamp near the settlement of Drayton. The swamp was drained in the 1850s and quickly overtook Drayton as the premier settlement of the district. Drayton is now a suburb of Toowoomba. The town is currently in colourful bloom after September’s Carnival of Flowers. The festival is Toowoomba’s premier annual attraction. It started in 1950 when a crowd of 50,000 people crowded the main street on opening day to watch spectacular procession of decorated floats, bands, marchers and machinery. The carnival lasts for a week and features prize gardens, decorated homes and street entertainment. This year the council protested after one of the competitors in the festival was known to be a serial infractor of Toowoomba’s strict water policies. The council has asked organisers to change the rules so that only those adhere to water policies be allowed compete in future.
Water, of course, was the great debate that brought Toowoomba to national and international attention. In July the voters had their say and rejected the recycling proposal by margin of about 20%. The proposal was heavily backed at three levels of government, by city mayor Di Thorley, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and Federal parliamentary secretary for Water, Malcolm Turnbull. The proposal had $460,000 of funding allocated and was conducted as a major campaign. There were blind taste tests and education sessions in shopping centres, home shows and Garden fests. Chemists appeared on talkback radio segments. They had TV and newspaper ads to explain the process and more ads to encourage the “yes” vote. They printed and distributed 45,000 copies of the water usage leaflet. They even conducted a debate on Phillip Adams' national radio program Late Night Live.
But it was all to no avail. Significant sections of the local population were opposed to the idea. They were led by local land developer and ex-mayor Clive Berghofer, the wealthiest man in Toowoomba. A Berghofer anti-proposal advertisement read “People won't come here; others will leave. Property values will drop and jobs will go.” Though disappointed, the council have abided by the decision and have stated categorically that there will no retreated sewage used for drinking water in the city.
Notwithstanding the vote Toowoomba continues to face critical water shortages. It was forced to go on to Level 5 water restrictions after the vote. Level 5 is the highest restriction in Queensland water system. By contrast Brisbane is at now level 3 but about to go to level 4 at the end of October. Toowoomba’s move to level 5 was delayed until 26 September to avoid media competition with the Carnival of Flowers. It means that Toowoomba residents are now banned from watering gardens, cars or lawns with hoses or buckets. They will be able to bucket grey water from their laundry, shower or bath on to their gardens. Its three dams (Cressbrook, Perseverance and Cooby) are at a precarious 20.3 per cent capacity. That is supplemented by bores that supply up to 20 per cent of demand. Drilling of new bores has started as well at a cost of $3 million as well as a project to tap into the Great Artesian Basin which is expected to cost $6 million. Toowoomba will also take part in the Queensland Government’s Home Water Wise service and rebate scheme. The scheme enables government approved plumbers to inspect homes and fix leaky taps and replace inefficient shower-heads. Consumers can also obtain rebates for items such as rainwater tanks and grey water systems.
But even with the new bores and rebate schemes, Toowoomba will still be facing the prospect of empty reservoirs by 2008. An end to the draught seems too much to rely on. The recycling scheme may yet be forced onto its unwilling citizens.