Friday, October 06, 2006

Toowoomba Days

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.


water boy said...

Disagree with your conclusion. The recycled sewage for drinking scheme is now dead and buried in Toowoomba. It will not be revived and nor it should. It was a fundamentally flawed proposal which would never have worked.

nebuchadnezzar said...

Thanks for your comments, water boy. See my earlier post as to the efficacy or otherwise of the original proposal (there is a link to this in my first paragraph).

The point of this post was to show that Toowoomba doesn't have many options beyond 2008. I've yet to see any new proposal that is better than the one rejected by Toowoomba voters.

But I'm happy to be proved wrong.

water boy said...

If you talk to the right people in Toowoomba you will understand that there is sufficient bore water not yet tapped to supply Toowoomba's water requirements. Surprisingly, one month after the referendum, Thorley admitted Council had underestimated the bore reserves. There is also the Norwin irrigator proposal as an interim step. Long-term solutions can then be addressed. Talk to members of the Toowoomba Water Taks Force.

"As the water dries up, maybe the emotive nonsense spouted by anti-recyclers will dry up with it."

While some anti-Water Futures campaigners relied on the Yuk factor, most did not. To say the Yuk factor was the reason the vote was lost is to misunderstand the Toowoomba debate. You also omit mentioning the various scare tactics of the Council and the Yes campaigners. Perhaps not living in Toowoomba you're not aware of them.

nebuchadnezzar said...

water boy,

Fair point. I don't live there, but I don't live far away in the scheme of things and I just see it as a missed opportunity.

Thanks for your tips on reading material and I'd have to say my earlier view that the decision was primarily about greed has been proved wrong by the many valid points you and john c in the other post make about the flaws in the rejected alternative.

However, if global warming is to be the supra-issue of the next 10 yrs, then water will be a close second.

As a society we must be thinking not just in terms of 2 years or 5 years or even twenty. But instead look at the longer-term consequences of our behaviour.

Bores may be plentiful but in that paradigm, re-usability has to the key to our survival to 3000 and beyond.

Fair enough Toowoomba didn't want to lead the field.

water boy said...

It wasn't about greed on the No campaigners side. The jury is still out on whether any future consultancy work was dangled in front of a couple of the lead Yes campaigners - but I guess we'll never know.

Don't get me wrong - I agree with recycling water for a variety of uses. But there needed to be community consultation before asking the community to drink it. Thorley wanted no part of any community consultation process - it's why she avoided community meetings yet would hop on a plane at ratepayers' expense to talk at water conferences around Australia about what she was doing in Toowoomba.

The one thing the No vote did was put all the water source options back on the table - so they can all be considered and the most appropriate solution or combination of solutions chosen. Hopefully that will include some form of recycling of water for industrial/parks and gardens use.

Toowoomba only has to look towards Dalby to see a model for recycled water about to be implemented.

nebuchadnezzar said...

I am aware that the council didn't want to it to the vote. The vote was a condition of funding from the Federal Government.

I would agree with you that the main benefit of the 'no' campaign was to least put all the other possibilities out on the table.

I would also agree with you that it is likely that some individuals would have personally benefitted from any public works programs associated with the recycling plant had it got the go-ahead. That is a fact of public life. But I can see why Thorley, as a figurehead for a major greenfields project would be invited to water conferences nationally. This issue is bigger than Toowoomba and it is right and proper she should be a voice in these conferences....though whether Toowoomba rate payers should pick up the tab is a moot point.

How has Dalby resolved its water issues?

water boy said...

The contentious point was that Thorley was going off to these water conferences while refusing to speak to her own community. She point blank refused to attend community meetings in Toowoomba but was on the next plane to yet another conference. It was bizarre conduct and completely the wrong way to engage the community and get them to accept her proposal.

Dalby has State and Federal funding for a coal seam gas water project to supply the town's water with recycled water to be used on the town's parks and gardens. It will become a model for recycled water use in Australia.

See - Dalby -a model for recycled water.

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