A DRY ARGUMENT
Grand vision of getting water from the north goes missing in action
LIKE VFL bias and secessionist sentiment, the idea of bringing water from the north is something deeply embedded in the Sandgroper psyche. That experts, utilities and politicians cast major doubt on the grand vision’s viability does nothing to diminish its attractiveness in the public mind.
In fact, that dismissal probably contributes to the illicit attraction: after all, if it wasn’t for the shallow myopia of media and political elites of their day, perhaps dispirited C.Y. O’Connor would not have ended his own life just before his dream of delivering fresh water to the Goldfields was realised.
The debate bubbled to the surface again this week after news the Water Corporation has begun exploratory work on a third desalination plant for Perth, possibly at Alkimos.
A new desal plant could cost $1 billion, but there’s no money for construction over the current four-year budget cycle.
While the Water Corp engineers do what they do to make all necessary preparations, Water Minister Dave Kelly was quick to stress that as far as he is concerned, the Government will try to push the expenditure off as far into the future as possible.
“I don’t want to have to spend the money,” he told 6PR listeners. “It’s much cheaper to save water than to manufacture new water using desal. The message to people is the more we save, the more we can defer that capital investment.”
Dam levels have recovered over a wet winter to about 60 per cent of capacity, up from just 28 per cent in 2015. But dams are far less important to the integrated water supply scheme than they used to be — where 90 per cent of scheme water once came from dams, it’s now about 10 per cent, with the balance roughly split between groundwater extractions and desalination.
The Government seems worried that even the expectation of a new water source will lessen the pressure in the public mind to save resources, and Kelly made the point that if the Water Corp was private it would probably build as many desal plants as it could economically operate.
The recent changes to tariff structures that punish large residential water users underline Labor’s approach.
Every time water is discussed on radio, callers want to talk about bringing it south — as indeed do newspaper letter writers — so I asked Kelly if it was something Labor would ever consider.
“I get letters every week from people saying ‘bring water from the north’. It is the most expensive thing we could do, try to build a pipeline from the north,” Kelly said.
“Why would you pipe water from the north when you can desalinate it off the coast at a much cheaper price?”
He was immediately condemned by listeners for a lack of vision.
During an election campaign in 2005, Colin Barnett conceded an election-winning position after, in signature style, he came unstuck on the detail of promised to pursue defence contractor Tenix’s ambitious Kimberley canal project.
After the election, the Gallop government tried to drown the issue with a panel report headed by Professor Reg Appleyard that remains the best basis for Kelly’s claim.
Examining the canal, a pipeline, sea tankers and towing bags filled with water, the panel found the options to be most to least expensive in that order, but all prohibitive.
The capital cost of the canal, said by Tenix to be $2 billion, was put at $14.5 billion, with water delivered to Perth households at quadruple the cost of existing options (and a pipeline was not much cheaper).
In the 7th century BC, the Assyrians built an 80km limestone aqueduct to carry water to the ancient capital of Nineveh, and the Romans built them from Africa to Germany, with 400km constructed in the seat of the empire alone.
California’s Colorado River water allocation is carried 400km to Los Angeles.
Xi Jinping has completed the first stage of the world’s biggest such project, part of Mao’s call for the north of China to “borrow a little” water from the south. Beijing now gets water from a source 1400km away, the first stage of a staggering, 50-year south-to-north diversion project that may never be realised.
Any Kimberley to Perth route would exceed 2000km.
More realistic is the prospect of using water resources in place.
A proper scientific look at the Fitzroy Valley’s prospects for irrigated agriculture has recently been completed by the CSIRO, and its straightforward and readable report on its website is recommended for interested readers.
Delivering water is not just about the infrastructure, it’s about environment, society and culture. Our system of decision-making is not so clear cut as President Xi’s.
But this CSIRO observation stood out: “There is a systematic tendency of proponents of large infrastructure projects to substantially underestimate development costs and risks and/or overestimate benefits. This can be in part due to financial return imperatives driving an overly optimistic assessment of the time frame for positive returns, unanticipated difficulties and project delays, and the difficulty of accurately planning and budgeting over many years.”
That grand vision is so deeply held that many would write a blank cheque to bring the water south. But a mirage is a sort of vision, too.