A DRY AR­GU­MENT

Grand vi­sion of get­ting wa­ter from the north goes miss­ing in ac­tion

The Sunday Times - - News -

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.

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