When water is scarce, we can’t afford to neglect the alternatives to desalination


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Western Sydney University

This is the second of two articles looking at the increasing reliance of Australian cities on desalination plants to supply drinking water, with less emphasis on the alternatives of water recycling and demand management. So what is the best way forward to achieve urban water security?


An important lesson from the Millennium Drought in Australia was the power of individuals to curb their own water use. This was achieved through public education campaigns and water restrictions. It was a popular topic in the media and in daily conversations before the focus turned to desalination for water security.

Water authorities were also expanding the use of treated wastewater – often a polite term for sewage – for “non-potable” uses. These included flushing toilets, watering gardens, and washing cars and laundry.

Today, the emphasis on recycling wastewater in some locations is declining. The arguments for increased water recycling appear to be falling away now that desalinated water is available.




Read more:
Cities turn to desalination for water security, but at what cost?


This trend ignores the fact that the potential supply of recycled water increases as populations grow.

Today most Australian wastewater is treated then disposed into local streams, rivers, estuaries and the ocean. In Sydney, for example, the city’s big three outfalls dump nearly 1 billion litres (1,000 megalitres, ML) a day into the ocean.

Where has recycling succeeded?

Australia has several highly successful water recycling projects.

Sydney introduced the Rouse Hill recycled water scheme in 2001. Highly treated wastewater is piped into 32,000 suburban properties in distinct purple pipes. Each property also has the normal “potable” drinking water supply.

Rouse Hill is considered a world-leading urban recycling scheme. South Australia (Mawsons Lakes) and Victoria (Yarra Valley Water, South East Water) have similar projects.

Our farmers often struggle to secure water for irrigation. Chronic water shortages across the Murray-Darling river system vividly demonstrate this.




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Recycled water can play an important role in agricultural schemes. There are successful examples in South Australia (Virginia Irrigation Scheme), Victoria (Werribee) and New South Wales (Picton).




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Perth has gone further by embracing water recycling for urban use with plans to treat it to a drinking water standard. Part of the extensive treatment process involves reverse osmosis, which is also used in desalination. The treated water is then pumped into groundwater aquifersand stored.

This “groundwater replenishment” adds to the groundwater that contributes about half of the city’s water supply. The Water Corporation of Perth has a long-term aim to recycle 30% of its wastewater.

Southeast Queensland, too, has developed an extensive recycled water system. The Western Corridor Recycled Water Scheme also uses reverse osmosis and can supplement drinking water supplies during droughts.




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Demand management works too

Past campaigns to get people to reduce water use achieved significant results.

In Sydney, water use fell steeply under water restrictions (2003-2009). Since the restrictions have ended, consumption has increased under the softer “water wise rules”. Regional centres including (Tamworth) outside of Sydney are under significant water restrictions currently with limited relief in sight.

Despite a 25% increase in Sydney’s population, total demand for drinking water remains lower than before mandatory restrictions were introduced in late 2003.
© Sydney Water, used with permission

The Victorian government appears to be the Australian leader in encouraging urban water conservation. Across Melbourne water use per person averaged 161 litres a day over 2016-18. Victoria’s “Target 155” program, first launched in late 2008 and revived in 2016, aims for average use of 155 litres a day.

In a comparison of mainland capitals Melbourne used the least water per residential property, 25% less than the average. Southeast Queensland residents had the second-lowest use, followed by Adelaide. Sydney, Perth and Darwin had the highest use.

Although Melbourne water prices are among the highest of the major cities, lower annual water use meant the city’s households had the lowest water bills in 2016-17, analysis by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology found.


Calculated from Bureau of Meteorology data, Author provided

What impact do water prices have?

Clearly, water pricing can be an effective tool to get people to reduce demand. This could partly explain why water use is lower in some cities.

Water bills have several components. Domestic customers pay a service fee to be connected. They then pay for the volume of water they use, plus wastewater charges on top of that. Depending on where you live, you might be charged a flat rate, or a rate that increases as you use more water.

The chart below shows the pricing range in our major cities.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/xIJQR/3/


Flat charges for water per kilolitre (where a kL equals 1,000 litres) apply in Sydney ($2.08/kL)), Darwin ($1.95/kL) and Hobart ($1.06/kL.

However, most water authorities charge low water users a cheaper rate, and increased prices apply for higher consumption. The most expensive water in Australia is for Canberra residents – $4.88 for each kL customers use over 50kL per quarter. The cheapest water is Hobart ($1.06/kL).

Higher fees for higher residential consumption are charged in Canberra, Perth, Southeast Queensland, across South Australia and in Melbourne. In effect, most major water providers penalise high-water-using customers. This creates an incentive to use less.

For example, Yarra Valley Water customers in Melbourne using less than 440 litres a day pay $2.64/kL. From 441-880L/day they are charged $3.11/kL. For more than 881L/day they pay $4.62/kL – 75% more than the lowest rate.

Is recycled water getting priced out of business?

Recycling water may not be viable for Sydney Water. It can cost over $5 per 1kL to produce, but the state pricing regulator, IPART, sets the cost of recycled water to Sydney customers at just under $2 per kL. That’s probably well below the cost of production.

Recycled water, where available, is a little bit more expensive ($2.12/kL) in South Australia.

Subsidies are probably essential for future large recycling schemes. This was the case for a 2017 plan to expand the Virginia Irrigation Scheme. South Australia sought 30% of the capital funding from the Commonwealth.

Where to from here?

Much of southern Australia is facing increasing water stress and capital city water supplies are falling. Expensive desalination plants are gearing up to supply more water. Will they insulate urban residents from the disruption many others are feeling in drought-affected inland and regional locations? Should we be increasing the capacity of our desalination plants?

We recommend that urban Australia should make further use of recycled water. This will also reduce the environmental impact of disposing wastewater in our rivers, estuaries and ocean. All new developments should have recycled water made available, saving our precious potable water for human consumption.

Water conservation should be given the highest priority. Pricing of water that encourages recycling and water conservation should be a national priority.




Read more:
This is what Australia’s growing cities need to do to avoid running dry


You can read the first article, on cities’ increasing reliance on desalination, here.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Research Lecturer in Geochemistry, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cities turn to desalination for water security, but at what cost?



File 20190207 174873 kcdlxk.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The largest desalination plant in Australia, Victoria’s A$3.5 billion ‘water factory’ can supply nearly a third of Melbourne’s needs.
Nils Versemann/Shutterstock

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Western Sydney University

This is the first of two articles looking at the increasing reliance of Australian cities on desalination to supply drinking water, with less emphasis on alternatives such as recycling and demand management. So what is the best way forward to achieve urban water security?


Removing salts and other impurities from water is really difficult. For thousands of years people, including Aristotle, tried to make fresh water from sea water. In the 21st century, advances in desalination technology mean water authorities in Australia and worldwide can supply bountiful fresh water at the flick of a switch.

Achieving water security using desalination is now a priority for the majority of Australia’s capital cities, all but one of which are on the coast. Using the abundance of sea water as a source, this approach seeks to “climate proof” our cities’ water supplies.




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It’s hard to believe now that as recently as 2004 all Australian capital city water authorities relied on surface water storage dams or groundwater for drinking water supplies. Since Perth’s first desalination plant was completed in 2006, Australian capital cities have embraced massive seawater desalination “water factories” as a way to increase water security.

Perth and Adelaide have relied most on desalination to date. Canberra, Hobart and Darwin are the only capitals without desalination.

The drought that changed everything

From the late 1990s to 2009 southeastern Australia suffered through the Millennium Drought. This was a time of widespread water stress. It changed the Australian water industry for ever.

All major water authorities saw their water storages plummet. Melbourne storages fell to as low as 25% in 2009. The Gosford-Wyong water storage, supplying a fast-growing area of more than 300,000 people on the New South Wales Central Coast, dropped to 10% capacity in 2007.

These were familiar issues in locations such as Perth, where the big dry is epic. For more than four decades, the city’s residents have been watching their supply of surface water dwindle. Remarkably, only about 10% of Perth’s water now comes from this source.

Perth’s two desalination plants have a combined output of up to 145 billion litres (gigalitres, GL) a year. That’s nearly half the city’s water needs. Both have remained in operation since they were built.




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Modern industrial-scale desalination uses reverse osmosis to remove salt and other impurities from sea water. Water is forced under high pressure through a series of membranes through which salt and other impurities cannot pass.

Design, construction and maintenance costs of these industrial plants are high. They also use massive amounts of electricity, which increases greenhouse gas emissions unless renewable energy sources are used.

Another concern is the return of the excess salt to the environment. Australian studies have shown minimal impact.




Read more:
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Just as many of the massive new desalination factories were completed, and proudly opened by smiling politicians, it started raining. The desalination plants were switched off as storages filled. However, water consumers still had to pay for the dormant plants to be maintained – hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the case of the Melbourne and Sydney plants.

Bringing plants out of mothballs

Now drought has returned to southeast Australia. Once again, many capital city water storages are in steep decline. So what is the response of water authorities in the desal age? Not surprisingly, more desalination is their answer.

One by one the desalination plants are being switched back on. Sydney has just begun the process of restarting its plant, which was commissioned in 2010. Adelaide has plans to greatly increase the modest output from its plant this year. The Gold Coast plant, which can also supply Brisbane, is operating at a low level in “hot standby” mode.

After a dry winter, Melbourne Water is expected to advise the Victorian government to make the largest orders for desalinated water since its plant, able to produce 150GL a year, was completed in December 2012. Mothballed for more than four years, it supplied its first water to reservoirs in March 2017. The previously forecast need for 100GL in 2019-20 (annual orders are decided in April) is almost one-quarter of Melbourne’s annual demand. Plant capacity is capable of being expanded to 200GL a year.

When bushfires recently threatened Victoria’s largest water storage, the Thomson dam, the government said desalinated water could be used to replace the 150GL a year taken from the dam.

Sydney’s plan for future droughts is to double the output of its desalination plant from 250 million litres (megalitres, ML) a day to 500ML a day. This would take its contribution from 15% to 30% of Sydney’s water demand.

Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast already have the capacity to supply larger proportions of their populations with desalinised water as required.

What about inland and regional settlements across Australia? Large-scale desalination plants may not viable for Canberra and other inland centres. These regions would require sufficient groundwater resources and extraction may not be environmentally sound.

How much, then, do we pay for the water we use?

The plants supplying our biggest cities cost billions to construct and maintain, even when they sit idle for years.

The Australian Water Association estimates the cost of supplying desalinated water varies widely, from $1 to $4 per kL.

In fact, water costs in general vary enormously, depending on location and how much is used. The pricing structures are about as complex as mobile phone plans or health insurance policies.

The highest price is in Canberra where residents pay $4.88/kL for each kL they use over 50kL per quarter. The cheapest rate is Hobart’s $1.06/kL.

The issue of water pricing leads on to the question of what happened to the alternative strategies – recycling and demand management – that cities pursued before desalination became the favoured approach? And how do these compare to the expensive, energy-hungry process of desalination? We will consider these questions in our second article.


This article has been updated to clarify the status of advice on Melbourne’s use of desalinated water.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Research Lecturer in Geochemistry, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.