May 27th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Nuclear energy - Australia's pivotal role

THE ECONOMY: The Budget - populist and unsustainable

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Labor leadership rumblings

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Snowy Hydro's privatisation is theft

INTELLIGENCE BRIEF: Will new personnel save CIA and ASIO?

PRIMARY PRODUCE: Pernicious policies killing Australia's dairy farmers

WESTERN AUSTRALIA : Inquiry rejects Kimberley fresh water plan

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Indonesia and the islands / Victoria's new Liberal leader / More on that second oldest profession

POLITICS: Plight of families under uncontrolled capitalism

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: China forms strategic alliance with Russia

OBITUARY: Jean-François Revel (1924-2006)

Another view of Family First (letter)

DLP not eclipsed by Family First (letter)

Time for a Pacific Youth Corps? (letter)

Blame government for house prices (letter)

BOOKS: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success, by Rodney Stark

BOOKS: Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland, by Carmen Callil

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Inquiry rejects Kimberley fresh water plan

by Joseph Poprzeczny

News Weekly, May 27, 2006
Western Australia has had a long history of seeking access to abundant fresh water supplies for its growing population, writes Perth-based writer Joseph Poprzeczny.

Western Australian visionaries looked southwards and northwards for abundant fresh water, once doubts began being cast in the 1950s about the CSIRO's cloud-seeding trials to artificially induce rainfall over Perth's hills catchments.

Some wanted icebergs towed from Antarctica. But technical difficulties likely to be encountered were quickly deemed insurmountable.

Others looked northwards to the monsoonal Kimberley region adjacent to equatorial Timor. But like the iceberg proposals, the Kimberley tended to be brushed aside, seen as too far from WA's populated south-west.

Then, in 1986, something unexpected happened. Kimberley country and western singer, Halls Creek station owner, and Labor MP, Ernie Bridge, threw his weight and publicity skills behind the idea of southerners tapping Kimberley water.


Mr Bridge was unique - Aboriginal, a Kimberley MP, singer of outback ballads about WA's parched landscape, and, between 1986 and 1993, Water Resources Minister.

But following his first blaze of publicity, the idea was dubbed Ernie's Pipe Dream despite his advocacy of a network of irrigation-based communities across WA's arid centre.

Notwithstanding this, tapping Kimberley water refused to drown in the mounting criticism. So much so that in December 2004 - just two months before WA's February 2005 election - the Geoff Gallop Labor Government launched an inquiry, headed by retired University of WA economic historian Professor Reg Appleyard, to look into the long-promoted idea.

Only one month later, in January 2005, opposition leader Colin Barnett - without telling his Nationals coalition partners or Liberal colleagues - announced during his televised campaign election address that he'd build a 3,700km-long plastic-lined California-style canal linking the Fitzroy River, near Broome, and Perth.

His price tag for this pharaoh-like undertaking - $2 billion.

Although many saw his no-ifs-or-buts promise to outlay such a huge sum - without prior technical, hydrological or economic feasibilities - as political suicide, others pointed to the fact that he came within 2,000 votes of toppling the Gallop Government.

Clearly, the widespread yearning for abundant fresh water remains as strong in WA as across the Middle East.

For this reason, this month's tabling in the WA parliament of the Appleyard Report - "Options for Bringing Water to Perth from the Kimberley" - was another bitter blow to all dreaming of acquiring water from a distant source.

The report firstly said the $2 billion Barnett pre-election guesstimate - calculated apparently by the Tenix Group - was off target. The final cost is likely to $14.5 billion (something Tenix disputes). WA's current budget stands at $13.7 billion.

The inquiry canvassed four options to move water southwards: pipeline, open canal, super-tanker, or tug boats towing 700-metre-long rocket-shaped plastic water-bags.

None, the Appleyard Report said, matched tapping currently utilised southern sources, namely, Perth's nearby hills catchment dams and its vast below-ground reserves.

That in a nutshell is the current state of affairs after 50 years of dreaming by WA visionaries.

As well as the two oceanic and two land-based ways of transferring Kimberley water southwards, the inquiry focused upon shifting three quantities - 50, 100 and 200 gigalitres (GL) - of water southwards annually and costed each.

"The lowest cost option to supply water from Kimberley-to-Perth by matching growth in water demand is through transporting water in super tankers," the Appleyard Report said.

"This was $6.70 per kilolitre (KL), more than five times the cost of desalination.

"Incorporating a Kimberley water supply into the Water Corporation's Integrated Water Supply Scheme may be expected to at least double the average annual household water bill, from $304 to $610 per annum."

Metropolitan residents currently pay $0.85/KL for a cocktail of catchment plus underground water. Later this year, before Christmas, desalinated water is set to flow at a cost of $1.16/KL.

The Appleyard Report found transporting water by a Barnett-style canal was the "most expensive and risk-prone option". A major barrier to an open canal is that Australia's north-west is cyclone-prone, meaning flooding for weeks on end of huge tracts of rangeland, thereby threatening to make a canal inoperable during Perth's summer months, and maybe forever.

Other problems include contamination by insects, birds and algae growth; huge evaporation loss; and the combating of feral animals that would try to break through its two canal-length security fences, particularly during droughts. Piping water over long distances is extremely costly because water requires enormous quantities of energy to move it.

The Appleyard Report carries many warnings on the lack of empirical knowledge about the Kimberley's water reserves. For instance, research on the Fitzroy River basin - which Mr Barnett sought to tap - with its largely unknown water reserves has hardly begun.

What little is known is generally derived from oil and water drillers and miners, not government-funded investigations and long-standing monitoring.

Furthermore, the Appleyard Report said: "Given the cost of the water from either a pipeline or canal, it could not be economically justified to use this water for any irrigation development along the proposed routes."

Despite all this, a plausible explanation for the 2005 Barnett election canal promise and the Gallop Government's earlier undertaking to launch a $5 million inquiry is that WA has a proud and successful history of moving water from high to lower rainfall regions.

As early as the mid-1890s, the John Forrest colonial government embarked on the mind-boggling but successful plan to pump Perth catchment water to Kalgoorlie.

One of WA's greatest heroes is legendary engineer, C.Y. O'Connor, the builder of the 560km-long Perth-to-Kalgoorlie pipeline, who has featured in school history courses for decades.

Without that bold Forrest-O'Connor move, Kalgoorlie's famous Golden Mile might not have been fully exploited, to Australia's and the state's long-term detriment.

Sweet waters

Since World War II, the Agricultural Water Supply Scheme has seen almost all the WA wheat- and sheep-producing region progressively supplied with sweet water from Perth's hills catchments.

Both successes have left an indelible imprint on the minds of Western Australians.

Despite this, former Premier Geoff Gallop - unlike WA's northern and southern-oriented visionaries - looked westwards, to the Indian Ocean, to overcome the water shortage threats.

Two years ago, he gave the go-ahead for construction of the nearly completed $387 million desalination plant near Fremantle, with another plant planned.

In November, Perth and environs will thus begin consuming desalinated water cocktailed with its other sweet water stocks, and the plant will supply 17 per cent of current requirements.

Perth will thus become Australia's first capital city to consume sea-water.

But it is unique in another way. Perth is the only capital to draw heavily on below-ground water lying in deep aquifers along the narrow Perth coastal plain extending from Geraldton in the north to Augusta in the south-west. Below-ground water currently makes up about 60 per cent of daily consumption.

In addition, the WA Government is looking to drawing 45GL annually from the massive Yarragadee aquifer below the state's premier wine-producing region, adjacent to Augusta.

But tapping Yarragadee may become politically perilous. Growing numbers of south-west voters are opposed to it. Like several Kimberley Aboriginal communities, they regard Yarragadee water below them as belonging to their region, not to Perth's consumers.

This Nimby - "not-in-my-backyard" - attitude is gathering support both north and south of big water-consuming Perth.

Moreover, such views are being reinforced by environmental arguments. For instance, Liberal MP, Robyn McSweeney, said: "As the member for the South-West, I am very concerned about the Water Corporation's South-West Yarragadee Water Supply Development Environmental Review and Management Program and the environmental issues this raises.

"It is my belief that taking 45GL from the South-West is not in the region's public interest, as environmental issues and future regional needs have not been met."

University of WA zoologist Professor Don Bradshaw, freshwater ecologist Professor Peter Davies, and Edith Cowan University freshwater ecologists Pierre Horwitz and Ray Froend, see Yarragadee as a short-term fix.

Professor Bradshaw says the honey possum among many species will be threatened by extracting Yarragadee water, because it feeds entirely on banksias, which have shallow roots and die if the water table is lowered.

Notwithstanding such arguments, desalination and Yarragadee are set to come on stream, for, as the Appleyard Report says: "Since the early 1970s, rainfall has been 14 per cent less than the long-term average, and for the seven years between 1997 and 2004, rainfall dropped by 21 per cent below the long-term average.

"Of greater concern, because surface moisture needs to reach a sufficient level before runoff can occur, has been the decline in surface runoff into Perth dams. Surface runoff into the hills catchments fell by 52 per cent from 1975, and in the four years from 2001, runoff reduced by 88 per cent."

However, bad as such news is, it was unable to push aside the harsh reality of the cost of realising the visionaries' and Ernie Bridge's dream, which is why the Government has opted to leave northern water untapped.


Fully appreciating the influence of WA's northern water dreamers, Labor Premier Alan Carpenter, when tabling the Appleyard report, deliberately called the Kimberley option irresponsible, expensive and risky, something Tenix disputes.

He said WA would continue pursuing several water supply options: dams, underground sources, desalinated water and Yarragadee and reliance on recycled water, especially by industry.

Demand stands to be met until 2017-18, according to the Water Corporation, and by 2050 it predicts another 137GL/yr of water will be needed.

On this crucial point, the Appleyard Report says: "A number of options are under consideration to meet this demand, which include: further desalination, catchment management, exploitation of additional ground and surface water resources, water-trading, and re-use of storm or waste water."

  • Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance journalist and historical researcher.

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