Next working bee - Saturday 9 September.  

Meet at the Wonthaggi Lifesaving Club at 9am.  All welcome.

Weather Forecast

Guling Orchid Season [Aug]

Cold weather is coming to an end. Guling (orchids) are flowering.

Ae-noke (caterpillars) of Common Brown butterfly feed on grasses at night.

Muyan (Silver Wattles) are flowering.

Bulen-bulen (Superb Lyrebird) males perform the last of their courtship displays.

The star Arcturus is seen on the northwestern horizon soon after sunset.

Gurrborra (Koalas) begin mating. Males bellow at night.

Seven Seasons of the Kulin People

Artist - Karina H McInnes
Source - Museum Victoria

Who's Online

We have 81 guests and no members online

Is desalination the solution?

Published: The Age, 17-May-08
Author: Jo Chandler

There are more than 13,000 desal plants around the world, and one is planned for Victoria. But among the experts, the technology is far from universally embraced as the pragmatist's panacea.

"To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain." Revelation 21:6

Not any more. The fountain is failing rich and poor in a thirsty world. If you doubt, look to damp, drizzly London, drying out thanks to increasing population and temperatures, where one of the first priorities of new Mayor Boris Johnson was to clear the way for Britain's first water desalination plant, on the banks of the Thames.

"We cannot risk London running out of water at times of drought," Johnson declared this week as he tore up a legal challenge to the £200 million ($A416 million) plant launched by his predecessor. Former mayor Ken Livingstone had taken on the plant over its huge carbon footprint (estimated at 250,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year), and wanted Thames Water to first fix its network of leaking pipes.

This week, those concerns drowned in the wash of Johnson's deal, welcomed as water insurance in an uncertain climate, along with the barely audible objections of environmentalists that the plant wasted money and energy, and would only encourage Londoners to squander water down the plughole.

A similar rationale and equivalent, albeit louder, arguments swirl around the Victorian Government's plans to spend $3.1 billion building a huge desalination plant on a Bass Coast beach 125 kilometres south-east of Melbourne — a facility that will, in the words of former premier Steve Bracks, "create pure water 24 hours a day, come rain or shine" — 150 billion litres of it a year.

Also in the picture here are concerns for a stretch of pretty Gippsland coast, and vigorous debate about the merits of desalination over other strategies, such as capturing stormwater or recycling waste. Over the horizon, for those taking the broader view, there is intensifying global discussion about water availability and sustainability in an age of scarcity; about the equity of the often expensive technologies that will determine them; and about the profits flowing to emerging water-making cartels.

Australians are among the one-third of the world's population that the United Nations Environment Program says are living with moderate to high water stress. With population growth, industrial development and the expansion of irrigated agriculture in the next two decades, rising water demand will only make quenching humanity's water needs more difficult.

Global water usage has increased sixfold in a century, and will double again by 2050, according to an analysis led by the International Water Management Institute, the work of 700 scientists. This against a backdrop of diminishing rainfall and vanishing mountain glaciers. For rich nations, it depicts scarcity challenging lifestyles and the economies that underpin them; for poor ones, it further erodes the prospects of escape from impoverishment and disease.

The problem is not, the report concludes, the lack of water, but the choices about how it is used. "People and their governments will face some tough decisions on how to allocate and manage water."  But increasingly for nations around the world — and for states around the dry continent of Australia — the answer to the water challenge lies not so much in rethinking water use but in the alchemy of making more through desalination. Taking water from the limitless sea, pushing it through a membrane to filter out the salt, producing fresh, drinkable water. The negatives? The immense energy requirement — 10 times that of traditional treatments of surface water — and concerns over the impact on marine environments.

The question of whether desalination stacks up as a solution to water shortage was recently considered by the US National Research Council, which advises Congress on science. It found that while desalination could help meet future water needs, its cost and uncertainties about its environmental impacts were a significant barrier to its wider use, and required more research.

Concerns cited in the report include threats to fish and other aquatic animals from water intakes, high energy use in the salt-removal process, and disposal of the salty sludge left over. It also urged more work on the human effects of boron, commonly showing up in higher than recommended levels in desalinated water. Highlighting the connectedness of greenhouse emissions, climate change and reduced water supply, it urged that plants be fuelled with renewable energy to mitigate against the solution feeding the problem.

Despite these caveats, it concluded against any slowdown in desalination efforts until the research work is done. And states and nations around the world continue to enthusiastically embrace the technology.  There are more than 13,000 desalination plants around the world, according to the International Desalination Association, and blueprints — Victoria's among them — for many more. Global Water Intelligence, a British industry publication, estimates the desalination market will grow by 12% a year to 2015 and then accelerate.

Desalination is long established, core technology in the Middle East. Within four years it will provide 80% of Israel's drinking water. Singapore has one plant, and had plans for six, though a shift in emphasis to recycled waste water may mean they don't all eventuate. It's still a rarity in the US, where environmental concerns have stymied it. India is thirsty for solutions, but the expense and energy involved has so far constrained experiments. Though now, like China — cranking up its desalination investment — India looks ahead to desalination as a key to sating growing population, probably drawing in nuclear power.

In Australia, Perth has a plant operating, offset by wind power, and another on the drawing board. There's one been built on the Gold Coast, one is under way in Sydney (also offset by buying wind power), and another is in the offing in Adelaide, as well as Victoria's planned Wonthaggi plant.  They are the hardware compelled by dramatic changes in our rain gauges and our reservoirs since 1975, says Professor John Langford, a veteran in water management reform and director of the University of Melbourne Water Research Centre.

In that year, in Perth, inflows of water dropped by about half. In 1997, they moved down again, to about a third of the previous level, and the effects were felt across southern Australia. It's a pattern consistent with modelling of global warming, which sees the weather systems that once delivered rain to southern Australia moving south over the sea. "It would appear climate change is coming on us much more rapidly than we might have anticipated," says Langford.

"We're in a situation that I have likened to having one foot on a dock. That foot says this is the Federation drought again, and it is going to rain eventually. The other foot is on the boat, and it says this is climate change, and it won't. We've had 11 years now — and depending what happens with the rest of May, we've got the 12th dry autumn in a row.  "This is seriously unusual. We need serious insurance." The old apparatus of collecting the water from wet years to sustain through dry ones had failed. "We can't sit here and wait for it to rain, it's just not a viable strategy. We need to do something."

In an uncertain future, water must continue to be saved through efficiencies, and mined through sources independent of rainfall. "That leads you to an inevitable choice: one is desalination, the other is potable (suitable for drinking, cooking and bathing) recycled water"— highly treated water from effluent pumped back into the system.

"Desalination is a proven technology, we know it works, it will produce water rain, hail or shine — it is a good insurance policy, and I support it," says Langford. But he does so with conditions. First, it must be powered, directly or through purchase of equivalent energy, by renewable sources. The Victorian Government has said it will buy renewable energy credits to offset the plant's power requirement — about 3.5 kilowatt hours for each 1000 litres of drinking water, plus almost half as much again to pump it to Melbourne.

Second, he believes that like Singapore and Queensland, Victoria should pursue recycled water as part of a range of solutions — it should not be, as the Victorian Government has declared, off the table. At first glance, the Singaporean experience — where recycled supply is now producing more, purer and cheaper water than desalination — would seem to validate the arguments of the recycling camp that it is the superior technology. But Langford argues most of it goes to industry, with less than 5% so far going back into the potable system.

Third, he looks back at how the dam building of the '60s and '70s encouraged squandering of water. "We need to keep our foot firmly on the demand management brake when desalination comes in, and not promise to drought-proof the place, because we can't."

Langford's summation is largely echoed in interviews with other water experts — Professor Stephen Gray (director of the Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at Victoria University); Professor Chris Davis of the University of Technology Sydney; Ross Young of the Water Services Association; and the CSIRO's Professor Tony Priestley.

"We are staring down the barrel of running out of water," says Priestley. Rainwater tanks, groundwater, stormwater, desalination, recycling, new dams, more efficiencies all need to be on the table — "each city has to look at all options, not put a red line through any of them, including recycling".  On the energy stumbling block for desalination, he puts it in a different paradigm. Currently the cost of getting water in and out of a home accounts for about 1% of household energy. The energy used to heat domestic hot water is five times that. "If we were to supply the whole of Melbourne with desalinated seawater, that percentage might jump from one to 5% of household energy. So in the big picture, it is not huge, and could probably be offset by having more efficient hot water and shorter showers."

Davis highlights that desalination is on the table because of breakthroughs in technology that continue to improve its viability and environmental footprint.

But within the think-tanks of water expertise, desalination is far from universally embraced as the pragmatist's panacea. What's shared is support for a whole armoury of responses, but the emphasis on the mix changes dramatically. In one camp, desalination is the first-choice, large-scale answer that buys time, letting other options come in behind as they mature. In the other, small-scale desalination is the emergency generator, a back-up for stormwater harvest, efficiencies and maybe recycling.

The University of Melbourne's Associate Professor Chris Walsh, is a vocal proponent of stormwater harvesting — building infrastructure that can capture the rain that falls on the roofs and roadways of our cities, and that currently pours into waterways in damaging volumes. "Collectively, Melbourne's houses and roads make several times more water than the proposed desalination plant at Wonthaggi, and this will be true even in the dry years that are likely to lie ahead for us," he argues.

"The volume of 'new' water being made by the roofs and roads of Melbourne is huge. In an average year, 150 gigalitres of 'new' water is produced in the Yarra catchment alone — only a third of Melbourne's metropolitan area. In a dry year, with only 450 millimetres of rain being received in central Melbourne, the Yarra's roofs and roads will still produce 120 gigalitres of 'new' water." Across the broader metropolitan area, the total volume is several times greater than the 150 gigalitres to be produced by the desalination plant. And the sums comparing the costs of re-engineering the city to capture this water — versus the $3.1 billion price tag on the Wonthaggi plant — have not been done, he argues.

"A typical Bunnings warehouse roof in eastern Melbourne produces over 7 million litres in an average year. Our urban water managers have not yet begun to look seriously at options for tapping into the massive volumes of water produced by Melbourne's thousands of commercial roofs — water which is currently damaging our rivers but could be a great resource. The imperative to harvest stormwater to protect our creeks and rivers provides a secure water source for Melbourne, turns the economics of water supply on its head."

Dr Tim Fletcher, director of the Institute for Sustainable Water Resources at Monash University — also an advocate of stormwater capture as a "win-win" solution — says that given reduced rainfall and increasing population, the Government is entirely right to be looking for new water.  "But desalination is the most energy intensive way you can imagine to produce water. You can see why governments are attracted to it — it has a certainty, and communities like certainty, it is a normal human trait. And in a sense there is a simplicity to it — one big system, in one place." But there is an imperative now to look beyond such centralised delivery of water and energy.

"You might make an argument for building a very small desalination plant that can operate like a back-up generator in a hospital — to get us out of trouble in an emergency," says Fletcher. "But to build one as a primary new supply is not showing the leadership on climate change that we need to show, and in a sense it is taking the path of least resistance."

Jo Chandler is an Age senior writer

 

 

Powered by Joomla! v2.5
 

Want to help?

If you want to help restore our local bushland, or if you have any questions, you can contact us by email by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

To amuse you ...

artsexylightbox

Whale Watch

There are many whales seen in our area but few sightings are formally recorded - so there is no evidence of these. So, if you see a whale, please:

- Take a photo and/or note the fin and tail shape, plus any markings

- Note the time/day/location

Then e-mail this info to our local Whale Watcher by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

    Our Hoodies

    Hooded PloversWe have two valuable Hooded Plover breeding sites at Undertow Bay and 2nd Surf Beach.  Hoodies are endangered species with breeding success currently very low.  To protect them you must:

      - Read and follow signage

      - Only observe them from a distance of 80-100m

      - Keep your dog on a lead and well away from the birds.

          To find out more about our Hoodies, click here