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Desal contract will impoverish Victorians, and we don't even need the water

Published: The Age - 26-Jul-2011
Author: Kenneth Davidson

The Baillieu government should do everyone a favour and cancel the deal.


Premier Ted Baillieu describes the Wonthaggi water desalination plant as a white elephant. It would be more accurate to say it is half an elephant, and a dangerous one to boot.

The contract with the international consortium AquaSure specifies a capacity to deliver 150 gigalitres of potable water a year from next January, with capacity to produce up to 200 gigalitres a year further down the track. The January 2012 date has now been delayed until at least June 2012 because flooding slowed down construction.

The public-private partnership contract for the plant agreed to by the previous Labor government was so notoriously generous that the unions on site easily obtained a fabulous pay agreement. Who could blame them for getting in for their chop too?
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Former premier John Brumby said it didn't matter - the government had a fixed-price contract with AquaSure. What Baillieu knows now, and what Brumby should have known, is that this has set the benchmark for site agreements for infrastructure throughout Victoria. The cost blowout will flow on to every major construction project in the state. Victoria is saddled with an onerous $24 billion contract that will impoverish every Victorian, either directly or indirectly, for 30 years. And it's for water that the state doesn't need.

Baillieu, nonetheless, refused to consider cancelling the contract, because, he said, it was a question of honour. Because of this contract, by next January the price of Melbourne water will have increased by about 260 per cent over three years, and it is foreshadowed to double again by 2016.

But Baillieu also said he would hold AquaSure to the contract. The normal recourse for any government seeking to break a contract is to have it examined legally. As this is a public-private partnership with design, construction, commissioning and operation risks shifted from the government to AquaSure, the government would have a strong case to cancel the contract if AquaSure cannot meet its contractual obligations.

Several senior civil engineers have now examined the project specifications and scope and they believe the plant will not be able to supply 150 gigalitres, let alone 200 gigalitres, to the grid. Their reasoning is quite simple. The pipe capacity being built to the Cardinia Reservoir is only large enough to deliver 80 gigalitres, based on the internal diameter of the pipe (1.7 metres as specified), or 98 gigalitres (1.9 metres as built), at a sustainable pumping rate (1.1 metres per second). The recently built, but unused and useless, north-south pipeline to the Sugarloaf Reservoir has a diameter of 1.7 metres and a rated capacity of 75 gigalitres a year.

The mind boggles. The apparent design mistake may have been due to confusion over the velocity of flow downhill with a given pipe diameter, and the pipe diameter needed to pump the same volume of water uphill.

The risk lies with Aquasure. The responsibility is spelt out on page 124 of Schedule B of the contract - ''Hydraulic Grade Line Chart and Data'' - which states that the ''Project Co [AquaSure] must make its own assessment and evaluation of the hydraulic grade line''.

But even if Aquasure has the capacity to deliver 200 gigalitres of water to Cardinia, the water won't be potable without additional modifications to the plant. The ocean has 4.5 milligrams per litre of the toxic trace element boron. The World Health Organisation and Victorian regulations specify that potable water must have less than 0.5mg/l of boron. In rivers, the boron count is about 0.02mg/l.

In Perth and Sydney, their reverse osmosis desal plant water is mixed in a shandy with dam water from rivers to reduce the boron count to less than 0.5mg/l.

So if desal water from Wonthaggi is to meet WHO safety standards it must be mixed with nine parts of river water, unless the water is especially processed in the reverse osmosis plant to remove boron. The processing can be done imperfectly, but the water requires two more passes through the desal plant, plus post-processing ionisation, which would add a third to the cost and intensify waste-water toxicity. The Cardinia Reservoir has a capacity of 286 gigalitres. At most it could shandy about 50 gigalitres of Wonthaggi water, 25 per cent of the contract specification. The Warragamba Dam used for mixing the Sydney water shandy has 1400 gigalitres, compared with a 90-gigalitre desal water capacity. The only comparable place for mixing in Victoria is the Thomson Dam, which is 457 metres above sea level.

Pumping uphill would be so expensive it would be cheaper to buy bottled water from France. Any failure to deal with boron at the plant design stage would be reckless. The Baillieu government may be doing AquaSure and Victorians a favour by cancelling this odious contract.


Kenneth Davidson is a senior Age columnist.

 

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