Water Politics Taps Out

TEC has objected to the economic rationalisation of Sydney Water at a time of global water stress on big cities and extreme drought across NSW. Long term sustainability must be the key goal of our water management utility, says Jeff Angel.

Calls are mounting for the Berejiklian government to bring forward water restrictions as storage levels plunge amid signs the $1.8 billion Sydney Desalination Plant won't reach full output for almost a year.

"Water is so critically important to our city's sustainability, but Sydney Water is under attack for trying to look after the environment and conserve our water resources," said TEC's director Jeff Angel today. 

"IPART - the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal - which is reviewing Sydney Water's Operating Licence, is taking this opportunity to whittle vital protections away."

TEC has a long history of campaigning for the environmental and public accountability of our main waste and wastewater utility.  We've had some success in the past, but now TEC has made a submission to IPART concerning the change of emphasis in water management protocols.

As Sydney closes in on its driest autumn and winter since 2006 during the depth of the Millennium Drought, the city's storages are at 65 per cent, down a quarter in 12 months.

Water shortages affect an estimated 2.7 billion people for at least one month of every year, across every continent – and are particularly pressing in cities as the global urban population grows. Despite covering about 70% of the Earth's surface, water, especially drinking water, is not as plentiful as one might think. Only 3% of it is fresh.

According to UN-endorsed projections, global demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40% in 2030, thanks to a combination of climate change, human action and population growth.  The world’s most water-stressed cities experience these contributing factors – natural aridity and low rainfall, poor management, increasing population and exploitation of the aquifer.

Sydney, as it enters a major drought, is by no means immune. Yet water policy seems to have slipped from our civic discourse. Memories of the millennial drought have faded as our reservoirs have filled with years of above-average rainfall. But this period of water wealth should not delude us. We will enter a period of sustained water shortage at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Which is why we should start talking about how we deal with water now, in the relative calm before the inevitable crisis.

As the whole of NSW is currently officially drought stricken, with a total fire ban enforced before winter has even finished, how long will it be before Sydney's water supply becomes as precarious as it was in 2010 when dam levels approached 30 per cent and major water restrictions were introduced as the city's parks and median strips turned brown? 

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, July was Sydney's driest since 1995, with just 11.2 millimetres of rain collected at Observatory Hill, about one-ninth of the norm. Places such as Abbotsbury and Wedderburn recorded no rain at all, while Canterbury Racecourse had its lowest July total on record.  The extended dry spell for much of Sydney - and the rest of the state - has triggered a rise in water consumption.

It's the wrong time to be talking about downgrading Sydney Water's commitment to water conservation and environmental management. 

The danger and unpleasantness of heat was not taken into consideration during Sydney's previous attempts to control and regulate water. Natural rivulets and streams were covered over; historic water courses diverted. Our native habitats, all of which rely on access to surface water, are now endangered. Once babbling brooks and streams are now stagnant and weed infested. The city is crisscrossed with open drainage canals and swales.

It is precisely against this backdrop of long term negligence, says Jeff Angel, "that IPART has opposed Sydney Water's water conservation and recycled water targets. It wants their environmental management system removed. Ultimately it is manoeuvering to reduce asset management transparency, which TEC believes is not in the best interest of the community."

Chris Minns, the Labor water spokesman, says Utilities Minister Don  Harwin "has chronically underestimated the threat and risks of drought." Justin Field, the Greens water spokesman, said "It makes sense to bring in stage 1 water restrictions earlier to reduce the likelihood of more extreme restrictions down the track".

He said the existence of the desal plant "seems to have created a false sense of security that has meant government and Sydney Water have taken their eye off the ball when it comes to water efficiency".

"The result is even more cost on the consumer in the long term and potentially crippling water restrictions in the future."

What Can You Do?

Support TEC's work - a lot of we do is behind the scenes, but it's just as vital for our shared future as media stunts and public demonstrations: making submissions; advocating for sustainability across government departments; preparing detailed reports; driving legislative change and demanding enlightened policy! 

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