Water supplies at risk

Some days you wonder if decision makers in government and industry need a livable climate or clean water the way ordinary people do. If they drink, eat and wash, why do they persist in putting water supplies at risk?

Rivers SOS LogoCoal and coal seam gas (CSG) mining threaten both the global climate and our local water supply, but they’re not the only threats.

CANWin’s focus is on climate, but we’re people who do drink, eat and wash, and we know that good water is critical to a good life. So we’re publishing this edited media release from Rivers SOS. It tells an interesting and troubling story.

Media Release, Rivers SOS, 16 September 2012

How our Water Supplies are being Sold Down the Drain

We concur with protests made by various groups about the Strategic Regional Land Use Policy and the Aquifer Interference Policy released last Tuesday by the O’Farrell government.

Some examples:
The NSW Irrigators’ Council is “profoundly disappointed.”

The Total Environment Centre says that “environmental protection has been reduced to lip service.”

And the CEO of CSG developer Metgasco says that this “sends a clear message that the NSW government is 100% behind the industry.” Indeed.

Despite pre-election promises, no part of NSW is protected from the extractive industries – not prime agricultural land, not tourist sites, not vineyards or horse studs, not river systems, drinking water catchments, aquifers, lakes or wetlands. The promised “ring-fencing” of valuable areas didn’t happen.

Rivers SOS is concerned with the protection of NSW’s water resources, and we object to the fact that the Aquifer Interference Policy does not lay down legally binding regulations. Huge volumes of groundwater to be sucked from aquifers during CSG extraction will just be “licensed and accounted for” not disallowed.

Prof. Craig SimmonsProfessor Craig Simmons, Australia’s representative on UNESCO’s groundwater governance programme, observes that “humanity is extracting groundwater much faster than it is naturally replaced”. The rate of extraction has doubled since 1960. “Most countries and local regions are now extracting water unsustainably” (The Land, 9.1.12). Under this new regime it is set to escalate in NSW.

The NSW Office of Water will “assess” the potential impact of proposals that will impact aquifers. “Expert advice” can be obtained from a Commonwealth Independent Scientific Committee. “Independent” Planning Assessment Commission panels of “experts” will consider placing conditions on a “Gateway certificate” for sensitive applications.

Or not.

Rivers SOS’s focus on Sydney’s drinking water catchments

Southern Coalfield representatives of Rivers SOS have a longstanding record of action over the damaging incursions of coal mining and now CSG exploration in Sydney’s drinking water catchments. For several years we have protested and sent submissions, and applied (unsuccessfully) to the Land and Environment Court, over the cumulative damage being allowed in the catchments.

Cracked river bed, Waratah Rivulet
First, the cracking and pollution of the Upper Cataract River, carrying around 7% of Sydney’s water supply. Then damage to the Upper Canal, carrying 20% of Sydney’s water. Then severe damage to the Waratah Rivulet, supplying 30% of water supply to the Woronora Dam for large areas of southern Sydney. Creeks and swamps feeding the Waratah Rivulet are also damaged. Mining has been allowed under Cataract Dam and is approved to go under the Woronora Dam. The Dendrobium mine has destroyed swamps feeding the Cordeaux River catchment area to the south and is now set to do the same to the adjoining Avon River catchment, all within the so-called “Special Areas” of our drinking water catchment.

Rivers SOS sent in a detailed submission about these developments in response to the release of the draft Aquifer Interference Policy, but unlike some other groups we were not asked for further comments. Nor were we, or any other groups specifically concerned with water resources, included on the Stakeholder Reference Group set up to consult with government representatives on the SRLUP and AIP policies. The outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Water resources throughout the state are under threat, but the problem becomes even more acute in drinking water catchments.

Apex Energy’s exploration lease covers Sydney’s catchment and it hopes to drill 150 – 200 wells in future. Apex-Ormil have started drilling in the Warragamba catchment. Warragamba Dam supplies 80% of Sydney’s water.

Each well yields several thousand to tens of thousands of litres of groundwater per day. Will there be any water left to feed the river systems and the storage dams?

Even the supposedly highly protected Special Areas are not safe. 11 CSG borewells have been approved on Special Area lands – bushland that is fenced, gated and padlocked, where you and I can be fined $22,000 for setting foot inside. The Special Areas are meant to be protected from all forms of contamination in order for water to be filtered successfully as it flows towards the storage dams.

Lake Burragorang, Sydney's main water supply
The Sydney Catchment Authority (SCA) was created to manage and protect the Special Areas, but seems powerless to stop the ongoing damage.

In its 2011 document entitled Principles for Managing Mining and Coal Seam Gas Impacts the SCA acknowledged that the Special Areas “play a vital role to protect water quality” and that “Mining activities including exploration have had an impact on the ecological integrity of the Special Areas.”

The ABC acquired documents revealing that the SCA was seriously concerned at CSG approvals, and was considering denying Apex Energy access to the Special Areas (ABC News, 15.9.2011). Shortly after mentioning this at a meeting in Helensburgh, the SCA’s Michael Bullen “left” the SCA and we heard no more about denial of access. Furthermore, in April 2012 the NSW government abolished seats on the SCA board for local government, farmers and environmental representatives. The SCA seems to be toeing the government line again.

The SCA consults with the industry, it has its hand up for possible future compensation, and “if impacts cannot be avoided, offsets may be necessary to ensure the overall ecological integrity of the Special Areas is not compromised.” This doesn’t add up. An “impact” might contaminate the water supply or deplete the aquifers feeding the rivers; no offsets can save or compensate for such situations. As Dr Stuart Khan, water expert from the University of NSW, said of the contamination of interconnected aquifers: “If you damage an aquifer you damage it for good”. What offset could possibly “ensure the overall integrity of the Special Areas?” But this is the Orwellian language the SCA is reduced to in its futile attempt to align its responsibilities with government wishes.

We believe that the protection of all the Special Areas, supplying 100% of Sydney’s water, is essential.

At a public rally before the last election, Barry O’Farrell, the then Opposition Leader, stated that the next Liberal and National Government would “… ensure mining cannot occur in any water catchment area and that any mining leases and exploration permits will reflect that common sense. No ifs, no buts, a guarantee.”

On December 1, 2011 the Premier told 2GB’s Alan Jones: “I don’t intend to allow — particularly after the drought we went through over a decade — mining or any other activity to threaten water resources.” He also stated that “… exploration licences have been granted, in some cases permission to mine has been granted, in areas, frankly, that should never ever have been on the list.”

Now it seems no such ban is envisaged. The degradation of the Special Areas is set to worsen.

How can this be?

The Future: None Dare Call it Conspiracy

Dr Peter Turner, from the Save Our Water Catchment Areas campaign, wrote in a recent submission that the door is now open to “a complete CSG industrialisation of the catchments.” This plus increasing drought due to global warming puts Sydney’s water supply in peril. And the population is expanding. What can the government be thinking?

They might be thinking of the Sydney Desalination Plant (SDP), which can supply 20% of present demand and can be expanded to supply more if the catchment supply dwindles and/or becomes polluted.

Kristina Keneally tours Sydney Desalination Plant

The SDP cost taxpayers around $2 billion. This year the O’Farrell government sold it to a consortium of mostly overseas interests for an overall profit of $300,000,000. The Herald’s business columnist Michael West commented that the sale “locked consumers into buying water they don’t need for the next few decades” (SMH, 12.5.12).

On 1 July 2012, shortly after the sale, the SDP was shut down in response to the period of heavy rain which filled the storage dams. It will not be re-opened until dams are less than 70% full. This could take a few years.

However, the owners and operators profit even when the plant is shut. They are paid “availability charges” of $591,000,000, for electricity, rates, depreciation, etc., by Sydney Water (the publicly owned supply corporation), plus fixed costs of $1,000,000 per month to be paid to Veolia, the French-based water multinational which operates and maintains the plant for Sydney Water (SMH, 11.3.12).

NSW Finance Minister Greg Pearce said that the shutdown “will save Sydney Water customers $50 million a year … [but] we’re still paying $16 million a month” (ABC News, 26.6.12).

As Greens’ spokesperson John Kaye remarked: “Households will be forced to fund the profits of a multinational corporation that supplies no water.”

Profits will really soar when we drought comes again and the SDP operates at full capacity. The water can be produced for around 62 cents kL and sold to customers for over $2 kL.

Collapse of catchment supply fits nicely into this scenario – the less water coming from the storage dams, the more will be needed from the SDP. Households could pay around $700 p.a. more for their water, according to Professor Grafton, environmental economist from ANU (ABC News, 18.7.08). The profits through running down the catchment supply look enticing.

Private water around the world

Marde BarlowLest we seem unduly cynical, we are taking our cue from Maude Barlow, Canadian water expert and author, and now a water advisor to the UN. Rivers SOS hosted a meeting with Maude Barlow in 2008, when she was in Sydney for the launch of her latest book entitled Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water ( Black Inc., 2007).

She wrote and spoke of the appalling record of water privatisation: “… twenty years of documented cases … have revealed a legacy of corruption, sky-high water rates, cutoffs of water to millions, reduced water quality, nepotism, pollution, worker layoffs and broken promises ……In fact, to stay competitive, water companies are relying on deteriorating water quality around the world …It is to the distinct advantage of the private water industry that the world’s freshwater supplies are being polluted and destroyed.”

Veolia, now operating our SDP, was one of the main culprits mentioned by Barlow – a transnational water service company making huge profits, with revenues up from $US5 billion a decade ago to $US34 billion by 2007. Veolia and the other large water company, Suez, control nearly 50% of the rapidly growing global private water services sector. She writes that Veolia, Suez and other large water companies are setting the stage “for the creation of a global corporate-owned water cartel” where, in the worst cases, only the rich will be able to afford water.

The water industry has become a powerful lobby. But Barlow lists cases where citizens fiercely resisted them, for good reason. To cite just one case, involving Veolia: “New Orleans, Louisiana, dropped its $US1.5 billion contract with Suez and Veolia in 2004 after five years and almost $6 million in unexpected expenses. The companies were balking at new laws giving the voters the right to approve or deny such contracts.”

Barlow told us that she was sorry that Australia voted against a UN resolution to make clean water a universal human right. We may live to regret this.

In NSW the water future looks grim for ordinary households.
Caroline Graham
Southern Coalfield Representative, Rivers SOS

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