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Experts divided over water shortage solutions -

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Experts divided over water shortage solutions

Reporter: Sarah Clarke

KERRY O'BRIEN: The images of drought in the bush and the toll it is extracting are stark and
graphic. It's not so visible in the big cities, but severe water shortages are starting to hit
home, with worse to come. Sydney's main catchment has now slipped to its lowest level in years and,
in coming weeks, residents may face further restrictions. Following Perth's lead, Sydney is now
looking to the ocean as its salvation. Perth is already committed to building a desalination plant,
removing the salt from seawater. Sydney is to conduct a feasibility study. But experts are divided,
with some arguing there are more sustainable solutions to our national current water crisis. Sarah
Clarke reports.

RON PAGE, BROKEN HILL MAYOR: Water is like gold out here. We can't survive without it.

SARAH CLARKE: The impact of Australia's big dry is not confined to the bush. With almost half the
country in the grip of drought, city dwellers could soon face tough water restrictions as dam
levels dwindle.

DR CHARLES ESSERY, UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN SYDNEY: We're within two years of being at an all-time
low, where water would literally only be available for drinking. It is a crisis.

SARAH CLARKE: With most of the population living on the coastal fringe, the concept of turning
seawater into fresh water has obvious attractions. Perth has already commissioned a $350 million
desalination plant to eventually supply 15 per cent of its water. And the country's biggest city
will soon follow suit.

FRANK SARTOR, NSW UTILITIES MINISTER: In this current drought, the only last resort that guarantees
water for Sydney would be desalination, for the simple reason that they've got infinite supplies of

SARAH CLARKE: It may be more than a thousand kilometres from the ocean, but the city of Broken Hill
spent $4 million to establish its own desalination plant almost two years ago. At the time, the
city's principal water supply, the Menindee Lakes, was a mere pond and those dregs were salty and
almost undrinkable.

RON PAGE: What was left behind was pelican poo. The water supplier here had to change pelican poo
into water. We had a very bad quality, third world water quality, which killed our plants, killed
our fruit trees and destroyed our hot water systems, our air coolers. It done a huge amount of
damage to our city.

BRIAN STEFFEN, COUNTRY ENERGY: One of the other options, for instance, was to train water in from
Adelaide at a cost of $3 million a month.

SARAH CLARKE: While it may have removed the salt and improved the water's taste, authorities stress
the desalination plant is not a panacea for the city's water needs.

BRIAN STEFFEN: It's a unique situation because it doesn't increase the water supply. It takes the
existing water that we get from the Darling River and treats the water. It's a focus on the quality
of the water rather than the quantity.

SARAH CLARKE: The process used is called reverse osmosis. Salt molecules are squeezed out through a
series of ultrafine membranes. So the water comes along through these pipes?

STEPHEN BASTIAN, COUNTRY ENERGY: Yes, this is the membranes. The water comes through and the clear
water comes out that end, and also the brine as well, and here we have the final product.

SARAH CLARKE: To the taste test?


SARAH CLARKE: Tastes like water.


SARAH CLARKE: Six million litres of water can be turned around here every day - a quarter of the
city's daily needs. While it's cheaper than bringing water in by rail, it takes a million watts of
electricity to produce a million litres of fresh water, and every megawatt of electricity produces
one tonne of greenhouse gas.

STEPHEN BASTIAN: They are high-energy users. I can't put a dollar figure on it, but it is quite a
lot more than conventional water treatment.

DR CHARLES ESSERY: Traditionally, the cost of water, if it's a dollar, the cost of water, there's
normally a dollar cost in energy.

SARAH CLARKE: Not everyone sees desalination as the best response to a looming water crisis.
Charles Essery was a senior executive at Sydney Water and also advised the New South Wales
Government on water issues. But after what he describes as a difference of opinion over the state's
water strategy, he now works as an independent consultant.

DR CHARLES ESSERY: There are lots of other options that haven't been considered yet that are far
more sustainable and far more acceptable in terms of both energy and the environmental impacts
associated with them.

SARAH CLARKE: In fact, he believes Sydney's solution is far more obvious. Every year, the city
sends twice as much fresh water out to sea as stormwater run-off than actually flows into its dams.
Capturing that run-off, he says, would be a far better choice.

DR CHARLES ESSERY: We've got plenty of water. There is no shortage of water along the east coast.
There's certainly no shortage of water in Sydney but we just don't recycle it. Water is recyclable.
It is the only natural resource we use that can be used time and time again. But we're not doing
anything with that in Sydney.

FRANK SARTOR: The truth is that if you did reuse water from the edge of Sydney's coastline and
pumped it all the way back to Warragamba, it would actually cost more and use almost as much

SARAH CLARKE: Even Broken Hill acknowledges that desalination is not the sole solution. Ninety per
cent of the city's waste water is recycled for irrigation. But the New South Wales Government
maintains that such measures will not fully address Sydney's water needs.

FRANK SARTOR: The problem with recycling across the entire residential system, the existing
residential suburbs, is that you'd need a second set of pipes. You'd need a second set of pipes and
that's hugely expensive and would take 10 years to build.

SARAH CLARKE: State Utilities Minister Frank Sartor has committed $4 million to a preliminary study
for a desalination plant.

FRANK SARTOR: This is a metropolis with over 4 million people. We will not take risks. We will do
what we have to do to secure the water supply.

SARAH CLARKE: With no end to the drought in sight, the debate on the best way to provide one of the
most basic resources can only intensify.

DR CHARLES ESSERY: To really get access to security, we must recycle. That's the most sensible
thing for Sydney, and it's the most sensible thing for many cities in the rest of the world.

FRANK SARTOR: But if you come to a last resort and you ask the people of Sydney, "Do you want to
have this source of water or risk not having water?" I know what the people of Sydney would say.