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Friday 25 July 2003

Belinda Keir, journalist


Saving Water  


The recent drought left me frustrated with government announcements trotted out in the media. These always tell us how wonderful governments are and how they’re taking the initiative. All we need to do is contact the such-and-such information line. It sounds great until you put it to the test. 


This year we were told to save water and that government and people are working together blah blah blah blah blah. Rainwater tanks are encouraged and in NSW there’s a well-publicised rebate (dare I suggest this was something to do with an election?). However, becoming a responsible water user isn’t as easy as it sounds as I found out when investigating getting a tank. The best sort for us is a “slimline” tank that fits between a building and the fence, but the biggest available was 1200 litres. You don’t get a rebate for anything less than 2000 litres so I contacted Sydney Water, naively thinking their help line would be, well, helpful. Would I get a rebate if I had two smaller tanks in tandem? They weren’t sure. Could they suggest any supplier who made big slimline tanks? No, they couldn’t help me- try the Yellow Pages. A 2000 litre tank would get me the princely rebate of $150. To get the touted $500 I had to put in a 5000 litre whopper. Plus we needed new gutters. And a gadget to collect leaves. And a first flow diverter. And there was a huge waiting list for installation. And it had to start raining. 


It was all pretty complicated so surprise surprise, I never did get around to ordering a tank. 


Of course the two biggest urban water-wasters are the stupidity of flushing toilets with drinking water and making no use at all of grey water. All those 15-litre flushes, and the outflow from washing machines and showers is a valuable resource going down the drain. Toilet systems using grey water are available, but try to get your council to let you install one. I wish you luck. 


At our place we’d been doing our bit by siphoning washing machine water onto lawns. With the drought it was time to get serious, so we bought a $300 pump and a $20 plastic crate. The washing machine discharges into the crate. The pump sits in the crate and kicks in when it fills. A hose pokes out the window and runs a sprinkler. Any part of the property can get watered, not just the stuff downhill from the laundry. A sign on the front lawn says “this sprinkler uses washing machine water”, which is important if you don’t want to become a social leper or be dobbed in to the council. Setting up the system took half an hour, including the sign, and was much cheaper than a tank and plumbing. Nine loads of washing is roughly equivalent to a 2000 litre tank and the grass is looking pretty good.  


You can find useful information about this sort of thing on the internet and magazines. An interesting point I picked up is that the more complicated a system is, the less likely it is to be used long term. The simplest solutions like siphoning the washing water onto the garden are the most effective in the long run.  



In contrast, don’t expect government to be any great help if you want to cut your water-wasting. Their published information on grey water suggests it’s a very nasty substance and a huge risk to man and beast. Their website says “Yes, it’s a good idea, but only have an underground system, or some sort of treatment, and don’t put it on native plants or veggies, and only use a certain sort of detergent (but we won’t tell you which brands)”. As with my research on tanks, government was the least helpful when it came to actually doing something. 


That’s been our experience of government advice on water, and it’s repeated if you want to use bikes as transport, or save the bell frog, or any number of public initiatives. Lots of money goes into the “we are helping you” pamphlets, and little on actually being helpful. Thank goodness for Bicycle NSW, the Consumers Association and the Frog and Tadpole Society. Maybe we should be voting for them next time.  


Guests on this program:


Belinda Keir  

Belinda Keir is a Sydney-based freelance writer