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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 116

Senator MURRAY (7:52 PM) —I want to address the Senate tonight on the question of water and I particularly want to do so from the perspective of the debate and campaign in Western Australia concerning water. There are essentially just a few ways in which water can be supplied to Western Australia. One is obviously rainfall and our dams. It is very well documented that we are now in the third decade of a drying time for Western Australia and the ability to replenish our water supplies through natural run-off is diminishing. At the end of the wet season in the South-West, the Perth dams averaged about the mid-thirties—in other words, about 35 or 36 per cent of their capacity. So it is clear that for a growing part of WA—that is, Perth and the South-West—other water supplies have to be considered.

For many years, Perth has relied on its aquifers. Up to 40 per of Perth’s water has been taken up from aquifers but that is a diminishing resource and it cannot continue to be drawn from in the way in which it is at present. I should remind the Senate that only 13 per cent of WA’s water is actually consumed by individuals; all the rest is consumed by commercial uses, agriculture and resources. The other means of increasing water supply is through greater efficiency in the use of water. Some cities and towns throughout Australia are harvesting water from aquifers at a greater rate than they are being recharged. In other locations, the quantity and quality of raw water in catchments is under pressure from agriculture and logging. Despite the pressure on water supplies, the price of Australian water, at about a dollar per kilolitre, is very low and does not take into account all of the associated costs for infrastructure and the environment.

Our leader, Democrat Senator Lyn Allison, initiated and chaired a major Senate inquiry into the management of water in Australian cities, the adequacy of policies to reduce urban water use, the performance of urban stormwater systems and the potential to improve water quality and environmental outcomes. The final report, The value of water, called for the Commonwealth to play a more prominent role in driving the changes needed for sustainable urban management. The inquiry found that while urban areas were responsible for only 25 to 30 per cent of total water consumption, they have a considerable impact on a much wider environmental scale. Cities divert water from rivers and lakes and create large volumes of waste water and polluted stormwater, which in turn impact on waterways and coastal environments. Better water management in Australia is still hampered by outdated attitudes to stormwater and effluent use, century-old infrastructure, a lack of research and nationally consistent standards, and a reluctance to raise revenue from water pricing to fix environmental problems caused by water use.

Reasonable and equitable access to good water supplies should now be on the national agenda. The challenge is to find new sources of water for a growing population and to provide environmental flows for waterways and wetlands. Options will include urban systems that recycle grey water and treat stormwater as a resource rather than a waste product. Effluent can be a viable substitute for potable water used in irrigation if the price signals are right. Stringent water consumption targets, education and tighter appliance standards will all help conserve water.

The first thing that has to be done to address any problem with water, as we have in Western Australia, is of course attention to recycling—the use of grey water and so on. Right now, as we stand, it is still not a requirement for new houses to have drainage tanks made available to deal with the huge amount of rainfall that comes off roofs. It is still not a requirement that new suburbs and houses have second piping systems to allow the distribution of grey water into gardens and so on. The efforts to conserve water have still mostly focused on trying to make toilet systems more water efficient and limiting the days on which people water, so there is much that can be done in that area.

Even so, the Labor Party has quite rightly recognised that the pressure on Perth, in particular, and the South-West of Western Australia, is such that they cannot continue to rely on hopes for greater water efficiency and rainfall. Accordingly, the state Labor government have moved to have a significant desalination plant built down at Kwinana. However, this can only ever be a back-up system for Perth’s needs, if we have a particularly dry season or there is some shortage of water resulting from a breakdown in the system or an aquifer deficiency. So the Democrats some time ago started to say that we do have to look at alternative water supplies. I have been quite startled by the hysteria attached to the view that we should pipe water down from the north. It is quite clear to me that, given the wide range of costs for doing such a thing, you have to take care that it is affordable. The costs range from a Tenix proposal of around $2 billion to bring water down, via a closed canal, over 3,000 kilometres, to $4 billion for a pipeline as opposed to a closed canal, to a Water Corporation pipeline estimate of $11 billion.

If the costs of water through a pipeline or canal from the north were to be made affordable through a proper analysis which included environmental, native rights and practical engineering issues, then surely we should be a little more open-minded about the canal than so many people have been to date. Surely we need to examine the feasibility and the possibility of alternative water supplies in a drying state. In that respect, the Democrats very much welcome the decision of the Premier of WA, Labor’s Geoff Gallop, to conduct a feasibility study costing $5 million. We would also welcome the commitment of the Leader of the Opposition, Colin Barnett, to build such a facility, if only he had added to it the words, ‘providing that it is affordable’. The difficulty with what Colin Barnett has said to date is that he has committed to build it almost regardless of the cost. That is plainly not sensible. If he had said, ‘We will build it, providing it comes within the Tenix cost estimate,’ I think that would have been a reasonable position.

The financial excesses of the eighties and early nineties resulted in state and federal governments concentrating on much better financial management, high credit ratings and a good reputation in financial markets, which has been achieved in part by generating an excess of income over expenditure and drastically reducing public debt. However, state governments have become averse to debt and to capital works and infrastructure spending. I think the most important thing that should arise out of this water debate is the recognition that states have to get back into big-spending projects to deliver the resources and the needs of a state such as ours. So I hope that that feasibility study works to the benefit of Western Australia and that an alternative option for water is developed as a result.