Where to for Victoria's water future?

A brief piece on water supply and party politics.  This image shows the North-South pipeline as it cuts down the Paul's Range, taken from Tarrawarra, in the Yarra Valley. Image: Steve Meacher

No one could accuse the state government of ignoring the water crisis facing our state. They have ploughed much time and money into 'drought proofing' our city. However, it seems like every week there is more grim news when it comes to the practicalities of implementing its current water policy.

The most recent developments have focused on continual cost blow outs in the proposed desalination plant, and the revelation that there may not actually be much water to put through the north-south pipeline to fed Melbourne's supply.

It is worth considering how successive Victorian governments have tried to respond to rising demands for water in a drying environment. In the early 1990s, the government authority Melbourne Water, in its pre corporatised form, framed and considered a series of far thinking and ecologically sound responses to water shortage. This included measures like decentralised waste treatment plants that then released clean water into streams. There was a strong emphasis on demand management – reducing our personal and collective use of water resources rather than looking for ‘new’ sources to feed our water needs. With the Kennett era agenda of privatisation, there were profound changes at Melbourne Water and it lost much of its visionary edge. To its credit, the government lead by Steve Bracks retained an emphasis on reducing demand, and opposition to desalination and new dams. The water minister, John Thwaites both cared about and was engaged with the issue. His introduction of dual-pipe systems into some new housing estates between Cranbourne and Officer where drinking water is replaced with recycled water to be used for toilets, laundries and gardens, is one example of what good water policy looks like. More recently, the current water minister, Tim Holding, has continued similar developments. The current government has earmarked major funds to upgrade the southern waste treatment plant. There are still strong elements of forward thinking policy in place.

But as the drought wore on for almost a decade, and our lawns faded and restrictions became part of life in Melbourne, the Liberals sniffed political opportunity. In the 2006 election they ran hard on the idea of a new dam, at Arundel, in Melbourne’s north west.  This would have been ecological madness, not least because of the major evaporation issues associated with shallow dams. While that debate was lost in the public realm, something shifted within the state government. It seemed that sound policy – based on reducing per capita and collective demand, and finding new ways to better use the water we have – such as rain water tanks and collection of storm water – were largely thrown out in favour of ‘nation building’ style projects. New mega projects - the North South pipeline and the desalination plant near Wonthaggi – became emblematic of the new approach, applying an expensive and centralised technological fix to our water problems. How much blame the Liberals must carry for this shift in policy because of their scare-mongering will become clear in coming years. Thankfully the ALP continues to rule out a new dam on the Mitchell River in Gippsland.  There is growing public sentiment against both the hugely expensive (and multinational controlled) desalination plant and the north-south pipeline, and the current media focus on water must provide an opportunity for the Brumby government to re-consider it's options. The proponent for the desalination plant has not yet been announced, and the pipeline not yet finished. Mr Brumby still has time to bring water policy back into the realm of logical, low cost, job rich and decentralised solutions.

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