Do we still need to conserve water?

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It seems the water conservation message is starting to recede as the Government and water authorities come to grips with the breaking of the drought and the oceanic task of paying for new infrastructure like the desalination plant and north-south pipeline. Some small evidence of this trend is evident from the latest invoice my household got from our water retailer, Yarra Valley Water.

Our consumption for the three months to 25 May was 626 litres per day. The invoice has the familiar graphic showing how to convert household consumption to per capita consumption, but there’s no longer any target to compare your performance against. We consumed 157 litres per day per person but there’s nothing to help make sense of that number. Unless you can recall the now-abandoned daily target of 150 litres per person, you won’t know if you’re consuming too much water or too little.

The other thing is water consumption charges still account for only a small proportion of the bill – in fact our 626 litres make up slightly less than a third of the total amount. The rest of it is made up of standing costs for “drainage”, “sewage” and “service” charges, which customers have no real control over*. So even if we worked harder at reducing our consumption, the financial pay-off would be pretty small. The pricing of water continues to offer little incentive for conservation, a point I made nine months ago.

Discouraging water use is now a financial liability for the Government and water authorities. They’re in deep water primarily because the former Government had a political problem – it needed to show it wasn’t out of its depth but had a plan to deal with the drought. But rather than navigate the politically troubled waters of low-cost measures like stronger conservation incentives (for example, by raising water prices) it did what governments usually do – spend big licks of money and rely on the costs being diffused over time across large numbers of customers.

This pattern of spending rather than managing is pretty much standard practice for governments. We currently have the possibility of immense sums being spent to address the congestion and capacity problems of Hoddle Street, when the vastly more efficient solution would be to price access to roads. We have the more likely prospect of even bigger sums being spent to construct a rail line to Doncaster when effective public transport can be provided by bus at much lower cost.

There are risks in taking the sanguine view that we’re no longer in hot water** just because we’ve got a high-cost desalination plant. At the end of autumn, Melbourne’s water storages were only 55.4% full (as of today, the figure is 55.2%). The Thompson Dam, which accounts for two thirds of all system capacity, is currently only 40% full. The uncertainty associated with climate change means water security is not assured. Relying on the desalination plant should nevertheless be regarded as a last resort because it is a very emissions-intensive way of producing water. The argument that it will be powered exclusively by clean wind energy rather than coal is a con. There’re only a limited number of sites where wind turbines can feasibly be located, so it’s not as if extra capacity can be added for the desalination plant that wouldn’t otherwise have been provided for other uses.

Conserving water should be institutionalised into the way we think about this resource – how we use it and how water authorities manage it. Making water charges a much larger component of water bills should be a key way of ensuring customers think carefully about their water use.

* The sewage charge is actually calculated as a function of the amount of water consumed so it is in effect a usage charge. However, it is presented to the consumer as a fixed charge rather than as a variable charge. Simply combining it with the headline consumption charge would make a large difference to the conservation effect of water pricing — for example, it would increase the pay-for-use component of my current invoice from 32% to 58%. That’s still not enough, but it would be a big improvement.

** Apologies for the appalling puns — I couldn’t resist.

10 Comments on “Do we still need to conserve water?”

  1. RED says:

    Providing the basic services to maintain life is one of the key functions of governments. You could argue that a government that cannot guarantee a secure water supply to its people, regardless of environmental conditions or population size, is a failure. Leaving aside all the process issues of the desalination plant (PPP, power etc), it truly is the only way to guarantee a secure water supply to Melbourne for the long term.

    Can you imagine the outcry if anyone tried to build a new dam around Melbourne to achieve the same effect?

    Arguing about where the water comes from and how much each person should be allowed to use (really? you think we should ration water?) ignores the fact that, as long as the population continues to grow, water use will continue to grow. The only sure fire way to reduce water supply is to prevent further population growth. I can’t see that happening, can you?

    Water and wastewater management has to be undertaken based on the real world, not the ideal world.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Two points:

      First, properly pricing water so that it’s used more efficiently will put off for many years the time before major, environmentally damaging infrastructure like dams or desalination plants, is required. The only “rationing” involved is via the price mechanism, which is the way we already “ration” electricity and gas (actually what prompted mention of “rationing” anyway??).

      Second, in the longer term (which is an option we will have if we use water efficiently now) the best option for addressing population growth is to create a “closed system” by recycling the water we consume, either at the local level or by returning cleaned ‘A’ class water from waste treatment plants to dams. The only water that would be difficult to recycle is water used on gardens. There are already a number of places overseas where people drink recycled waste water. We don’t need new dams and we don’t need desalination plants.

  2. Urban says:

    Investment decisions,water pricing and consumer price signals (as well as the issue of water as an ‘essential service’ (somehow different to other essentials such as electricity, (less so) gas, (increasingly) the internet, housing/shelter, etc all covered.
    Final report due August 2011.

  3. kymbos says:

    Alan, your point about recycling is true only if the full cost of recycling is less than the full cost of alternative water creation – ie, desal. If water recycling options are more expensive than desal, why should we pursue them? Who should pay the extra cost for this decision?

    Further, with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that tthe desal plant size chosen was an overreaction – something that Sydney and Brisbane are both experiencing now that rainfall has returned. However, if the drought had not broken when it did, all three cities would have been in dire straits and we would be having a very different discussion now.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Kymbos, I assume you’re referring to my comment about a closed system. Yes, would need to look at the numbers for all approaches. The closed system, if done on a system-wide basis rather than at the property level, would require power to pump the recycled water up to the dams, so there’d be an emissions penalty. Depends whether this would be as costly as the power/emissions required both to desalinate water and to pump it to Melbourne. Also, water coming out of the Western and Eastern Treatment Plants is already at near-drinkable quality so the additional cost for cleaning might be much less than a desalination plant. Some broadbrush costs done by the Bracks Govt that I saw about eight years ago suggested that putting recycled water back into the water supply system would cost less than desalination (but of course was politically harder). Then you have to factor in all the rainfall that could be left in the environment rather than taken from it if we had a closed system. Still, the dollars would need to be assessed, as you say. My key object though was to make the point in response to RED that there is another option besides more dams or desalination.

      Re your second para, all three cities could have gone considerably longer with effective conservation policies. And as I say, desal wasn’t the only option.

  4. Hear, hear. Desal was never the only option and it was never the cheap option. It was as you point out the easiest option to ‘sell’ to the public.

    There needs to be some pretty fundamental shifts in policy if we’re going to see reduced demand though. For example, Melbourne Water currently has a policy that except where mandated to reach certain targets, all recycled water projects should pay for themselves. To me this is absurd, surely if by using recycled water demand of for potable water is reduced then cross-subsidising recycled water projects with profits from potable water should be common practice.

    I also believe some government rebates on small scale private water recycling systems could reach a better triple-bottom-line outcome than desal, i.e. if a new apartment block was being built then a rebate to install a water recycling system for toilet flushing, irrigation, etc would be effective. Unfortunately I haven’t got any figures to back up this theory.

  5. wilful says:

    Victoria managed a 22 percent reduction in water use per head in the ten years of the ALP government, so I think it’s misleading at best to say they did nothing on that score.

    And this desal plant is a thirty to fifty year investment, saying it is too expensive or too big before it’s even pumped its first litre is somewhat premature I think.

    Of course the best response would have been to put a recycling plant on the Eastern Treatment Plan – however this is unpalatable to most Melburnians and that’s democracy. And the ALP did spend over $400M recently to upgrade the plant for non-potable water.

  6. kymbos says:

    Alan, indirect potable consumption of recycled water does indeed appear to have potential cost advantages over other options. There are a number of shortcomings, however. In Brisbane, they had planned to start IPR into Wivenhoe Dam when combined storages went below 40 per cent of capacity (this remains their policy). They decided against this in 2008 at what proved to be the end of the drought. As a result, Wivenhoe got as low as 18 or so per cent full, instead of 24-odd per cent had they adopted IPR. However, when the rain came, it really came and any IPR they had processed would have spilled over the dam – a total waste.

    Melbourne’s Thompson Reservoir appears to be all but unspillable, but I haven’t seen the costs of delivering to it. Lastly, the ‘yuk factor’ associated with IPR is likely to mean that any IPR project will require very high level treatment at the front end, and a likely second round of treatment when going into the potable water supply. This is rarely explored appropriately when undertaking ‘back of the envelope’ cost assessments.

    Further, SEQ adopted some of the most draconian water conservation measures around, including full bans on outdoor use. They did not use pricing to ration water, but Wilful’s point is accurate that significant reductions in per capita residential consumption have been made around the country.

    I won’t defend Melbourne’s desal plant – it appears to be a slow motion car crash – but it is by no means true that desal is always cost ineffective. Perth’s first desal plant comes in at around $1.50/kl. It is unlikely that IPR could be cheaper than that, although future desal augmentations will be more expensive (plants further away from Perth, thus more expensive delivery). Perth is on the cusp of an IPR project with aquifer storage and recovery, by the way.

    Lastly, I have been daydreaming that the best option for securing urban water supplies in Oz is a seafaring mobile desal plant, with costs shared by all major capital cities. They can share the costs, and only use it when they really need it. Thus we don’t end up with the situation we have now in Eastern cities, where heavy rainfall has made desal (or recycling for that matter) redundant for the next 5 or so years at least.

    • Alan Davies says:

      A seafaring desal plant – that’s brilliant!

      I think an advantage of IPR is that less water needs to be stored in dams for water security and hence can be returned to rivers. This would also provide more capacity for flood mitigation so that situations like this were less likely.

  7. kymbos says:

    Forgive me if this appears twice, but mobile desal plants exist:

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