BCCAN submission to Bathurst Regional Council on effluent diversion project

Here is a text-only version of BCCAN's submission to Bathurst Regional Council on the proposal to divert treated effluent to a gold mine in Blayney. More information about this can be found on the Council's website.

Written submissions closed on December 21, 2015, but individual Councillors will continue to take residents' views into consideration until the matter goes to the vote in February.

This is a crucial moment for water security and ecology in Bathurst. We urge you to become informed about the issue and let your Councillors know your views.

If you prefer, you can view/download the PDF version of this submission (1.4MB).


Bathurst Community Climate Action Network (BCCAN)

www.bccan.org.au

 

Submission to

Bathurst Regional Council regarding the

Treated Effluent Diversion Project

21 December 2015

 

 

Written by Tracy Sorensen

BCCAN Secretary

on behalf of the BCCAN Steering Committee

 

 

Signed

Tracey Carpenter

President, BCCAN 21/12/15

 

ABOUT BCCAN

Bathurst Community Climate Action Network (BCCAN) is a network of organisations and individuals working together to promote action on climate change and sustainable and equitable development. BCCAN has approximately 100 members who express their interests through the work of Action Planning Teams (APTs) including Awareness and Education, Building and Urban Planning, Electricity and Renewable Energy and Urban Vegetation. BCCAN has had a good working relationship with Bathurst Regional Council since our inception in 2007. In 2015 we were grateful to receive a Council heritage grant of $1000 towards our successful "200 Plants and Animals" exhibition in the CBD in October. Our ongoing public profile includes media comment and analysis, an active role in social media and a regular column in the Western Advocate.

 

 

INTRODUCTION

The BCCAN Steering Committee discussed the proposed Treated Effluent Diversion Project at its monthly meeting held at The Neighbourhood Centre on November 18, 2015. Information about the proposal was greeted with great concern, and the committee resolved to write a submission on this issue by the closing date of December 21, 2015. BCCAN members were present and spoke up at both public consultation meetings held at Bathurst Panthers and the Bathurst RSL and at the December Council meeting. At these meetings we urged that the period on public display be extended and greater effort be made towards notifying all stakeholders of the proposal, particularly downstream water users in this local government area and beyond who could have legal recourse for loss of supply of water for their businesses. We also remarked on the potential deleterious effect on the environment of the catchment.

 

Our comments and questions are listed below (numbered for convenience, not in order of priority).

 

COMMENTS

 

 

1. Loss of water in a warmer, drier climate

Internationally, we have just seen a historic gathering of the world's leaders, in which major commitments were made by almost 200 countries to strive to keep the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. This was a turning point in history, a moment at which humanity began to take account of the unintended consequences of rapid economic development following the industrial revolution. In the years to come, this shift can be expected to have far reaching consequences at every level of human society.

 

However, the problem of climate change is far from solved. It is widely acknowledged that the pledge made by the world's leaders at COP21 in Paris will be enormously difficult to achieve on the ground. Political pressures within each country can be considered a real threat to the achievement of emissions reduction targets. It is unlikely the US Congress, for example, would have passed the commitments given by President Obama if it had had an opportunity to vote on them (Goldenberg 2015).

Thus there are no guarantees that turning the world's economy from a fossil fuel base to one powered by sustainable energy will happen quickly or effectively enough to keep temperature rises below dangerous levels.

 

At a local level, temperatures are set to rise, as acknowledged in the current Bathurst Region State of the Environment Interim Report (July 2014-June 2015):

 

Current climate change predictions for the Central West Region are for temperature increases of up to 1.8oC by 2030, with an increase in the number of high or extreme fire risk days and an increase in intense rain periods by up to 20% (CSIRO, 2007).

 

 

The Water section of the SOE Report (p26) adds:

 

Low and variable rainfall and surface water flows are highly characteristic of the Australian environment (BOM). A growing population, increasing land area under irrigated agriculture and climate change are all factors that combine to place significant pressure on this limited resource.

 

In light of these forecasts, it would seem imprudent to enter a long-term contract to sell our recycled water for the exclusive use of a single user outside the Macquarie River catchment. The loss of up to 10 megalitres a day out of our water system would reduce our options for the careful use of water in in a warmer, drier region.

 

We also urge Councillors to consider carefully how the proposed diversion fits with Council's environmental objectives as set out in the Interim State of the Environment Report (p. 9):

 

  • To protect and enhance the region’s landscapes, views, vistas, open spaces and the Macquarie River.
  • To protect and enhance the region’s biodiversity.
  • To protect a unique identity.
  • To protect and enhance water quality and riparian ecology.
  • To minimise the City’s environmental footprint.
  • To secure a sustainable water supply and raise awareness on water issues.

 

The way forward  to the practical fulfilment of these objectives is framed by the concept of integrated decision making. Integrated decision making, as set out in Council's 2036 Community Strategic Plan (CSP) is a way of considering issues holistically, in the light of four key themes:

 

economic prosperity
liveable communities
environmental sustainability
sound leadership.

 

In our view, a hasty decision to divert up to 10 megalitres a day of water out of our own catchment would be a failure of the sort of integrated decision making that is needed to take us closer to the CSP vision.

 

2. A forward-looking, innovative economy for this region

While the short-term economic benefits of the diversion project cannot be denied, our diverse economy allows us to think more broadly about this. Supporting the Regis gold mine is not the only path to economic growth and prosperity in this district. Bathurst is rich in other economic opportunities, particularly in terms of education, health and agriculture. This diverse economy makes Bathurst an attractive place to live and work, as shown by population growth of 1.56% between June 2013 and June 2014 to 41682 people (Interim SOE). In the longer term, it could be argued that a decision to take water out of the catchment - in a drier, hotter region - could have negative economic impacts.

 

Industries such as health and education mean we are in a good position to find growth in a "low carbon" economy. We are also in a good position to take advantage of new opportunities in a "greening economy" in fields such as renewable energy and carbon mitigation.

 

BCCAN member and veteran local environment campaigner Isabel Higgins has researched jobs in mining, and notes that they are increasingly being mechanised. She notes that the number of jobs available in mining activities can be expected to fall.

 

3. Water security is highly valued within the Bathurst community

Compared to other local government areas in the Central West, Bathurst is in a relatively good position when it comes to water. The Chifley dam has ensured consistent water supply for residents, businesses and local food production.

 

It could be argued that this sense of water security contributes to Bathurst's attractiveness as a place to live and do business.

 

However, climate change may bring a reduction in rainfall and therefore available water in storage. Most predictive models agree there will be a reduction in overall rainfall and that the rainfall that does occur will be in a smaller number of intense downfalls. Given this changing rainfall pattern, we cannot in future rely on timely and periodic top ups to Ben Chifley Dam.

 

We are much better off permanently reducing the amount of water we use per capita through implementing waterwise strategies. In general, Bathurst residents are "on board" with this idea.

 

The Interim State of the Environment report states:

 

Residents are generally committed to maintaining waterwise practices and consider Council’s actions to save water through its facilities and improve water security as important objectives.

 

At a public meeting about the proposal to run a pipeline from Chifley Dam to the filtration plant held on July 20 back in 2009, one BCCAN member remarked: "I cannot for the life of me see why Bathurst residents have not been on some meaningful level of water restrictions over the past five years during one of the worst droughts in the European history of Australia. How much longer would our water supply last if this had been the case?  Council really needs to address its policies on water restrictions and change its basis from one of water levels in the Ben Chifley Dam, to one based on rainfall inflows. This would ensure that we use less water in response to lower rainfall."

 

After the public consultation meeting with Regis at Bathurst Panthers, Lagoon landholder and licenced plumber Ken Willott approached BCCAN and asked if his observations could be added to the BCCAN submission. He said he was concerned about the size of the proposed pipe (375ml) suggests that "they're thinking a lot more water". He is concerned that "they'll have it running day and night" and that the flow through it will not be adequately monitored. "They're asking us to trust them." He said our activities had "wrecked the Murray Darling" and that we "manipulate nature too much. It'll come back to bite us."

 

Our discussions with many residents over the past few years show that they are aware that water is valuable and, with the right leadership, would be prepared to make sacrifices (eg tolerate water restrictions) if needed.

 

In the light of this, a decision to divert a substantial part of this asset to one particular user - a user outside of the Macquarie catchment - cuts across this growing understanding and acceptance of the value of water to our community. By selling off our water, we would be drawing down on both a tangible asset (the water itself) as well as an intangible but highly important asset - the community's sense of water security and the need to protect it.

 

 

4. Conceptually, treated effluent is not "waste", but an important asset

The water coming into the Sewage Treatment Plant at Morrisset Street is certainly "dirty", but once treated, the water is simply "water" in the river. To see the river as simply a "waste outlet" for our treated sewage sells it short. Water returned to the river provides a myriad ecosystem services to a myriad users.

 

It is a valuable resource for irrigators, farmers, tourists, kayakers, fisher people and many others. Livelihoods and wellbeing depend on it.

 

This conceptual approach to recycled water is described in the Planning Institute of Australia's Water and Planning document:

 

We should not use the term “waste water”, for with appropriate treatment, waters can be regenerated and renewed. (Planning Institute of Australia).

 

 

5. Food security in a warmer, drier region

Local food production is an essential element in ensuring local food security. In the decades to come, arable land will be at a premium all over the world. Local food production ensures that local people will have access to fresh food.

 

The Chief Scientist's report on Food Security states:

 

Water is probably the most critical factor affecting food production. Any viable strategy for increasing food production from the limited area of arable land must address the problems of ensuring sustainable access to water for irrigation and human consumption.

 

Local food production also reduces the carbon cost of "food miles", the distances that food is transported from growing region to plate.

 

Local food production is an increasingly attractive lifestyle asset, as demonstrated by the popularity of the monthly Farmers Markets.

 

In Bathurst there is a growing appreciation of local food production, evidenced by the establishment of the Wholefood Cooperative in the Macquarie Arcade, the BREaD initiative of some years ago, and a social "turn" to the benefits of fresher, less processed food (as seen in the popularity of food programs on television, for example). Water is essential to the continued viability local food production.

 

Reducing water available to food producers downstream - from the sewage treatment plant to the Burrendong Dam and beyond - would cut across the interests of this growing sector.

 

6. Cease to Transfer - more scientific information needed

While the Cease to Transfer (CTT) rule has been proposed as a solution to the problem of environmental harm caused by water extraction during low flow periods, the science upon which the low-flow point at which CTT "kicks in" has not been adequately studied or explained.

 

This is made clear in the GHD peer review.

 

In its Conclusions (p. 20), the GHD report states the SKM report to be "lacking in detail in establishing a suitable baseline and interpretation of low flow data to enable a robust determination of the significance of these impacts under NSW or federal legislation."

 

In other words, the CTT rule cannot be regarded as an solution to the problem of environmental flows during dry conditions.

 

More information is needed before Council makes this crucial decision to reduce water flows.

 

7. Is "cease to return" the equivalent of "extraction"?

An important question is raised by the GHD peer review report. In its Conclusions (p20), it asks whether ceasing to return flows to the Macquarie River is the equivalent of an extraction. It asks whether it is Council's responsibility to maintain "the base flow in the Macquarie River through maintaining returned flows in the overall water management policy setting."

 

As this is framed as a question, it's clear that the GHD reviewers do not have an answer. Clearly, this is a matter for further investigation.

 

The main focus of the GHD review is to evaluate the proponent's original report (the SKM report) in terms of the regulatory framework surrounding issues of flow and extraction.

 

But putting the regulatory framework to one side for a moment, it is clear, from a common-sense point of view, that "cease to return" has exactly the same net effect as "extraction". For users downstream of the sewage treatment plant, water that was available before the diversion will no longer be available afterwards. This is why the proposal has been understood by the Bathurst community as an extraction from the Macquarie River.

 

 

8. Threat to biodiversity

The flora and fauna of the Macquarie River catchment - all the way from Bathurst to the Macquarie Marshes and beyond into the Murray Darling Basin - will be affected by this proposal to remove ten megalitres a day from the system.

 

We believe that the extent of the impact, and whether it matters are questions for deeper study and debate than the current reports and duration of consultation allow.

 

Some considerations include:

 

a) Key threatening Process (KTP)

Extraction and alteration of natural water flows are considered a Key Threatening Process (KTP) under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (TSC Act). This is how this KTP is described in that report:

 

Alteration to the natural flow regimes of rivers, streams, floodplains & wetlands.

 

One endangered species, as described in the Regis's impact report (the SKM report), is the Booroolong frog. According to the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, its breeding habitat is permanent rocky streams with fringing groundcover or understorey vegetation. Its foraging habitat is stream banks or vegetation and fallen timber within 100m either side of streams or creeks. One of the threats to its continued existence is described as "stream drying caused by severe drought or water extraction/impoundment" (OEH). The SKM Report proposes a "targeted frog survey" on the booroolong frog but offers no more specific information than that. More specific information about how the diversion and CTT rule would affect this frog is needed, and it would be prudent to get this information before making the decision on the diversion proposal. The Macquarie River is home to one of Australia's iconic animals, the platypus. According to Grant and Temple-Smith (2010) there is "evidence for adverse effects of river regulation and impoundments, introduced species, poor water quality, fisheries by-catch mortality and disease on platypus populations." While the platypus is not currently endangered in eastern Australia, an extrapolation from such studies suggests that it is likely to be impacted by altered river flows.

Pic: Macquarie Marshes/Wikipedia

Out west, at the other end of the Macquarie River, lie the Ramsar-listed Macquarie Marshes. (The Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty on preservation of wetlands.) These wetlands feed river red gums and 211 bird species. This unique ecosystem has been the subject of many scientific studies over past decades (see Kingsford & Auld, 2005). The intricate biodiversity of the swampy marshes rely not on local rainfall but on water flows from upstream.

 

 

On p29 of the Public Works Department Report it notes the potential impact on the environment downstream, including the RAMSAR-listed Macquarie Marshes. The PWD Report notes that the plan will need careful consideration "before changes to the system is undertaken". Again, it would seem wise that we get more information about the effect of further upstream extraction on the marshes before making a decision on the sale of treated water to Regis.

 

b) Rehabilitating and maintaining a healthy river

The importance of healthy river systems has been brought sharply into focus in recent years with the federal government’s interventions in the health of the Murray Darling river system, of which the Macquarie is a tributary. At the same time, state governments are spending millions of dollars every year on efforts to improve water and stream bank quality through changes to land management along rivers and streams. The health of our rivers is likely to suffer in the future due to less overall rainfall due to climate change.

The Macquarie River is a degraded system that has been altered enormously by human activities over the past 200 years (and no doubt before that, due to fire regimes and other activities of the Wiradyuri people). A return to a "pristine" or "original" state is both conceptually and practically impossible.

 

But a process of care and rehabilitation is possible, and it is one of Council's stated environmental objectives.

 

In recent years, enormous efforts have been made - many initiated or supported by Bathurst Regional Council - to rehabilitate the river and protect biodiversity. These include:

 

Native fish rehabilitation including release of fingerlings
Landcare projects on the riverbanks
Riverside Regent honeyeater habitat works
Waterwise projects and campaigns

 

How does the reduction of 10 megalitres of water a day from the catchment "fit" with these and many other projects and goals?

 

Is there a conflict of interest between the diversion project and campaigns for residents and businesses to be more waterwise? If Council stands to make money out of the effluent residents create, wouldn't there be a financial benefit from encouraging residents to create more effluent to sell to Regis? This is a question that would bear consideration.

 

 

9. A reasonable proposition?

The answer to Question 8 in Council's Q&A summary document ("the proposed flow diversion appears a reasonable proposition") document does not, in our opinion, give an accurate account of the concerns raised in the GHD report. The "reasonable proposition" phrase is actually hedged about with many qualifications, primarily the need for more study into the "significance of impacts during low flows".

 

The answer to Question 10 in the Q&A Summary document suggests that we simply do not, at this stage, have sufficient information about dry flow conditions, effects on downstream riparian and acquatic ecology and socio-economic impacts to downstream users. Without this information, it would appear that the "reasonableness" of the proposition has not yet been fully explored.

 

10. The common good

The question of who owns or controls water is one likely to gain urgency over the coming decades.

 

We believe that the common good must be carefully considered before taking any action that is likely to impact on the current or future welfare of the human and non-human elements of our complex ecosystem.

 

This entails a dramatic shift in ways of looking at and exploiting our environment. Once considered a radical idea, the need for such a shift is now mainstream, forced upon us by growing scientific evidence about climate change and the health and viability of the Murray Darling basin system.

11. The aesthetic and cultural amenity of Bathurst

[Text Box: Painting by Johannes Bauer] The Macquarie River is one of Bathurst's greatest assets, but not just because it provides water for drinking, watering lawns, growing food and washing. On a more esoteric level, people like to live near bodies of water. They like to have attractive places to rest and relax, to walk and swim. These psychological factors play an important part in people's attachment to a place and their decisions about where to live. Just as doctors will often not relocate to a town where there are no music lessons for their children, towns with degraded amenity tend to be avoided by people looking for quality of life. This ultimately has an affect on the social life of a town and its economic development. The Macquarie/Wambool river is also an important cultural asset and has been so for at least 40,000 years of human habitation. The river's cultural meanings have accumulated over generations. Indigenous heritage must also be considered.

 

These issues should be considered carefully when making decisions that will withhold water from the system.

 

 

10. A water policy for the future

It can be expected that as water is such a valuable resource, this will not be the last substantial request to tap in to our water. It is necessary to develop a policy approach that will inform future water decisions, rather than evaluating the merits of each request "on the hop". While the Interim State of the Environment report does allude to water policy, it is not specific enough to take account of future challenges.

 

BCCAN therefore urges Council to conduct an independent and comprehensive water audit to determine current and future requirements, and how these might be sourced over the next 30 to 50 years. Both the "user" and the "supply" side of the audit need to be taken into account.

 

The users of Bathurst's water include current Bathurst city residents and businesses, irrigators, stock and domestic users, recreational users, downstream townships, the environment itself including the health of the Murray Darling Catchment and the recharge of aquifers (an unknown quantity at this stage).

 

On the user side of the audit, future requirements and trends must also be taken into account. With population growth and decentralisation pressures, water usage is likely to grow substantially. Forecast global warming is likely to have a variety of impacts including increasing temperatures creating greater evaporation, and the need for becoming more food self-sufficient with the trend to a reduction in "food kilometres" (i.e. the need to reduce fossil fuel consumption used in the transportation of food). This may mean that the food industry in the local area may expand beyond its current size, creating extra demand for water.

 

On the supply side of the audit, there needs to be a careful study of all sources of water into the Macquarie River. This needs to take into account the relationships between the Macquarie River and the Ben Chifley Dam, the Duckmoloi River, the Fish River and the Oberon Dam on the Fish River. Research needs to be done into current predictions of rainfall taking climate change into account. With householders increasingly installing rainwater tanks, the implications of this also needs to be explored.

 

This water audit would provide useful information to inform a future water-sharing plan for the catchment.

 

QUESTIONS

1. How much will Bathurst Council charge Regis per megalitre for our recycled water (excluding infrastructure setup?).

 

2. How has Regis arrived at its "requirement" for 9 megalitres a day for its operations (as stated in Council's Q&A document). As this figure is almost precisely the amount of water Bathurst discharges from its STP, it would seem the requirement is not a hard number but one reverse-engineered from what is available. If Regis had more water at its disposal, would this enable it to expand its operations and thereby realise return on investment earlier? Would this lead to pressure, down the road, to make more of our water available to feed the mine?

 

3. The Q&A document say that further studies would be done "if the project proceeds to Environmental Impact Statement"? Why not require Regis to do these studies before Councillors make their decision?

 

4. How likely is it that the State Government will step in and force Bathurst Council's hand through declaring the Regis mine a development of State Significance? or through changes in decision-making that might occur during the amalgamation process? Is it possible that the residents of Bathurst will not be given a full and fair opportunity for a democratic voice in this matter?

 

5. On p11 of the Public Works report there is a reference to Regis being the "main user" of the diverted recycled water. What other users are there, or might there be (other than wash-down functions within the STP itself?)

 

6. On p12 of the Public Works report, it says that Council's preference is for Regis to play a major role in "stakeholder engagement". How exactly is this to be operationalised? Is there not a conflict of interest between Regis as both proponent and manager of vital information sharing with stakeholders?

 

7. Once the mine is exhausted - or the price of gold drops to a level making it uneconomic to continue - would Regis Resources continue to own and control the water from the STP? Is it possible that Regis would become a water holder able to on-sell to other mining interests in the area? What would the benefits to the Bathurst community and users of the Macquarie River downstream if this were to occur?

 

8. Is there a conflict of interest if Council is both running waterwise campaigns and supplying contracted amounts of "waste" water to a private entity?

 

9. Is there a termination clause in the contract between Council and Regis? What are the conditions that can lead to termination, by each party?

 

10. What are the conditions applicable to the CTT rule? How does the CTT rule interact with water restriction levels that are currently available to Bathurst Regional Council? If the CTT rule is invoked for a greater proportion of time than the gold mine has assumed, are there penalties or other ramifications to be borne by Council / ratepayers?

 

11. What are the risks, financial and otherwise, that Council exposes itself to in entering into this water transfer arrangement? Have those risks been professionally quantified, and has appropriate compensation and/or insurance been factored into the commercial arrangements?

 

 

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, BCCAN's position is that a final decision about whether to go ahead with the diversion to Kings Plains from the STP should not be made until all the concerns and questions listed above have been carefully considered.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read this submission. We believe that the urgent situation now facing the earth in the light of global warming calls for new ways of looking at the natural world and its resources. We make this submission in a sincere attempt to be constructively involved in finding sustainable solutions to the challenges ahead.

References:

Bathurst's reference documents relating to this decision

"SKM Report" - Wastewater Treatment Works, Bathurst Impact Assessment of  Diversion of Treated Effluent (May 2014)

 

"GHD Report" - Bathurst Wastewater Works Diversion of Treated Effluence EIA Review (September 2014)

 

"Public Works Report" - Effluent Reuse Study Report No WSR 15022 (June 2015)

 

Bathurst Regional Council - Interim State of the Environment Report (2014/2015)

 

 

Online articles and sources

Planning Institute of Australia's Water Planning document:

https://www.planning.org.au/policy/water-and-planning

 

Chief Scientist's Food Security Report

http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/FoodSecurity_web.pdf

 

See Susan Goldenberg's article in the Guardian newspaper

http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/13/climate-change-paris-deal...

 

Scientific papers

Grant, T. R., & Temple-Smith, P. D. (2003). Conservation of the platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus: threats and challenges. Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management, 6(1), 5-18.

 

Kingsford, R. T., & Auld, K. M. (2005). Waterbird breeding and environmental flow management in the Macquarie Marshes, arid Australia. River Research and Applications, 21(2‐3), 187-200.