WA’s water woes: a thirsty election issue

Solving Western Australia’s water crisis has been an ongoing issue for Liberal and Labor state governments. Steven McGuinnity

Ten years have passed since the 2005 Western Australian election, when the state’s battle lines were drawn over Perth’s water future. Geoff Gallop’s Labor party argued for desalination or the Southwest Yarragadee, while Colin Barnett’s coalition envisioned water flowing from the northwest.

Fudged figures on the cost of Barnett’s plan were the game changer: Gallop won and Colin and his canal were banished to the political wilderness. Labor went ahead with the construction of a seawater desalination plant, inspiring Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia to follow suit. Since then, another desalination plant for Perth has been commissioned, completed and expanded; Barnett has played Lazarus; and Perth endured its driest year on record in 2010.

Unlike 2005, water isn’t centre stage in this year’s state election campaign. But it has made a cameo appearance with the skyrocketing cost of living in the boom state. Opposition leader, Mark McGowan, has campaigned strongly on this note, which will surely resonate with voters struggling to make ends meet. But it might come as a surprise to some to learn they pay less for their water than other Australians.

Although Barnett has repeatedly denied the West is experiencing a “mining boom”, it is certainly booming with people. Western Australia has recorded the fastest growing population in Australia and more people means more water. Western Australians already consume more water per head than other Australian and the state’s groundwater resources have borne the brunt of this increasing demand.

Mining is a thirsty business – pressures on Harding Dam and Millstream bore field have forced the development of another groundwater source at Bungaroo Creek to meet the growing demand for water in the Pilbara. And the thriving mining industry puts Western Australia in a cleft stick. Scientists partly attribute the declining rainfall in the southwest from Geraldton to Esperance to anthropogenic climate change, which makes the region the national canary in the climate change coal mine. Meanwhile, the resources boom puts Western Australians among the highest emitters of greenhouse gases in the country.

Despite the coalition increasing Perth’s desal capacity, groundwater remains the main source of drinking water for Perth, Mandurah and the Goldfields, just as it was before the Second World War.

It is worrying then that the Barnett government delayed the release of a plan to protect the Gnangara Mound, the major groundwater source for the suburbs of Perth. Commissioned by the previous Labor government in 2007 and delivered to the Barnett government in 2009, the draft report was finally made public last year.

Currently at less than half its capacity, Mundaring Weir is the main supplier of freshwater to Western Australia’s Goldfields. Fernando de Sousa/Flickr

The report confirmed what the Greens and environmentalist groups have argued all along: too much water is being pumped from the Gnangara Mound. While households have been fined for breaching water restrictions, the Department of Water has all but turned on the taps for the Water Corporation, industry and horticulture.

The combination of a thirsty city and a drying climate means that the water table is falling, wetlands are drying out, and some suburbs are even sinking. And with Perth’s exponential population growth and the region’s drying trend set to continue, where will the extra water come from?

In light of these concerns, researchers have recently completed a two-year trial of replenishing these aquifers with treated wastewater. Already practiced in parts of the United States, this process involves treating wastewater to a drinking standard, then pumping it into the aquifer where it undergoes natural filtration. In a sign of how dire Perth’s water woes really are, the project has bipartisan support.

To avoid a repetition of the Toowoomba episode, where locals rejected another kind of water recycling, the West Australian government must overcome its poor record on the transparent monitoring and regulation of the Gnangara Mound. Likewise, it will also want to avoid any embarrassing breakdowns of Perth’s under-resourced sewerage system.

The scale of this project might not appeal to those would prefer grander visions for the state’s water future. They may well have been buoyed by Colin Barnett’s pronouncement last year that a water pipelinefrom the Kimberley to Perth was still a possibility.

And just recently, a leak from the federal Opposition revealed the coalition was contemplating developing Australia’s north and tapping the region’s vast water resources for the land and people below the Tropic of Capricorn.

But what these water dreamers can’t beat recycled wastewater on is cost. At the very least, replenishing the aquifers of Perth is a far cheaper and less energy intensive water supply than building more desal plants or long pipelines, which may help to curb water bills rising in the future. With many Western Australians feeling left out of their state’s boom, they’ll be thinking more about their wallets than water when they cast their vote.