Sydney Water Security

(Private Members Statement, 21 November 2019, Legislative Assembly)

Greater Sydney, like the rest of the state, is in severe drought. Our water supply is rapidly declining and we need urgent action to drought-proof the city.

Sydney dam levels have dropped below 48 per cent – this time last year they were at about 65 per cent. Each day we lose billions of litres due and the lack of rain, high temperatures and evaporation levels prevent replenishment. The declines would be greater without the desalination plant which is currently producing 250 million litres of water each day.

We now need 1,000 millimetres of rain and a major deluge to break the drought. The average annual rainfall for Sydney is 850 millimetres but we have only had 581 in the past 12 months.

There is no sign of possible reprieve with warm and dry weather predicted in the near future.

I welcome the planning minister’s decision last week to put a freeze on all new mining results in the loss of eight million litres of water a day from our dams, through the drying up of sensitive swamps and creeks and the draining of groundwater supply.

Every drop counts and if we ask Sydneysiders to reduce their use of fresh water, the same should be asked of mining operations. Phasing out mining in the water catchment region would reduce pressure on the quantity and quality of our supply.  

I share growing concern that flushing our toilets, washing our clothes and watering our gardens with drinking water is shockingly wasteful.

We should urgently invest in long-term sustainable water infrastructure to expand water recycling, which presents significant potential to increase our water capacity and help drought proof the city. Treating wastewater to a potable standard is 30 to 50 per cent cheaper than desalination and uses one quarter to a third of the energy.

Water recycling is a growing solution to water supply across the globe. It is widely used in Singapore and parts of the UK and US as well as Goulburn Valley in this state. The Australian Government has released guidelines to help guarantee water quality in recycling.

The City of Sydney Decentralised Water Master Plan found that recycling waste water could provide more than half of the water demand across its local government area. It wants to expand on its urban stormwater recycling facility at Green Square, which can treat up to 900,000 litres of stormwater a day by introducing a wastewater treatment plant for residential, commercial and community buildings. The City also worked to ensure that new pipelines for recycled water were built along George Street as part of the light rail construction and along the Wynyard walkway so that the central business district can connect to existing wastewater recycling infrastructure at Barangaroo or support its own new infrastructure.

But current rulings from the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Authority make water recycling prohibitive by enabling SydneyWater to charge a massive premium for the removal of waste that comes out of the recycling process through the sewerage system. The surcharge is known as the ‘retail minus methodology’ and it only applies to residential development.

As a result, commercial recycling operators have no financial incentive to provide recycled water services in residential developments. This in turn discourages residential developers from investing in dual plumbing systems.

Our pricing systems should reflect the dangerous situation of the drought and encourage sustainable solutions to water supply. I support the City’s calls to remove the surcharge so that pricing for the removal of waste in the recycling process in residential buildings reflects what other businesses are charged.

It is vital that dual plumbing systems become mandatory in all new developments to future proof them as water recycling continues to expand.

Improving water efficiency must also be a priority.

Through the WaterFix programs, SydneyWater works with home owners, including in apartments, to improve their building’s water efficiency. This is a great program but it needs to be actively publicised, particularly in apartments where there are few incentives for owners to upgrade fixtures and fix leaks.

While HousingNSW installs energy efficient water fixtures in new homes or where they need to be replaced, most homes are old and have inefficient taps, showers and toilets. We need an urgent program to retrofit all existing social housing properties to improve efficiency, which would have the added benefit of saving tenants money, who unlike private tenants, are charged for water use regardless of fixtures and metering.

We can’t make it rain but there is no shortage of innovation and solutions to reducing Sydney’s demand on our drinking water. I call on the government to take urgent action to cut mining’s impact on our drinking water, promote water recycling and improve water efficiency in homes.