Toowoomba – student services & sipping sewage

On Wednesday this week I visited Toowoomba, mainly to meet with the Student Guild and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the main campus of University of Southern Queensland. The main immediate issue I was exploring was what impact the government’s ideologically extreme version of VSU legislation would have on services to students. I’ve written on VSU a few times before so I won’t repeat myself, but suffice to say that campuses in regional areas will be even harder hit than the big city ones and you couldn’t get a better example of legislation being drafted solely with ideology in mind, rather than looking at the practical impacts of it. I’m sure any Uni campus can make a bar profitable, but getting and maintaining good quality sporting facilities, let alone assistance with courses, appeals, legal advice, etc will be impossible. It will be an early test of whether any Coalition Senators will really do what is necessary in the new Senate to ensure bad laws are improved.

I should also note that the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jim Taylor, was the most enthusiastic advocate of ICT based learning I have ever met. USQ has done a lot in this area and will be interesting to watch how they go with further developing e-learning.

I also took the chance while I was in town to get an update on the City Council’s plan to build a water recycling plant. I’ve also written on this before (and had at least one water resources engineer agree with me). The plan has been out in the public arena for nearly a month now. It seems to have gone down OK with the public, although there has been some community backlash, as mentioned in these pieces on the ABC and in The Toowoomba Chronicle, with a group called CADS (Citizens Against Drinking Sewage) forming to fight the plan.

I think governments in Australia have been pissweak (if you’ll pardon the pun) for not pursuing water recycling a lot more strongly. They seem to be scared about how hard it might be to sell to the public. Even the NSW State Government, with all their armies of spin doctors, have gone for a desalination plant basically because they didn’t think they could convince people to drink recycled water. Their Utilities Minister, Frank Sartor, said that “the scientists are right but the scientists ought to get on talkback radio and persuade Sydneysiders that there won’t be a mishap” – a statement I found to be quite extraordinary. Talk about a lack of leadership! (maybe they’ll get a bit more ticker once meat eating Morris becomes Premier next week)

The oddest thing about Toowoomba’s water plan is that after treating the water to dialysis machine quality (which is better than drinking quality), they then pipe it all the way back into the nearest dam to get re-processed with rest of the not-so-clean dam water! However, that’s the price they’re paying to assure the public its safe, which they feel they need to do given that they are leading the way on this.

Once it’s shown to work there, it should be able to be done more cheaply, as it won’t need that extra piping and pumping, which can be very expensive. All strength to Toowoomba City Council for showing that leadership, and good on the state and (hopefully) federal governments for backing them with some dollars. Apart from being good for Toowoomba, this will hopefully give a bit of extra courage to other Councils and governments to follow suit. I hope Brisbane and the rest of South-East Queensland does so soon.

PS: By complete chance, I also happened to read Andrew McGahan’s new book “The White Earth” the night before I went to Toowoomba. The author was born in Dalby – a bit west of there. While the towns in the book are fictional, it’s set in the Darling Downs area north of Toowoomba. I kept reading it until I’d finished, which is always a good sign that a book is an interesting read.

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  1. But it’s not really sipping (or drinking) sewerage is it? As you say by the time they finish treating it, it’s purer water than what’s coming through our taps right now.
    I guess people worry something may go wrong with the process somewhere along the line but that can happen now – and does with monotonous regularity – in all states.

  2. Can you imagine the News Ltd. headlines if it was attempted in a major capital? Unfortunately people might need to experience actual thirst before sensible proposals such as sewage recycling get a look in.

  3. While the use of recycled water for potable use may in the future prove to be safe, it appears that there is currently insufficient evidence to show that this is the case.
    The recent research brief by 2005 Australian Parliamentary Fellow, Dr. Sophia Dimitriadis (see…5-06/ 06rb02.pdf ), states that there are unknown long-term outcomes from ingesting recycled water, experts are rarely able to agree on risk levels and investment in scientific research is needed.
    Quoting from her research brief:
    (a) “Australia takes the position of using the best source of water
    possible and using recycling to free up drinking water in preference
    to directly replenishing supplies. Reasons for this approach include
    the unknown long-term outcomes from ingesting recycled water and the
    expense involved in programs that monitor the quality of treatment to
    avoid the possibility of adverse effects.” (Page 26)
    (b) “At present, experts are rarely able to agree on risk levels. When
    technical experts cannot agree, it is unlikely that the general public
    will have confidence in the results. Therefore more research is
    required about the way in which contaminants operate.” (Page 26-27)
    (c) “Investment in scientific research is needed – particularly in
    relation to how contaminants and pathogens can be inactivated,
    improving treatment plant and pipe system cleaning operations, and
    improving efficiencies.” (Page 36)
    Should the residents of Toowoomba be the experimental laboratory rats for the rest of Australia?

  4. It is well known(to some people)that the technology to purify reclaimed water is beyond sufficiant, but yes, the questions remain, what happens if an RO filter gets left out? or someone leaves a tap open somewhere an lets a kilolitre or so of “not so treated” water through? I reckon about 9 out of 10 operators, would just close that tap and not say a word. Why would they?
    I believe in Quality Assurance and especially in this case, it should come from outside with an independant observer. I am putting my hand up for that position by the way.
    Also on this topic, they say any publicity is good publicity, but in this case, when I see national TV talking about my beloved hometown drinking sewer water…it hurts. It’s a shame some people(and the media) are so vocal about this in certain arenas, but on the same token it may be the only way to ensure the process is 110% safe 100% of the time.
    Regards Cameron Hedges

  5. It is difficult to say the process is safe when there are three reports prepared for the Federal government in the past five months which say further research is required. Add to that the same comments in the Senate Inquiry report from 2002 and there are questions which need to be answered.

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