OUR WATER EMERGENCY

Is this really, the crisis that we had to have?

Whilst there is no denying that the drought and the recent outbreak of simultaneous bushfires spread across multiple regions around Australia is a direct result of Climate Change there are now a number of very serious questions that come into prominence which need to be urgently addressed, including: “How well are we really prepared to deal with the prospect of these ongoing natural disasters which are likely to be increasing in frequency; events which our politicians conveniently brand as “unprecedented” as a way of masking their failure to acknowledge the risks  earlier, and to have been better prepared?

Everything in both the 20th and 21st centuries has been about risk minimisation, so why not the same principles with climate change?

And, “Do we have the political leadership; the structures, the plans and strategies and perhaps most importantly and specifically on a local level; the leadership on an elected level as well as in the Executive management within our local municipal administration in place, to deal with and to help us to avert and survive the looming consequences?”

Bushfires

What is now very clear (predicted by many) is that we are not geared up on either a national, state or a local level to contend with multiple simultaneous fire events on any extended basis.

And the first step, has to be a recognition of Climate Change by Mr Morrison and his Government, which then can and should lead to serious plans and strategies being formulated right across all levels of government throughout the nation to ameliorate the consequences.

At this crucial time the community is crying out for forward thinking leadership that is intelligent, honest, sincere and inclusive and there is a void.

What is also very clear is that we can no longer expect nor allow the consequences of climate change to just be flicked over upon the shoulders of those brave volunteers, the Firies and indeed on all the other emergency services; people who continually risk their lives and jeopardise their own properties and their livelihoods to keep us and our properties safe. 

Whilst it may have been quite convenient for governments to ‘use’ these people in the past, this cannot be allowed to continue without any real nor substantial compensation to those volunteers, and without serious support and resourcing to the organisations such as the Rural Fire Services and particularly to the local brigades.

Cr Peter Epov put it quite well when he said on 2 Bob Radio: 

“We fund institutions like the Defence Reserves (ie Army Reserve)  in the interests of national security, so why shouldn’t we pay the Firies and other volunteer emergency services on at least the same basis, but not only for their time at fires and disaster events, but also for their training?”

And, is it correct that our Army no longer trains our soldiers in firefighting, but they do train them in flood support?

Our Water Crisis

Both the drought and the fires over the past 3 months have vividly enshrined in most peoples’ minds, reinforced through the daily vision of one tonne utes and trucks running repeatedly, practically in convoys with their ‘pods’, to water collection points. A situation that the farmers out west and indeed our forebearers have known and experienced for generations; that is our water is a finite and a precious resource which must be protected and cherished.  There have been wars over water access and security and it may not be too long until that history repeats itself. The United Nations has a database which lists violence over water going back 6,000 years.

MidCoast Council

On our local level after months of inaction, on 27 November last year, MidCoast Council finally moved to safeguard our water security, by committing to expand the underperforming Nabiac bore field which was designed and licenced to produce up to 10 mega litres of water per day from 14 bores, but had only been producing around 6 mega litres, by activating a further four existing bores and commissioning an additional 8 new bores at an ‘unplanned’ cost of somewhere in the vicinity of $1.5 and $2 million.

As with the usual practice of this Council, one of those ‘closed’ (“secret” ) Council Meetings was held with the public excluded, and with yet another one of those “Late Confidential Reports” presented to Councillors, just days before the meeting, marked with the tag of  being ‘commercially confidential’, giving Councillors very little time to be fully appraised of the situation before committing to a significant off budget expenditure, and precluded them from consulting or seeking their own independent advice. The entire matter was declared by the General Manager to be ‘Confidential’ and not just the financial elements of the proposal. So Councillors had very little scope but to go along with the proposal.

This was followed with an announcement on 3 December to placate the costs in a Council Media release of a $1 million funding grant from the NSW Government for critical infrastructure associated with Drought Response Projects and this grant was earmarked to towards the expansion of the Nabiac bore field. 

Several weeks later, on 18 December, a further ‘closed’ (ie secret) Council meeting was held with of course, another “late confidential report”  we understand on this occasion the documentation consisted of over 100 pages of data and attachments and was sent out to Councillors -one day before the scheduled meeting. 

The proposal presented to Councillors, as we now know, was the lease of a 5 mega litre desalination plant for a limited period of 6 months, to be temporarily located on the Wallamba River, and, with the construction of associated infrastructure to convey the water to the Nabiac Treatment plant at an overall estimated cost of over $13 million dollars plus contingencies. Those contingencies are likely to be at least 10% and more realistically around 15%, meaning the all up cost could be much closer to $15 million unbudgeted dollars.

To ameliorate this expense, the explanation given was that the funds for this would be covered by the postponement of budgeted water projects, but no list has ever been publicly provided, and one would have to safely assume that as six months of the 2019 /20 financial year had already been exhausted by the time of this decision, then perhaps much, if not all, the ‘water projects’ money for 2019/20 may have already been spent or perhaps contractually committed to projects which have, or are due, to commence. 

There was also reference to potential funding from the Commonwealth Government, but no announcements have been made in relation to this since 18 December.

And in a clumsy attempt to cushion the cost, which will eventually have to be met by the ratepayers, Council re-announced that same November $1 million dollar grant (critical infrastructure associated with Drought Response Projects) from the State Government, this time for the Desalination Plant. Two bites at one cherry??? (The announcement or the funding???) It’s the same $1M. Not two grants.

So was the expansion of the bore field and the temporary Desalination plant all the product of refined and calculated strategic planning, or was it a knee jerk reaction in panic mode by an inexperienced and desperate administration which pretty much took their eye off the ball on our water security whilst the General Manager’s Executive restructure was taking place and the deck chairs were being settled, resulting in a staggering $16 million hit to Council’s budget in a very short space of 3 weeks. A hit which will eventually comeback to bite us, the ratepayers.

Councillor Peter Epov called for the postponement if not the cancellation of the Masters Office Centralisation proposal, but this pretty much fell on deaf ears – 

“The way this Desalination Proposal was presented gave us very little choice but to vote for water security for our urban communities, but I do have my concerns and I did clearly express those to the Executive and to the Council. 

I have asked for additional information and I have been urging Council to postpone the fit out of Masters Warehouse for at least 6 months if not cancel it altogether at least until we see the full extent of the consequences of drought on our water supply, on our resources and the bushfire season is over.”

Analysis

So lets examine the events leading up to these two momentous decisions that will cost we ratepayers $16 million.

MCC Media Release published 16 August 2019

Stated :

“An average year would have seen 802mm of rainfall on the MidCoast for the year up to 1 August.  This year we’ve received 308mm.”

So clearly back in very early August Council knew that our water supply was compromised and yet nothing was done.

That same release also quoted Robert Scott, Council’s Director of Infrastructure and Engineering Services as saying:

“If the weather that is forecasted eventuates, we’re modelling for the possibility of Level 4 – severe restrictions by October – right across the MidCoast region.” 

Level 4 restrictions were eventually introduced but on 25 November, almost three and a half months later, just before the holiday season.

On 29 August, two weeks later Council announced Level 1 restrictions but there was no other action on bolstering our water stocks.

MCC Media Release published 5 November 2019

Stated :

“From Monday 11 November, Very High – Level 3 water restrictions will come into force across the entire MidCoast region.”

Robert Scott, Council’s Director of Infrastructure and Engineering Services was quoted as saying:

“Right now is the driest conditions in over 130 years with the lowest average river flows from 75 years of records. We are facing the most severe water shortage across the MidCoast region ever recorded.

The media release went on to say:

“At this stage, it is possible that a further increase in water restrictions to Severe (Level 4) will be needed in December.”

Still no reference, nor action in relation to any contingency plans or expanding the Nabiac Bore fields nor leasing a Desalination plant.

Nabiac Bore Fields &
Desalination Plant

The addition of 8 additional bores and associated infrastructure has been scheduled to be completed by the end of February 2020,  after the rain has now come through and the tourists have all left. These new bores have been projected to provide an additional 4 mega litres of water per day.

Similarly with the Desalination Plant it will only be operational by the end of March and now perhaps even later after Council announced that part of the pipeline from the Desalination plant located on the Wallamba River to Nabiac Treatment plant has been vandalised.

The Desalination plant will only produce 5 mega litres of water per day.  

On any objective assessment, this situation has not 

been managed terribly very well. Perhaps one of the reasons behind all this is that our rookie GM did not replace two Director positions in 2018, whilst advising Council that he was not intending to change the Executive structure, and so there were two Acting Director positions for near on 12 months. When Brendan Guiney, the Director of Water, resigned in early 2019 that position was not filled until after the General Manager announced that he was reducing the Executive structure below him from five directors down to three.  This meant Water then fell under the ‘new’ position of Director of Infrastructure and Engineering Services, and became one of 8 departments, in that new division.  Scarcely a priority.

MidCoast Water a loss

It’s a sad and tragic end to what was a highly respected and an independent water authority, that once was MidCoast Water, which had its own independent Board of Directors, and an Executive Management structure totally and exclusively focused on our water security.  

The other obvious question is that this desalination plant is a short term fix and if the weather changes, now an unnecessary but very costly initiative.

Had this option been identified much, much earlier perhaps the $15 million that will be spent on leasing this desalination plant could have been applied to purchasing a new one and locating it in a position where it could utilise sea water, rather that the water from the Wallamba River which is likely to inflame concern from oyster growers and other allied industries.

But our Council Executive and the majority of Councillors appear to be determined to go ahead with the Masters Office Centralisation at any cost.

Peg Leg Creek Dam

At the Council Meeting back in August 2019, Councillor Epov called for a Report, raising the prospect of Council seeking funding and having a shovel-ready plan for the construction of Peg Creek Leg Dam anticipating that something had to be done urgently to strengthen our water security. The administration’s response back was effectively to squash the initiative with excuses such as there could be better options than a dam and that there were no specific grant funding avenues available. Mr Epov urged Council to lobby the relevant State and Commonwealth Ministers as the National Party who are in government, was very interested and supportive of building dams, but this also appears not to have been taken up.

The Peg Leg Creek Dam proposal is for a 7000 mega litre dam to be located near Tinonee. The original proposal was developed by MidCoast Water back in June 2015 (just one month after the three Councils were amalgamated) and presented to the NSW Water Minister at the time, Niall Blair, with a copy sent to the Federal Deputy Leader of the National Party Barnaby Joyce.

The proposal was structured around collecting water from the Manning River in times of flood, essential in periods of high turbidity when Bootawa cannot harvest water and then  allowing the water to rest and to settle before transferring it into Bootawa Dam.

Mr Epov recognises and acknowledges that whilst there may other and indeed better ways to address our water security, 

“The fact remains that in the absence of any better developed proposals that are currently on the table, and in an situation where the Governments of the day are focused and determined to build dams, we should be creating and taking advantage of these opportunities and not risking nor compromising the future of the region.”

The recent rain is a blessing. But we need more assurances than prayers and rain dances, and a Council that crosses its fingers and hopes for rescue at best. 

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