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Water … a failure by successive governments

By Selwyn Johnston - posted Friday, 9 February 2007

While Far North Queensland, the channel country, and much of Queensland's west is experiencing exceptional early summer rains, South East Queensland remains fine and dry as it has done for several years now. Water restrictions have been in place for some years but it is also a number of years since dam catchment areas have had rainfall exceeding 50mm, not even enough to top up the water. Not good news.

The southeast is the most populous area of the state and growing daily, yet it has no water reserves. The question is: "How did this situation come about?"

There is a trilogy of answers.


First, the southeast is in the grip of a severe drought. It's happened before and it will happen again. Nature is something that is out of our control.

Second, there now seems to be an element of natural climate cycles involved and these cycles simply cannot be modified to suit a government! Global warming and climate change are political terms used to justify hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars being granted to scientists associated with the climate research industry by governments seeking to maintain electoral power.

Third, the southeast has what could be called the Goss-Palaszczuk effect, which came about when the then Primary Industries Minister, Henry Palaszczuk, took on the roll of "hero for the day" and, in one of the most short-sighted decisions ever made by any politician, engineered the complete halt of the Wolfdene Dam, which would have supplemented the fresh drinking water supply for South East Queensland.

As a consequence of these combined factors the southeast is now in a bad way. If it doesn't rain there this summer, the place is in diabolical trouble, or so we are told. To overcome this situation the Premier went to the 2006 election promising that there would be a plebiscite on whether or not the residents of South East Queensland would accept recycled sewage as drinking water.

We don't know exactly what the plebiscite would have canvassed because the Premier never developed the idea to that point. In any case it was declared to be non-binding, which in itself was a worry.

What we do know is that when the spring of 2006-07 came and went virtually without rain, nerves were lost, probably hindsight kicked in regarding Wolfdene Dam, and the Premier declared that a plebiscite was pointless as there was now no option other than to use recycled sewage as domestic drinking water. As a result a dictate was made and the people of the southeast were told that drinking recycled sewage was going to happen … end of story.


His decision to connect the sewerage treatment plants directly to the nearest water storage and so connect the whole system to the sewage-waste flow is, for his government, a convenient and very cheap option. A more acceptable system would be to connect the waste flow directly to industrial estates and the sites of individual heavy commercial or industrial water users. This has already been done with one oil refinery in Brisbane but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, for some years now many businesses that are heavy water users, and who often operate from government sponsored industrial estates, have been given to believe that inexpensive recycled sewage would be made available to them but, to date, nothing has been done. Had this option been adopted some 20 years ago when then Premier Goss and his minister, Henry Palaszczuk, elected not to proceed with the Wolfdene Dam, the situation now would have been not nearly so dire. But that's water under the bridge.

A major problem now is every year that nothing is done means that any corrective action will be that much more expensive. It is not yet at the stage of being prohibitive but now is probably our last opportunity to plan strategically and implement accordingly.

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About the Author

Selwyn Johnston is an independent candiate for the federal seat of Leichhardt in far North Queensland for 2007.

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