The Coalition state Minister for Western New South Wales, Adam Marshall, has vowed to support any local government councils that want to use recycled waste water to supplement their drinking supply. Even though he considered that the subject was ‘taboo’ in some quarters, he wanted his support for the process to be on the record1. This reminded me of the case of Toowoomba, a city of some 95,000 residents, which, in 2006 were invited to vote in a plebiscite concerning whether or not an indirect potable (i.e. drinkable) waste water recycling scheme should be constructed to supply additional water to the town and its surrounding area. At the time, dam levels in the Toowoomba water supply were down to about 20% of capacity. After a rather intense campaign, the residents voted against the proposal. By the middle of 2008 dam levels were down to 11% of capacity and water restrictions were at Level 5, where watering gardens, filling or topping up of swimming pools and washing cars were prohibited2.
The main arguments used against the implementation of the scheme in Toowoomba were:
That the image of the city would be damaged and that it would be referred to as ‘Shit City’ or ‘Poowoomba’; that it would become less attractive to businesses, industry and tourists and as a place to live; that there was no guarantee of water quality; and that the residents felt that they were part of an experiment, and felt like ‘lab rats’. To counter these ‘arguments’, the Toowoomba council listing places where such proposals had been implemented: Singapore has had waste water recycling it since 2003, Virginia (U.S.A) since the 1970s, and Namibia since 1968. It also stated that any recycled water would have to meet Australian Drinking Water Guidelines and the planned recycled water treatment plant would exceed these guidelines2.
The funny thing is that people everywhere are currently drinking ‘waste water’. While most people think of human sewage when they hear the phrase ‘recycled waste water’, those same people have been drinking water which has either passed through the urinary tract or alimentary system of assorted animals, or has been used as a toilet by other animals. At a base level: where do you think fish shit? In addition, many Australians already drink treated sewage. This is because many towns treat their sewage, then discharge it into rivers which are part of the catchment for dams which provide drinking water for other towns and cities. This is true even of the largest cities, such as Sydney. One of Sydney’s major water sources is Warragamba Dam. The dam’s catchment area has a population of about 116,000 people, most of whom live in the large towns of Goulburn, Lithgow, Moss Vale, Mittagong and Bowral. All of these towns treat their sewage and discharge the treated sewage into the catchment rivers of Warragamba Dam3. So, don’t be scared of drinking treated sewage, because you most likely already are.