Fresh approach essential for TasWater woes
In 2015 there were more than 900, yes that's right, 900 spills of raw effluent leaching into the Tamar River Estuary from the Margaret Street Pump Station.
Unacceptable you may say? Well a marked improvement on 1200 "incidents" a year earlier.
To paint a picture, instead of celebrating the Launceston Regatta and Henley on Tamar rowing races as a fantastic way to spend the Eight Hours Day Public Holiday, we encouraged users to keep their mouths shut if they fell out.
But, after sustained advocacy, the state now has both major political parties committed to water and sewerage reform.
They may have different approaches, but they now have a clear, shared objective to drive improvement. We have been provided a choice.
However, when Hobart City Council and Brighton Council voted against a TasWater takeover by the State Government, they made the job of cleaning up the Tamar once and for all even more difficult.
Launceston City Council is the State’s largest owner of TasWater with a 13.62 per cent stake. Improving the health of the Tamar River through state government ownership is both a viable option and a long-term solution that is well understood at council level.
A state government should at the very least provide first world water and sewerage services.
At present, that’s proving impossible as TasWater has 29 different owners, all with vested interests and conflicting agendas, albeit committed to their municipalities, but failing to provide a collective voice which will deliver improved services for the whole of Tasmania.
State government ownership of TasWater must be the preferred option as the local government sector continues to struggle to grasp the enormity of the task that faces the state.
This is a state building exercise.
The creation of TasWater was due to neglected water and sewerage infrastructure which failed to meet the standards required by everyday Tasmanians. Raw sewage, inadequate drinking water, failing pump stations and a general lack of regulatory compliance was the legacy of the local government sector who historically managed the infrastructure.
Since 2008 several important improvements have been achieved such as two-part pricing, common water tariffs and plans to address some infrastructure deficiencies, however, the new regime has failed to deliver the efficiencies of hydraulic systems coordination that was anticipated.
TasWater is under-captialised to complete the major infrastructure projects including Launceston’s dual system and the Macquarie Point relocation project.
The Property Council believes the granting of dividends and taxation equivalent entitlements to owners, especially given the under-capitalisation of the water and sewerage sector, is overly generous and one of the reasons why debate on TasWater ownership remains. Until regulatory standards are met, dividends should not be paid to the owners of TasWater.
The profits, described as dividends, are bogus.
They don’t exist because the money belongs in infrastructure improvement.
It is laudable that TasWater will address infrastructure deficiencies over the next 10 years, however this is a further decade of ignoring the compliance regime which suggests that sewer outflows in Tasmania are at seven times the national average.
Over the next three years, TasWater will ensure that the twenty-five boil water alerts and five do not consume notices are remedied. Frankly, this should have been sorted years ago.
The Tamar River remains one of the most talked about waterways in Australia but ultimately, a cleaner and healthier estuary system is an important result for all Tasmanians.
And while we are not the only community who experiences the complexities of acid sulphate soils, flocculation, water and sewerage infrastructure, and agriculture and industrialisation which has impacted water flow, we do arrive at the same point each time an election is on the horizon.
The solution to the Tamar’s woes can either be found in the separation of the dual storm water and sewerage system, or through rationalising the number of waste water treatment plants and increasing the capacity of detention basins to deal with flood events.
It will require both a collective voice and the injection of significant capital. That simply won’t happen with 29 different owners located across the state.
If councils had the capacity to deliver the required improvements to meet basic health, economic and environmental concerns caused by ageing and neglected water and sewerage infrastructure, they would have delivered it well before now.
However, we need to be clear on how the State Government intends to overcome such problems as the raw sewage discharges into the Tamar, the relocation of the former Hobart City Council waste water treatment plant on Macquarie Point, and stinky odours at Montrose that threaten the expansion of the internationally acclaimed and high profile MONA enterprise.
State ownership offers the proper capitalisation of TasWater to overcome significant problems with current infrastructure in a shorter time frame. Importantly, change of ownership is an opportunity to undertake several large additional projects that will otherwise linger, risking delay and loss of economic opportunity.
The dividends phase-out period under offer is a more than generous concession.
We understand that the predictable long-term income streams to council budgets is tempting. However, all councils must consider the bigger picture and give determining weight to the overwhelming public interest in finding a solution.
Rest assured, Northerners and average punters won’t be keeping their mouths shut until water and sewerage infrastructure is fixed.