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Why does Australia waste its recycled water when it could be used to irrigate food crops?

Jess Davis, Saturday August 11, 2018 - 11:15 EST
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Farmer Marco Mason is reliant on recycled and believes it should be more widely available. - ABC

Australia wastes the majority of its recycled water that could be used on food crops — and farmers and local councils say it is a disgrace and want it made available for agriculture.

Vegetable grower Marco Mason started using recycled water during the Millennium drought in the early 2000s, when his farm at Werribee west of Melbourne ran out of water.

"We liked the idea of recycled water but at the same time we had no choice, we had the choice of not signing up to recycled water and having to stop planting," he said.

When the drought was over, Mr Mason said he was still reliant on that water.

"I was adamant after the first drought period that we wouldn't need recycled water at all," he said.

"And I was wrong.

"The drought continues, the shortage of rain continues, the weir does not fill up, so we're reliant on recycled water."

A better use?

Research from the University of Melbourne's Foodprint project found that 84 per cent of Melbourne's recycled water was pumped out to sea.

Mr Mason said that water should be used for more schemes like the one at Werribee.

"It's available, it's there, it's only a matter of investing money towards it," he said.

"Does that mean that the government invests that money? Yeah I think the government should be investing money."

On the other side of Melbourne, on the Mornington Peninsula, avocado grower Steven Marshall said he is desperate to get his hands on recycled water.

"It might look green, this season we've had a little bit of rain but our dams still aren't filling," he said.

"We're going to be going right down to the nail."

Just down the road, a pipeline from the Melbourne Water's Eastern Treatment plant is pumping 350 million litres of Class A recycled water out to sea every day.

That quality of water is good enough to irrigate Mr Marshall's crops.

"That's just not being used — mostly because it can't be seen," Mr Marshall said.

"It's in an underground pipeline — and if people could see it I reckon it would have got used by now."

Mr Marshall was working with the local council to get a project off the ground that would see that water delivered to farmers.

Mornington Shire Mayor Bryan Payne said it is a disgrace to be wasting so much usable water.

"What we want to do is distribute it across the whole peninsula so we can drought proof the place, we can use it for higher agriculture," he said.

"It should be a bi-partisan type exercise, it's a no-brainer, both Federal and State Governments should fund it to get the infrastructure, to get it up."

That is already happening in South Australia where the Virginia Pipeline Scheme, north of Adelaide had the biggest recycled water program in the country.

It was set up in 1999 and is set for a major expansion with both state and federal funding.

Too expensive

Anne-Maree Boland, an agricultural and environmental consultant, said that recycled water schemes do not often get over the line because they are too expensive.

"One of the problems is you need to move it from where its produced which is often in major cities, to where the agriculture is," Dr Boland said.

"So peri-urban agriculture is a really good use of recycled water but it needs to be moved to those areas."

Funding for pipelines is needed to transport this water, but it comes at a high price, including the cost of electricity used to move it.

The closer farmland is to a city, the cheaper it will be.

Feasibility studies are currently underway in Sydney and on the Darling Downs in Queensland but Dr Boland said business plans do not take into account less tangible benefits.

"We don't consider some of the other benefits such as environmental benefits and the fact we're freeing up another water source," she said.

And Dr Boland said there tended to be a lot of interest in recycled water when we are in the grips of drought, but it is often forgotten later once the rains come.

"But we should be really thinking about the future and drought proofing ourselves," she said.

"So looking at the best sources of water for different purposes."


© ABC 2018

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