This is the first story in a three-part series looking at how Port Macquarie-Hastings is relatively well-placed for water storage when compared with other cities and towns across the state and Australia. So what does the future of water use looks like?
The next time you look at the water component of your council rates notice and grumble about the cost, you may want to consider the residents of the 50 or more towns across rural and regional Australia that are fast running out of water.
For the residents of these towns, running completely out of water before Christmas is a very real prospect.
This immediate drought catastrophe will see many communities facing the toughest of water restrictions, and being forced to purchase water, sometimes from long distances.
These towns are literally bone dry.
The response from the federal and state governments has been to deliver a $1 billion water infrastructure package. These projects will include new and expanded dam projects, including a $650 million upgrade of Wyangala Dam in the state's Central West and a $480 million new Dungowan Dam near Tamworth.
Prime minister Scott Morrison says the package deals with immediate needs for financial assistance and longer term investments to build drought resilience for the future.
Off the back of one of the worst droughts for some time, the rather sobering fact is that Port Macquarie-Hastings is relatively well-placed for water storage. The reasons why we are so well positioned today can be traced back to decisions made in the late 1990s.
There have been a number of successful water-saving initiatives that have helped change and shape our local water use habits over the years.
One plank of those initiatives was the decision to construct the Cowarra Dam, which was commissioned in the mid-2000s. Other contributors include:
- the introduction of mandatory water conservation measures,
- an inclining user-pays water billing structure,
- council's initial WaterWise development plan, and,
- extensive community education and rebate programs.
And despite experiencing significant population growth since the early 2000s - a factor that generally increases local water supply demands - the Port Macquarie-Hastings' water use has remained relatively in check.
Council introduced mandatory level 1 water conservation measures July 1 2004 and a two-tiered 'user pays' pricing structure for water consumption in July 2005 to complement its already successful water education campaign.
Between 2006 and 2008, council actively encouraged residents to change their water usage habits by offering cash rebates to install water efficient shower heads, appliances and dual flush toilets in their homes.
Council also decided to make it easier to install household water tanks.
The true impact of these measures was evidenced within 12 months, with annual water consumption decreasing to 5.8 million kL per year in 2006, 5.7 million kL in 2007 to a five-year low of 5.3 million kL in 2008.
When current deputy mayor Lisa Intemann was first elected to council in 1995, Frank Harrison was the mayor.
Cr Intemann says her first four years as a councillor was spent on strategic planning.
"It was fabulous. We were preparing for the positioning of the Port Macquarie-Hastings area in terms of our location between Sydney and Brisbane, our relatively unconstrained land availability and the likelihood we would be a growth area," she said.
"We needed to look at all our resources, including water supply.
"It was popular at the time for ocean outfalls. I remember having a day where about 300 people turned up to a workshop and we basically talked sewerage all day.
"Those at the meeting clearly decided to not pursue ocean outfalls."
Council's response was to upgrade the Port Macquarie Wastewater Treatment Plant near Kooloonbung Creek and release tertiary treated water through that waterway.
Port Macquarie's only water source at the time was the Port Macquarie dam which was never going to meet the needs of our growing population, the deputy mayor said.
Former water engineer Murray Thompson was "at the epicentre of the decision to construct the Cowarra Dam" she said.
"There was some very involved strategic planning which eventually saw us be the envy of so many other councils," she added.
But it wasn't all smooth sailing with a number of farms on the dam site impacted - and eventually bought out.
There were also some environmental concerns, but Mr Thompson worked closely with local Indigenous leaders on a number of fronts.
"Murray did some amazing work in this area, including extracting usable timber, and tree ferns were harvested and appropriately relocated.
"It was a tremendously integrated planning project including remote monitoring of water levels, and was brought in on time and within budget.
"And while I can't compare what we did 20 years ago in terms of water security today, we are certainly placed well ahead of the pack.
"The construction of Cowarra Dam has given us priceless peace of mind."
With Port Macquarie's population forecast to grow to 102,926 by 2036, council is continuing to strategically plan for water security.
New technology could also play an integral part, according to the deputy mayor.
"We are currently generating some two megalitres a day of recycled water and council is now well into the planning stages of its integrated water cycle management plan," she said.
"That (plan) could be completed by June 2020.
"This is a 10-year strategy with water system upgrades that could come at a cost of around $120 million.
"We have earmarked filtration as the next major step forward for council and community - filtering water from the river into the dam and then from the dam into the water mains.
"The first will allow pumping even after strong rain when the river is very turbid with sediments. The second will remove algae in the event that dam levels are very low."
The upshot of this filtration project is that council would not be so restricted in when and how much water it can pump from the river after strong rain.
Other planning includes the potential to raise the height of the Cowarra Dam wall to increase capacity from 10,000 megalitres to almost double at 18,000 megalitres.
Those plans are likely to come into focus at some point prior to 2050.
Cr Intemann said council is well positioned because of good infrastructure planning and a great community who values water and never wastes it.
"Every drop counts," she added.
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