A DECISION to pause progressing the investigation into a desalination plant as a future water security measure until the financial implications are further explored has been unanimously supported by councillors.
A water security update was presented to the May 20 meeting of Port Macquarie-Hastings Council.
Mayor Peta Pinson, who put forward the recommendation, said the significant financial investment in the region's water security would be better spent on other water infrastructure projects.
"We are looking at a $600,000 spend on the investigation of a desalination plant. There was correspondence from the Minister for Water indicating that whilst they were supplying us with a sizeable grant of $2.4 million that they would not have any interest in supporting a desalination plant.
"This in itself is quite an expensive piece of equipment and is only required if our water system is unable to be managed via our pumping from the river. There are steps being taken to update and upgrade the opportunity to pump more water from the river in moments of turbidity and that will improve the filtration.
"When it comes to a desalination plant we are looking at between $80 million and $90 million dollars. It is money council does not have, or rather the community could not afford this.
"We have been already advised by the Minister there is no political interest in this from a state government perspective. In this climate and with the delivery (of projects) we do have to make to our community, $600,000 would go a long way."
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Cr Pinson said she could not support having a desalination plant regardless if council had $90 million to build it, given it has to be commissioned every time it is required.
Cr Sharon Griffiths said current works projects need to be a priority. She said council would be stepping "too far forward" before fully understanding the implications of spending a significant amount of money.
This is not an approach council should be taking, Cr Griffiths said, and it is a "very expensive exercise".
Cr Lisa Intemann said she is "no fan of desalination" but did agree initially that council should undertake a feasibility study to investigate a way forward. However costings of up to $800,000 for that study are a concern.
"I agree we consider this in the context that it be considered as part of the integrated water cycle management strategy so that strategy will advise us whether or not there's a need for a desalination plant. I'm more than happy to put this on the backburner," Cr Intemann said.
Cr Alley said he does not doubt a desalination plant is very expensive, but preliminary investigations will inform council and provide the information necessary to make a decision.
"I hope that we never have to go down the path of building a desalination plant. However the security of our water supply is one of our core and basic responsibilities. In light of that, I think it is prudent we dip a toe in the water, continue to get this report and do this initial investigation," Cr Alley said.
Council is currently exploring long-term secure storage options, as a part of its draft integrated water cycle management strategy. Those options are a desalination plant and the construction of an additional storage dam.
Both of those options require detailed feasibility study and analysis to develop an understanding of the deliverability of each project and the costs associated.
Director Dan Bylsma said by ceasing the feasibility around providing an emergency supply desalination plant, council is potentially delaying a study which may inform future decision-making.
Cr Rob Turner said the $600,000, which is drawn from the water and sewer reserves, could be spent on other projects in the draft operational plan for 2020-2021. He said it was important to seek more information on the financial impacts before councillors make a final decision.
"I don't want to stop planning for a desalination plant if it's essential because we've just seen what the future looks like for our community if we don't plan adequately for our water supply," Cr Turner said.
"I think the water supply security update report is a good report and it's good to see the council is progressing on the issues and not letting things slide. I'm still mindful we did have a very dry year last year and thankfully we are in a much better position this year and we are not looking at emergency supplies in 2020.
"It's only been a couple of months since council resolved to push ahead with a desalination plant and certain aspects relating to the feasibility. It's too soon to change horses mid-stream."
Cr Pinson said her decision was based on the future cost to the community.
"Council cannot afford it, the community cannot afford it. It will sit as a white elephant project and go nowhere. I really do believe we have other opportunities available to us.
"I also think we need to discuss financial impacts and those related issues and have that conversation."
Council's integrated water cycle management strategy is expected to be completed by June 2021.