4 September 2012 — Imagine you’re running a big engineering firm. To sustain your size and income you need big projects with big budgets. Your business will die if only small projects are available. It will die, too, if the market swings to small projects to replace big ones.

Imagine, too, a city wants to sustain water for itself. It wishes to use the rain that falls there instead of importing water, and it wishes to use the city’s rainwater and sewage that’s being wasted to pollute harbours, oceans and waterways.

Having been asked by the city to suggest how best to use water sustainably, would any big consulting business be biased by its business model to promote big infrastructure projects?

Or would it suggest low cost solutions which landowners could do without the consulting firm at their local site, street or village level?

Would the big consulting firm help the council create a city of villages, each using local water sourced locally? Or would it create a mini version of a large mains water system such as the metropolis of the city presently uses?

Would your big firm, if it were a member of the Institution of Engineers, follow its code of conduct for members (of big and small firms) which requires members to:

  • Communicate honestly and effectively, taking into account the reliance of others on engineering expertise
  • Promote sustainability
  • Engage reasonably with the community and other stakeholders
  • Practice engineering to foster the health, safety and wellbeing of the community and the environment
  • Balance the needs of the present with the needs of future generations

Or would you only suggest data, design and solutions which require your services for big infrastructure?
The answer’s a no brainer, really, if you ignore the Code, isn’t it? You’d focus on big projects.

Imagine this, too, if you wish.

Both within any big consulting firm and most governments are folks who call themselves “specialists” or “experts” and who earn money by specialising in bits of water wherever it goes. They say water is so complicated each type of water requires a specialist to decide what to do. So, for:

  • Toilet and other so-called, “waste water”, they’ve got experts and departments in “water recycling”
  • Rain that falls on a city and is called “waste water” because engineers have designed things to treat it that way and send it away quickly to the sea
  • There are experts on “stormwater management”
  • For experts who invented themselves recently after seeing what’s being done overseas and have some limited, but also self-serving, criticisms of the business-as-usual practices with water
  • There are “water sensitive urban design” experts; surely we need more of this . . .
  • “Bike-sensitive urban designers”, “public transport sensitive consultants”
  • “There are generalists, too, such as “hydraulic engineers, water efficiency experts . . .”

There are five plans the council got from a big consulting firm to manage the one resource, water and which are drafts of:

  • Water sensitive urban design and stormwater infrastructure improvement plan – 90 pages and about 30 large maps
  • Recycled water plan – 92 pages with another 100 plus pages of maps and a range of options
  • Water efficiency plan – 70 pages
  • Decentralised water master plan 2012 – 2030 – 75 pages
  • Total pages  – 457 pages

These monoliths are said to be “on public display” for Sydney Council ratepayers to comment on or on the internet if they wish to read them there or print them.

Such documents may be “displayed” but for whom but the grey tribes of engineers? No-one else will read them. All are impenetrable to the ordinary eye – by which I mean the ratepayer paying for the five plans will almost certainly never read them and any attempt to do so would be abandoned. Yet we ratepayers will soon pay for infrastructure we don’t understand the need for to be built, designed and operated by water recycling engineers, water sensitive urban designers, water efficiency experts . . .

How come the council’s put out stuff to bamboozle us?

How did your ordinary rain drop and its journey triggers so much paperwork?

These five plans were made because they mirror the structure of big firms and big government who’ve made plans in their own image. Different experts in councils and other governments, and the big consulting firms, wrote or required different plans, each plan for their area of expertise.

What’s the physical impact of the five plans thus far?

Here’s a rough estimate of the climate pollution and water these five plans consume or cause for exhibition:

  • Two litres per page = over a thousand or so litres for my one set of copies
  • 1000 copies printed during the exhibition period = over a million litres
  • 500 copies printed each year thereafter = over half a million litres
  • 0.01 kilograms climate pollution per page = about 2 kgs for my copies
  • 1000 copies for the exhibition = about a tonne of air and other pollution

“Wait on,” I hear you protest. These folk say they’re trying to sustain the city’s water.

In his book, Seeing Like a State, James C Scott gives examples where many countries – from Russia, to China, to German, to Indonesia, to Thailand, to the United States . . . both rich and poor, have had or have governments meaning only to do good which end up causing immense cultural and environmental damage.

Now it’s Sydney’s turn. The city council, in trying to do good, has surrendered we ratepayers unto the grey tribes people who practice the dark arts of big city water infrastructure.

Is this a disagreement here about how to view the facts?

Yes, but more: the physical facts, the science and the regulatory facts are not in the documents about:

  • Whether it’s feasible, safe and a useful option to explore for city dwellers to drink rain water – there is no law in Australia I’m aware of preventing anyone in a city or the country from drinking rainwater
  • How some 3 million Australians drink rainwater everyday
  • No-one has died drinking rainwater in Australia in the last 200 years
  • How and at what cost property owners may affordably provide their own water services for offices, units or residential buildings
  • Financial incentives to building owners, tenants and businesses that reward them for using the water on their roofs, adjoining roads and road verges

These options, the science and the fact aren’t given or explored, nor are working examples which affordably solve these issues.

Take the financial incentives issue first.

NSW councils are obliged to consider financial incentives – rate rebates, fast-tracking of sustainable projects, deferred payments – when making red tape, rates and doing anything. Their duty’s in the Local Government Act.

There appears to be no rate rebate or other financial incentive in the five plans that rewards ratepayers who use less water, recycling water, drinking rain water, stopping water leaving a site and keeping it to nourish the soil and plants. There’s nought for anyone who chooses to go it alone and provide their own sustainable water systems. The plans continue the old top down, command and control approach; we’ll do it for you, give you no choice to do it yourself and no reward if you do show initiative.

Let’s look at how property owners in the central business district are about to have their pockets picked.

Offices there are the easiest to make self-sufficient for water; most water is used to flush the toilet and little is used for making cups of tea or coffee and most buildings use little for showers and almost none for clothes washing – these big water users are in residential and café buildings.

Costs are skewed in the plans where they’re given or not given at all; it’s impossible to know what future rates will be under the options whether for offices, units or housing.

For the CBD only high cost, single-site examples are considered.

Yet, at the Fivex building in Double Bay the average water use per person in the four story office is 1.7 litres or less than 300 litres a day for some 150 occupants. The sewage system cost $47,000 to build and less than $2000 a year to run, mostly for lab tests.

By comparison the gold plated sewage systems in six star buildings, the data from which seems to be driving the five plans, cost over $700,000 to build, over $50,000 a year to run and mostly perform badly. The plans compared these on site systems unfavourably – as they should be – with the big infrastructure systems being promoted by the big engineering firms. But they’re not the solution anyway.

They’re used in the reports, however, to skew the picture for we simple ratepayers because there’s no mention of the fine grain, low cost winning solutions – none of which were installed by big engineering firms who have no experience with them.

For stormwater only high cost systems are given as options for water running off sites – big projects with big pipes and lots of computer simulations of pipes sizes and performance under different rain intensities.

What’s being done at the local level, the success stories, is not analysed. In Chippendale, for a capital cost of less than $300 and $nil operating cost, each year some 40 buildings in our community keep over 4 million litres of stormwater out of the road gutters and Sydney harbour. For another $300 we could keep another 4 million litres and it’s so easy it’s something the community may do again. We did it to show the way to councils such as Sydney; pity, it seems to have passed them by.

Our rain water now waters our road gardens. We used unskilled labour – ourselves – to reuse existing drain pipes where they cross the verge. Where once the drains put rainwater from roofs into the gutters now it’s kept near where it falls to irrigate the gardens and plants and trees there. We dug up the pipes, drilled holes in them and covered them with a cloth (called “geofabric”) to stop the dirt filling the pipes, or we bought leaky drains (called “ag pipe”) from hardware stores and replaced the drains. Now the trees are looking less stressed. For that money we keep most of the water in Chippendale that falls on some 40 roofs.

Extending Chippendale’s figures, if we spent $300 in, say, 20 suburbs or villages, or a total of $6000 we ordinary citizens could do this ourselves in a week and keep 80 million litres of water where it falls to make our road verges greener, our roads cooler from increased tree canopy and our ants, birds and plants more robust and diverse. And no maintenance costs. With $20,000 we citizens could keep 240 million litres where it falls to stop that pollution of the harbour and ocean and to increase tree canopy and to cool our streets. You read it here, The Sustainable Communities Plan, you won’t find it in the five plans.

The Plan was given to the Council in July 2011 by the author and to be exhibited soon. The five plans don’t mention it and these or other examples in the Plan and elsewhere of fine grain, small cost, locally-driven solutions to water, energy, transport, food, and other elements the connections between which need to be acknowledged in any sustainable plan. Plans for those other things – energy, transport, and more, are being made in yet more plans proposed by the Sydney Council.

How many plans will it take, one wonders, to achieve Sydney’s vision to be sustainable? Will any citizen have the time to read or pay for them?

By comparison with the Chippendale and other examples the five plans propose spending millions of dollars on big city infrastructure and big city engineering firms to design it; precise figures can’t be given yet as the five plans dodge them. Call the plans “five blank cheques to big city engineering” and “blank rates bills for we who own land in the city”.

Is this just a difference of opinion about the best way to sustain water in a city?

Yes, but more: in the absence of a balanced outline of options, proven or unproven, the documents only present options which:

  • Give a role to big business, big consulting firms and which disempower rate payers, tenants, frogs, insects, trees, birds and plants;
  • Give no role to property owners, tenants or competitors to provide their own water and sewage and energy services.

It may be there somewhere, tucked away, but I could not find what I would call full disclosure about an inconvenient truth now dogging predictions water “experts” make.

The qualification now to be found on most computer-based water engineers – advice saying their predictions on future rainfall are based on existing records and cannot be taken to be accurate for the future due to climate change having already making rainfall too unpredictable for the computers to be reliable about how rain will fall in the future.

I’m curious if it’s there in the full documentation given to the council but not published.

What are we dealing with here?

Rain falls on roofs, roads, trees, hurrying pedestrians, cars and little birdies and even on my funny chooks who love to stand in it outside my kitchen. And there at my house, as deeply connected as I can be to that rain, since 1996 when the then Premier Bob Carr launched it, no rain has left the site except twice, once in 1998 and again in 2012.

And no sewage has left, either. Picture over 1.5 million litres of sewage kept within a square metre of soil where all is well.

The soil is clay, the type least capable of absorbing and holding water.

The garden is five metres wide and about five metres deep.

All the five plans, the rules and “standards” made by experts say it’s impossible. None refer to this and other houses and projects like it which keep water where it falls, or where folks drink rainwater. These plan-makers have used standards which don’t reflect real world dynamics and are the direct cause of our present, and now, it appears, our future unsustainable water use.

But hang on, if these criticisms of the plans are valid why have only a few of us gone sustainable?

Why, when it can be so easy and save so much money for us, is there so little sustainable development?

Because it’s about money and red tape. Every time, with some exceptions, when a citizen or property owner decides whether to go green or unsustainable it comes down to money and time.

But the five plans do not consider red tape and government barriers preventing sustainable use of water becoming mainstream – just pipe sizes, technology and engineering stuff.

Most development that happens in Sydney and every other council is unsustainable because council and other government rules direct most of the rain to roads then to harbour, river and ocean; think of road design rules made by road agencies.

Are the Sydney council and the road agencies about to change their red tape and make it easier to go green?

The plans don’t deal with red tape and offer solutions to empower individual landowners so let’s follow the money to see what will happen to those who choose to go green under the plans either alone or as part of the grand five plan water world that’s coming.

Firstly, let’s recap how every council in Australia financially oppresses its ratepayers but lectures them at the same time in their rates bills and council publications to use water sustainably. My rating experience supports the assertion that governments of all levels have no intention of truly empowering individual property owners to use rainwater sustainably.

Although less than a thousand or two litres of rainwater has left my house in 16 years every year my rate notice from the council says: “Stormwater charge $25”?. Slap in the face number one.

Remember – all these 16 years, and for the making of these plans, the NSW Local Government Act has directed councils to promote sustainable development by offering financial incentives in rates and by other means. Councils including Sydney Council in the five plans ignore that direction. Slap in the face number two.

The same direction is given (by another Act) to the government water business from which I used to get my mains water and sewerage services until I disconnected in 1996, 16 years ago, Sydney Water. Every quarter I read these words in my Sydney Water bill:

Stormwater charge $14 (or thereabouts). Slap in the face number three.

(It took 10 years to get them to stop sending me bills for a service I’d disconnected from; that story’s in my book about the house.)

These rates won’t change under the five plans except to go up in cost.

The bills are searchlights shining on the truth about what governments do when they design their infrastructure and make the red tape that cements their ambitions to be the only monopoly able to provide water services. Their business incentive is to sell water to make money from folks who can’t opt out of their service; like . . . that’s going to work to reduce water use?

Enough of this consultation process about the plans. It’s wallpaper politics.

Let’s work out how to sustain our city water.

Sustainable systems do things without too much fuss. They can be bought at the local hardware store and put in and maintained by local trades, keeping local money in the local economy.

If this is the measure to use then the expert-based culture of problem-solving for cities is unsustainable. It’s too complicated, too dependent on expensive infrastructure, and too difficult to maintain in these financially and energy constrained times.

“Don’t whinge, Mike,” I laugh. Do something.

Here are some actions underway:

  • Complain to the Institution of Engineers seeking a decision whether any of its members involved in this parody may have breached its Code of Ethics and, if so, whether they may be suspended, re-trained in sustainable design or somehow empowered to comply with the Code.
  • Put it on Facebook, wherever we can to spread the word
  • Sprinkle a little truth on the five plans and request some independent bodies to quantify the climate pollution they’ll cause, particularly the water sensitive one which has huge, unquantified embodied energy demands riven through it
  • Go on a rate strike for that part of the Council’s rates for “stormwater”. I’m already on a rate strike with Sydney Water and haven’t paid Sydney Water’s “stormwater” charge in 16 years and won’t
  • Complain to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission seeking a decision whether the claims in the documents are in breach of its guidelines about sustainability, climate pollution and other impacts
  • A request (yawn) to the government entity which has made an adjectival claim in its title to be “independent” – the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal. For some 16 years since it began setting water, energy, transport and other prices. It’s decided the amount of taxes – called “dividends” – which governments can take from the money we pay in our “user pays” water and energy bills. Thus, in truth we do not pay for the water we use from government owned businesses; we pay that plus taxes – but the dividend component is never disclosed in water bills. The Tribunal has decided for 16 years to annually increase these taxes. At the same it’s sat on its hands over the decaying, disappearing and unsustained water, energy and air resources of NSW. But, you never know, it may be worth dropping them a line if only to enjoy a laugh at the reasons the “independent” bag carrier will come up with for saying “get lost”. They’ll be “economic” reasons, I suppose, the same ones driving our declining rivers to dust and flood, our air to weather-breaking pollution levels
  • Make a submission to council about the five plans; are you kidding – a waste of time talking to council folks who assess public comments on their own pet projects.

And I’ll get as many of my fellow citizens to join me in these actions as I’m able to; many, I know, are over what they see to be their right to enjoy, harvest and respect the water and energy that falls freely where they live and work.

Time to rock n roll, to feel the sun, see how sweet the rain is at your place before it’s wasted, to count your rates and ask if it’s time to do something so your future ones won’t charge you for using water that falls freely on your place.

Join me?

(Disclosure: The author discloses he was a member of one of the tenderers for the project to sustain Sydney city’s water which was not chosen.)

Michael Mobbs’ book, Sustainable House, is the best selling account of how to build a sustainable project, what works and doesn’t. The book shows how Sustainable House has recycled more than 1.5 million litres of sewage in a five square metre garden in Sydney’s inner city Chippendale since 1996, uses rainwater for drinking, solar power for energy and provides accommodation for four people for utility costs of less than $300 a year.

See Michael’s blog – www.sustainablehouse.com.au