21 November 2012 – He’s back! Michael Mobbs is again contributing his Bathurst Burrs: in honour of his commitment to be a “burr in the saddle of  government, red tape and the sustainability police.”

In the 1990s the cities of Sydney and New York chose two very different answers to the same question: how to guarantee clean, safe drinking water for the city from a single water supplier?

This is their story.

  • Photo: The Catskills Mountains

After about 20 years of financial and water quality data it’s clear New York has the safer, most cost-effective water supply system.

New York decided to clean up the hills, mountains and waterways from which rain and ground water went to its dams. Once it got the catchment cleaned up the city would get water cleaned for free by trees, plants and soils.

So successful has New York been that the US Environment Protection Authority has exempted the city from the need to build water treatment plants until it reviews performance in 2018.

At the same time Sydney went for four big water treatment plants with billion dollar build and operation costs. The plants increased the average household water bill by $84 a year for 30 years. They suck up huge amounts of dirty electricity needed to force water through fine filters.

But when the water treatment plants were built, Sydney had one of Earth’s biggest city water quality scares. Tiny bugs able to get through the high tech treatment plants were discovered in the water supply and customers were told to stop drinking the water.

After that, with the city water supplier’s reputation forever in doubt, many customers and most hotels and other businesses which depend on clean water, spent millions of dollars installing and maintaining their own water filters so they can be confident the water will be safe to drink.

And the coal mines, sewage plants, piggeries, cattle and horse farms which pour waste into the soils and waters of the catchments continue to operate. Tree and vegetation clearing continues.

By contrast in New York city’s catchment, the Catskills Mountains, farms and industries have been cleaned up or have been acquired by the city and turned into parklands and natural resource businesses creating more industry and more jobs and profitable businesses than before.

The financial and environmental tragedy of Sydney’s water treatment plants is not one of technology but of poor decision-making.

In Sydney the decisions were made by politicians and engineers and companies promoting the big engineering solution. They poo-pooed the soft engineering solution. They did so even though they knew at the time the engineering plants could not be guaranteed to keep out the tiny bugs that were to later show up so catastrophically for their business.

After all, it would be citizens who paid for their toys, and they’d be forced to pay so they government owner and the engineers who built and ran the plants would profit.

But in New York different factors were at play.

The city had significant debts and it was forced to choose the most cost-effective option. The politicians at the top focussed on financial sustainability. Engineers in the water businesses were forced to deal with the financial impacts of their decisions on the city’s purse. And engineers in the city’s water business were not the main decision-makers.

So, instead of spending $8 billion on water treatment plants they spent $1 billion to close down or clean up sewage plants, cut out the use of fertilizers on farms and they planted more trees and plants.

The additional vegetation increased the water storage capacity of the soils and catchments, brought the city new tourist industries that delivered new jobs and made the economy more resilient; creating more water but no de-salination plant. Imagine that.

Across Australia and. still, in Sydney, however, engineers dominate the big decisions about water. They either dominate government water businesses upon whose advice and services governments depend, or large engineering firms dominate the strategic thinking and policy-making of governments. And large firms have a business model which depends on them having big budget projects to run to finance their overheads and profit targets.

Australian politicians, unaware of, and uninformed by their engineers of the New York success story, seem each month to be seduced by yet another big engineering solution being driven by engineers. Thus we get big water plans, big water treatment plants, de-salination plants, big and long pipe solutions.

Yet, other countries politicians and engineers have heard of New York’s success and have copied it by using the free clean up services of their ecosystems in Cape Town, South Africa; Columbo, Sri Lanka; and Quito, Ecuador. (1)

And in Sydney’s Chippendale, where the local council is formulating a new plan to make an existing suburb sustainable, there is a glimmer of hope. A soft, low-tech solution has been trialled and makes no use of big engineering firms and high capital cost solutions. It does not drive up rates or water bills. It increases property values by increasing tree growth and canopy; good tree populations bring higher property values, a link which is well documented.

It empowers citizens, increases tree canopy, cuts Sydney Harbour water pollution and has nil running costs.  The South Australian hydraulic engineer, John Argue, has research which demonstrates the solution is viable, causes no harm and sustains natural hydraulic ground water flows – even in the most difficult of clay soils (these are soils where water flow and road and building damage are linked to the reaction of the soil to water).

For less than $300 locals have replaced drains from buildings, with leaky drains that allow the natural hydraulic flows to return.

Most water falls gently in this city.  That rain now leaks gently to the road verges and returns water to the soil to feed the roots of trees that, previously denied the water, are now losing signs of growth stress and are able to grow to their natural canopy cover and height.  Over 4 million litres of water are being kept to make the road verges self-irrigating. And once the water is in the drains, no more maintenance is needed. And no energy.

For less than $5000 the whole suburb may have leaky drains fitted and keep over 100 million litres of previously polluting stormwater there.

Who is making these decisions? Not engineers from big engineering firms. Not politicians who wish to promote big, gold-plated, rate-payer funded monoliths. Just the local citizens and some independently-minded engineers. There’s no ribbon-cutting ceremony. No ego. No “look at me” stuff.

Curious, then, after this story that we might turn to the code of ethics of Australia’s main professional engineering body which says the duty of engineers is to:

The lesson here is: despite their code of ethics, if you ask an engineer for a solution you’ll get an engineering solution. Their ethics, in Australia, at least, seems to prevent engineers giving advice that will “support and encourage diversity” or to “balance the needs of the present with the needs of the future”.

New York shows how the question about how most effectively to sustain water resources is best answered when the answer is not dominated by engineers, profiteers and those who don’t have to pay the bills for the big solution they force on customers with limited capacity to choose other service providers.

And, finally, just to show how the law, like a code of ethics, can be useless, too, let’s refer to what may be the most ignored provision of the Local Government Act in NSW –  the one directing councils to apply the precautionary principle which says in part:

“  . . environmental goals, having been established, should be pursued in the most cost effective way, by establishing incentive structures, including market mechanisms, that enable those best placed to maximise benefits or minimise costs to develop their own solutions and responses to environmental problems.” (2)

The number of financial incentives offered by local, state or federal governments and which empower citizens to cut their water and energy bills and be rewarded with reduced rates or taxes are trivial.

And, as the last 20 years of water infrastructure decisions in Australia have shown, the idea of financial incentives to reward prudent conservation of this vital resource is yet to percolate both the engineering and political classes here.

(1) For a useful history of New York’s water infrastructure see:  Water – the epic struggle for wealth, power, and civilization, Steven Solomon, Harper Perennial

(2) Local Government Act s 4