Armidale Business Chamber holds drought forum to discuss our predicament

WATER WOES: Business chamber president Anthony Fox and council's general manager of business Scot MacDonald at Thursday's forum. Photo: Nicholas Fuller
WATER WOES: Business chamber president Anthony Fox and council's general manager of business Scot MacDonald at Thursday's forum. Photo: Nicholas Fuller

As Armidale and Guyra struggle with the region's severest recorded drought, the Armidale Business Chamber held a forum at the Bowling Club so the business community could hear from council and contribute to water policy.

"It behooves everyone - whether in business or in the community - to do whatever they can to conserve water," Anthony Fox, the Chamber's president, said.

"It's also up to council and other interested parties to look to see what policies we can put in place to make things better in the event that we have another drought."

OUR PREDICAMENT

The council area has just over 400 days before it runs out of water. "We are one of the largest cities facing a Day Zero," Armidale Regional Council's general business manager Scot MacDonald said.

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Armidale went onto Level Five restrictions at the start of the month; Guyra has been on them since February.

Rainfall to date this year has been well below average: a mere 216 millilitres. Armidale's average is 782 mLs; even the worst historic drought, that of 1873/74, had 420 mLs.

Above average temperatures and below average rainfall predicted for the next few months mean there is little hope of the drought ending soon.

"Council has to prepare for the worst," Mr MacDonald said. "We can't speculate that we're going to get rain, or we're going to get storms."

Even recent rain has only stopped dams falling.

Scientists warn we could have more severe droughts in the future. "So we really have to plan for the future as well as to deal with the present," Mr Fox said.

A COMMUNITY EFFORT

Armidale and Guyra residents have brought their water usage down in the drought, Mr MacDonald said.

"The residents probably took the lion's share of water reduction in demand and consumption reduction, and they've done a good job," Mr MacDonald said.

Before, citizens used 222 litres per day - above the state average. Usage fell to 180 litres in September; council has set a target of 160 litres.

If the drought worsens, and dam levels fall, that may fall to 120 litres (250 days away Day Zero), then to a meagre 50 litres (60 days from Day Zero).

Council's broad-brush campaign - including videos, talking to schools, and its 'Proud to Be Dirty' anti-car washing - had some effect, Mr McaDonald said.

Rebates on water-saving devices such as front load washing machines, dual flushing toilets, and showerheads were also popular.

"There is a steady stream of people coming in the council offices asking about these things and getting them underway," Mr MacDonald said.

WORKING WITH BUSINESS

Armidale Regional Council will work with all businesses to reduce their water usage in this crisis, Mr MacDonald said.

Council expects all business water users to develop a water saving plan, and to try to reduce usage by 25 per cent.

"We are realistic about the capabilities of some businesses to do better than others, but it's not the time for the head in the sand," Mr MacDonald said. "It's a time for having that conversation."

The plan, council said, includes a free audit of the business to identify opportunities for water saving; access to a business rebate scheme; a water saving promotional pack; and ongoing support to reduce water consumption.

Mr Fox appreciated that businesses use water in varying degrees; some don't use much at all, and some use a lot. "It will depend on each business to how they react, and how they conserve water," he said.

Some businesses reported that becoming water conscious had enabled them to reduce their operating costs. They achieved savings of 20 to 25 per cent, helping their bottom line. "There is some silver lining out of these things," Mr MacDonald said.

He warned, though, that businesses or citizens who broke water regulations were in the firing line for a fine.

"We do have the ultimate lever of turning off the water," Mr MacDonald said. "That's nuclear, and we wouldn't expect to be there, but that's our ultimate compliance tool as we approach 60 days."

Businesses that use outside watering and have previously applied for an exemption must re-submit an application form under level 5 restrictions and demonstrate they are developing strategies to reduce outside water use, council said. Application forms are available on the Council website, or from Council's Customer Service Centres in Armidale and Guyra.

Council may help some businesses, on a case-by-case basis.

MORE WATER NOW

Council is investigating ways to expand our water supply. Exploratory drilling for groundwater in Armidale and Guyra will buy us some time - but only weeks, not months or years. A network might also cost $10 million, Mr MacDonald said.

"This is not your white knight; it might supplement us for a little while," Mr MacDonald said. "If you're hearing about groundwater and people saying: She'll be right, it's not correct."

Council, Mr MacDonald said, would update the public of the results and figures. "We're working with state government about approvals, and fast tracking it as best we can."

Council also encouraged institutions like the University of New England to do their own bore testing and source alternative supplies.

Detecting substantial leaks in Guyra had bought days, Mr MacDonald said. Council also asked residents and businesses to look for leaks, and would assist.

Council has also alerted the Department of Transport may need to rail water from the south. Mr MacDonald said the likelihood was remote, but could not be dismissed.

MORE WATER FOR THE FUTURE

Council believes solving our water crisis needs a multi-faceted approach, Mr MacDonald said, involving demand management, improving our water infrastructure, as well as fixing leaks.

"Don't waste a good crisis!" Mr MacDonald said. "We hope we stick with the plans we've got, so when it does rain, these ideas don't go away."

Council this week opened tenders to extend the Malpas Dam wall, doubling its capacity from 13,000 to 26,000 million litres.

Even in the best case scenario, however, Mr MacDonald said, the dam extension won't be completed until mid-2024.

"There's no conceivable regulatory delays in there. It's just getting through the work - environmental work and all the rest of it. It might be able to be fast tracked by six months or so, but we look at it as the next drought management tool."

Mr MacDonald thought until then council residents might have to learn to live on 150 to 160 litres per day, as Melbourne citizens do.

"That gives us residential breathing space before a dam might be built or other measures kick in, and it gives us businesses some space to do that," he said.

Replacing Guyra and Armidale's old water treatment plants - Armidale's dating from the 1930s, and reaching the end of its life - could be a possibility.

So could sewage treatment and recycling wastewater - which Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall advocates.

The process could, however, be prohibitively expensive. Council's preliminary research suggests water could cost about $7 a kilogram - three times what we pay now. Tamworth's council has already rejected the suggestion purely on cost.

"Nothing is off the table," Mr MacDonald said, "but I know there'll be a lot of cranky people who would be facing if we went from 2.80 even up to five dollars or whatever."

Council will hold further meetings to discuss water policy. Two councillors were at Thursday's event.

"It's very clear from this forum that there are many ideas and many concerns," Cr Margaret O'Connor said. "People are starting to get an appetite for recycled water, which is absolutely critical, in my opinion, to our long-term sustainability as a community. If we want to grow, we are going to have to recycle water."

She has a notice of motion before council next week that a similar forum should be held in the Town Hall for the whole community, not just its businesspeople.

Cr Dorothy Robinson thought the forum was a very useful exercise. She believes people should receive feedback on how much water they use.

"If we can get everybody to cooperate and everybody to reduce their consumption, then we'll go a long way towards solving this problem, and not running out of water in 400 days time."

This story Drought forum: From coping today to securing water for tomorrow first appeared on The Armidale Express.