REAL AUSTRALIA

Voice of Real Australia: What happens when your cup overflows in the outback

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from ACM, which has journalists in every state and territory. Sign up here to get it by email, or here to forward it to a friend.

WHAT'S THAT: Foam in the river as a result of the first big rains of 2017, this picture was taken on November 17.

WHAT'S THAT: Foam in the river as a result of the first big rains of 2017, this picture was taken on November 17.

Katherine in outback Northern Territory has managed to dodge a bullet at the start of the wet season over the past three years.

That might not be the case this year.

As we feared, the construction of a new $15 million water treatment plant for the town has come a little late.

Thanks Power and Water for admitting as much, and looking out for us.

They are planning to distribute packaged water to townsfolk, the town has 11,000 residents, for as long as two weeks after the first big rain.

Each year at the end of the build up the first big rains flush a lot of rubbish into the Katherine River.

It would be hard to find a person in Katherine who doesn't want a decent wet season this year, but it does come with a warning, and not just the potential for floods. It looks bad, it smells, sometimes it can even have what looks like an oil slick on the surface, even a mysterious foam.

The bulk of Katherine's drinking water comes from the river.

In years gone by, this polluted river was of little consequence.

The water treatment people just cranked up the two bores they have installed just for that purpose to get through the worst of it.

Sometimes this polluted river can last just hours, or maybe days.

On October 31 in 1987, the town recorded 65mm.

It wasn't until November 17 that the next big rain, some 100mm, flushed the weir pool of the poor quality water produced by that first flush.

Back then, we drew down on the groundwater through the bores to keep the water flowing through the pipes and taps.

It was about the same year that PFAS-laden firefighting foams were used for the first time at the Tindal RAAF Base.

Those life-saving bores are now contaminated.

They have been for a long time and we just didn't know it.

The bores regularly return PFAS results of 0.2 when the safe Australian drinking standard is currently 0.07 micrograms per millilitre.

But we still drink the water from the bores, we have to.

To make the water "safe" an emergency treatment plant uses a super-sticky resin to clean the PFAS from the bore water but it can only treat about 10 per cent of our water.

The new plant, when it comes on line later next year, will be able to treat all of the town's water but we have this year to negotiate first.

The Bureau of Meteorology says a La Nina will produce an earlier and better wet season for Katherine.

Katherine is already on water restrictions, it has been for three years, it's the only way a "safe" supply of drinking water can be guaranteed.

To survive this first flush, even harsher water restrictions are being considered.

Interested in keeping on top of things but just don't have the time to read everything? Get the day's latest in one snapshot, why not sign up for The Informer newsletter?

More stuff happening around Australia ...

Sign up to get our Voice of Real Australia updates straight to your inbox