Water-The Next Target For Environmentalists

Posted on Mon 09/15/2008 by

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Part 1 of 2 Parts

Some time in the early and middle parts of last Century, we had an enormous stroke of luck.
Politicians from one side or the other, realised that people needed good quality drinking water, and lots of it. To that end they approved the construction of large dams, and in places where there would be good catchment areas, in the case of you in the US, those catchments were in areas with good snow melt.
As part of that foresightedness, they also decided that they could even kill two birds with the one stone, so to speak, and some of those large dams included hydro electric power plants. The water flowed trough the outlet, driving the turbine, and then the generator, giving us reliable and constant electricity. That water didn’t go to waste, because it was used downstream for water supplies, and irrigation, so farmers could grow the crops that supply the food that we eat, and we could have quality drinking water. The dams also provided flood mitigation in some areas. In the event of huge rainstorms, then instead of the river rising, breaking its banks and flooding surrounding areas, the water backed up behind the dams. Those dams were constructed mainly in river headwaters, surrounded by high ground, and this in the main is where that rain falls, the low clouds being caught by the surrounding mountains and the rain falling there. The dams were designed so that huge volumes of water would back up behind them in the surrounding valleys. This area is called the catchment. In the event of huge amounts of rain, the water can be released in a controlled manner, easing the flood situation. Luckily, you in the US have Winters where there are good overall snow falls, and as the snows melt in those high areas, that also works towards keeping those dams topped up.
These foresighted engineers built these dams all across the Country, and they now supply the water that most of you drink.

Wouldn’t happen today.

No! Those rivers should be allowed to run free. If there is a proposal for a new dam, no matter how pressing the situation might be, those environmentalists will get in their gas burning cars, and drive hundreds of miles to protest about the environment, or find some obscure fish species that might not be able to swim upstream to spawn, or the consequent flooding of the area would take away the habitat of some species of animal or other, and that animal is always prefaced with the word endangered.

No matter how pressing the need may be, Politicians are now fully aware that even thinking of constructing a dam is out of the question. There’s votes to be lost in new dams.

Here in Australia, the same applies. However, unlike you in the US we only have snow melt in the one tiny area, and luckily, after the Second World War, far sighted visionaries decided that all that snow melt would be a great source of water for dams, and that the dams could have a hydro electric function as well. Consequently, we have that engineering marvel, The Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme.

In other areas though, the subject of water is a vexing one. True, dams were constructed last century to supply water to what is effectively, the driest Continent on Earth.

Part of the downtown CBD of Brisbane during the 1974 flood. Image from The Sate Library of Queensland. Click on image to open in larger window and to read the text.

In January of 1974, the city of Brisbane, the Capital city of my home State of Queensland suffered the worst flood in its history. In some areas close to where I live, 40 miles to the south of Brisbane, nearly 50 inches of rain fell in 2 days, and the local river rose from its normal level of 14 feet to just under 32 feet and large areas of the Gold Coast were flooded as well.

In the valley behind Brisbane there was one huge dam, The Somerset Dam. It filled rapidly, and unable to hold back the huge amounts of water, the spillways were opened to full. Brisbane was flooded and damage at the time amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Government at that time instigated an inquiry, and it was decided that to hold the vast amounts of water inherent with this one in a hundred year flood, then an even bigger dam would have to be built downstream from the Somerset, on the same river, The Brisbane River. The huge Wivenhoe Dam was constructed. This dam when full will hold three times as much as the huge Somerset Dam, and any flood of that 1974 magnitude would be mitigated. The water supply for Brisbane comes from these two large dams and one other large dam. On the Gold Coast where I live, we have the Hinze Dam for our water supply, and that has been above 95% capacity for a long while now, but because we are part of South East Queensland, we are also included in those draconian water restrictions. Such is the placement of that Hinze Dam the catchment being that area where the 50 inches fell, then it is an effective dam for getting nearly all the rain that falls in that area, adequately supplying the Gold Coast, and there are plans in train to raise the wall, effectively almost doubling capacity.

Now, nearly 35 years later, thoughts of a flood of that magnitude have receded.
However, there has been one very lucky outcome for the current Government.

We are currently under water restrictions here in South East Queensland. Now that might seem like nothing new. Consider this. The Government has had a very effective advertising campaign warning us that we are getting really short of water, and we need what might seem draconian water restrictions. That campaign has been quite effective. Water usage in South East Queensland has dropped to an average use per person of around 120 litres, or around 25 gallons of water per day. That includes everything. Washing, showering, cooking, cleaning, the whole deal. You are not allowed to water your garden unless you use ‘grey’ water from inside the house, water that has been previously used like from showering washing or whatever. You can use buckets to water some parts of the garden, but just turning on the sprinkler for your lawn is out of the question. You couldn’t even use water to wash your car. The campaign has been so effective that water use has dropped to a more manageable level we are told. The Government sent out information letters to every household and these packages included a small hourglass sand timer calculated to three minutes, so you could stick this to the wall of your shower and know when to turn off the shower after those three minutes had expired. All the Hotels and tourist complexes also have these rules and some even have it so that the shower turns off after 4 minutes. That 120 litres of water use per person amounts to the same amount you might use during a short shower in the bathroom. That amount is also the total for everything you use water for, so you can see from that, it’s not very much at all.

Now, having said all that, the situation is positively dire they tell us.
However, one thing that seems to have escaped everybody is this.
That huge new dam that was constructed to mitigate the one in a hundred year flood is now part of the overall water supply for South East Queensland. Because it is so huge, it is nowhere near being full, and never has been. Because it is just over one quarter full, the perception that overall water supply is low is engendered. Because of its huge size and that it adds to the overall water stocks, that low level in that dam contributes towards lowering the overall percentage, and it does this in an artificial manner. The total stocks for South East Queensland amount to just over 41%. We are told that because of this low level, then we need to keep on with what amounts to draconian water restrictions.
That 41% might actually sound like the level is low. Simple calculation on water used at that 120 litres per day per head of population mean that there is around 4 years of water left in those dams in the area, and that’s if there is no inflow for those next 4 years in the way of rain.
Also because the huge, Wivenhoe even at only at one quarter full, is still holding an immense amount of water. That amount of water is as much again as the original Somerset Dam holds when it is full. Somerset flows directly into Wivenhoe, so any overflow from Somerset flows directly into Wivenhoe. That being the case, no water is lost at all from the system. It has been a very clever campaign by the Government, because if that amount of water in Wivenhoe was added to what is in Somerset, currently running close to 90%, then there would be more water than flowed into the system during that incredibly disastrous flood of 1974.

A further effect from the current campaign is that local Authorities have increased their costs for water to the public, and we now pay more than triple for our water than what we used to pay.

Also, because of the very effective campaign, the Government now tells us that we need a huge desalination plant to augment the water we have here in South East Queensland.
This plant is being constructed close to the ocean here on the Gold Coast and will be up and running in another year or so.
Desalination plants are one of the largest consumers of electricity that you can have for an industrial plant.
So, to supply us with water that we really don’t need, then huge amounts of electricity will be used to provide that. Queensland power plants are in the main coal fired plants, and in fact 80% of the total power for the State of Queensland is from these coal fired sources.
So what is actually happening is that more coal will be burned producing more carbon dioxide greenhouse gas to give us water, and because an immense amount of money will be consumed for the construction of the desal plant, then the overall cost of water, will, (sadly so the Government tells us) inevitably rise. It seems that the environment is being used on one side of the argument, and then conveniently not mentioned for the other side of that same argument.

I fully understand that a local situation in far off Australia will have little meaning to you in the US, but it is indicative of Government attitudes towards the people who put them there in the first place.
They will tell you with hand on heart that they are doing these things in your interest.

Then what they do is to manipulate things to their advantage so they can raise taxes. Sort of creating a crisis when no real crisis exists, and then telling you that it’s for your own good.

Thank heavens that those dams got built when they were. There’s no way they would be constructed these days.
Man, are we being conned or what?