Mercury Talking Point: Sewerage figures are on the nose, 6 July 2017

Peter Gutwein repeatedly criticises TasWater for providing third-world drinking water and sewage management. The minister repeats the same few statistics as if they prove TasWater is a failed institution and the only solution is for him to take it over.

A closer look at the minister’s statistics shows that he has seriously misled us.

In regard to drinking water, his claims are fanciful and do not require serious response, apart from repeating what TasWater has said, that 99.4 per cent of Tasmanians connected to TasWater receive drinking water that meets national standards. By August 2018 this will be 100 per cent. So, unless all of Australia’s drinking water is “third-world”, Mr Gutwein’s claim is just untrue.

Mr Gutwein’s claim that TasWater has seven times the national rate of sewage spills per 100km of sewer pipe is more than misleading.

Different regulatory and reporting requirements in each state means that valid comparisons cannot be made. Mr Gutwein is not comparing apples with apples and should stop this invalid comparison.

TasWater is required by the Environment Protection Authority to report smaller sewage spills than many interstate utilities. Different regulatory requirements on the mainland mean smaller spills are not reported and this reduces the interstate average and makes it appear that their utilities perform much better than TasWater.

If you do a little web research you will discover that TasWater is required to report all sewage spills over 1000 litres and actually, voluntarily, reports all spills to the EPA.

Sewerage utilities in Western Australia only report spills of 10,000 litres in some circumstances and in Victoria they only report spills over 50,000 litres. Queensland reports any sewage spill of 10,000 litres or if there is a threat to public health or if there is noticeable impact on the natural environment.

The difference between “reported” and “actual” sewage spills and the different regulatory reporting requirements is not acknowledged by Mr Gutwein.

The volume of sewage spilt is not accurately recorded by any state (mainly because it is very difficult to measure) so we don’t know how TasWater compares. Anyway, it is more important to know the impact sewage spills have in each specific environment, so that upgrades can be prioritised. Not all environments are as sensitive or important for people and industry. This work is being done by TasWater and conveniently ignored by the minister.

Mr Gutwein implies that Tasmania’s higher rate of sewage spills is because of TasWater’s ageing infrastructure and slow response to replacing it. The Bureau of Meteorology report, “National Performance Report 2015-16 — Urban Water”, lists many other risk factors: rainfall, temperature, tree-root intrusion, trade waste, soil type, pipe material and age, operational methods and volume of inflows.

If TasWater acquires state-of-the-art sewerage infrastructure, we may always live with a slightly higher rate of sewage spills because of higher risk of flooding and tree-root intrusion. This might be why Mr Gutwein has never promised to reduce sewage spills to the national average or any other measurable level.

Mr Gutwein has repeatedly said that, in 2014-15, only one out of 78 sewage treatment plants managed by TasWater was fully compliant and 81 per cent (84 per cent in 2015-16) of the volume of sewage released into water ways met the EPA’s discharge limits.

However, the minister has exaggerated how bad the situation is and fails to acknowledge the reasons for TasWater’s slow progress or its recent achievements.

The statistic that one out of 78 sewage treatment plants is fully compliant is a poor measure of performance. Fully compliant means a plant complies all the time or every time it is tested. The other 77 treatment plants are being given a failure because they are not passing every test.

The volume of treated sewage that is compliant is a much better measure of performance. Still, 84 per cent is not good enough and progress has been slow.

One reason for the slow action on sewage treatment is that the EPA has agreed that TasWater could prioritise fixing drinking water over recent years. This significantly delayed some sewage treatment plant upgrades. By August 2018 our drinking water problems should be fixed and TasWater can focus solely on sewage treatment. This was a sensible but very brave decision that a politician would not have made.

The EPA has developed an MOU with TasWater that commits it to make a 20 per cent improvement in sewage treatment compliance over the next three years. This is not acknowledged by Peter Gutwein. The first step will involve relatively quick and cheap improvements to operation of existing sewage treatment plants. But to take the next step, and get close to 100 per cent compliance, will require replacement of some larger treatment plants, which will take many years and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Progress is being made. TasWater’s research has found that two non-compliant sewage treatment plants in Kingborough are causing significant environmental harm and will be closed. The Blackmans Bay plant will be upgraded to replace them and approval for this is close.

While TasWater compares poorly with mainland sewage treatment utilities of a similar size, both the EPA and the Tasmanian Economic Regulator have warned that these comparisons may be misleading. Minister Gutwein ignores these warnings.

The 2015-16 EPA annual report states: “Most utilities in this cohort reported compliance levels exceeding 99 per cent. It should be noted that ... TasWater is being compared with utilities servicing predominantly metropolitan areas. TasWater on the other hand, services a mix of regional and metropolitan areas. For example, TasWater manages 111 Waste Water Treatment Plants while other mainland utilities in this group operate between one and 27.”

TasWater is being compared with some utilities that have just one treatment plant and none manages more than one quarter of the number TasWater manages.

TasWater has a massively greater amount of infrastructure and therefore a greater financial burden in proportion to its customer base.

Given the large amount of infrastructure and smaller population, you would expect TasWater bills to be similar or higher than those on the mainland, but they are much less.

The Tasmanian Economic Regulator report shows that the typical annual bill for a Tasmanian residential customer in 2015-16 was $1062.

The Bureau of Meteorology report “National Performance Report 2015-16 — Urban Water” found that the typical national annual residential bill for 2015-16 was $1386. Minister Gutwein doesn’t acknowledge this fact.

Councils and the public can be confident that the statistics being used by the State Government do not support its exaggerated claims of a crisis and does not justify a State Government takeover.

Peter McGlone is the director of the Tasmanian Conservation Trust.