Drought-ravaged town forced to drink treated toilet water

 

A town ravaged by severe drought and bushfire will be the first in NSW to use "toilet to tap" technology that adds treated sewage to drinking water.

Tenterfield locals will have a hard time swallowing drinking water that's been flushed down the toilet or kitchen sink, but the town has run out of options.

In about 74 days Tenterfield will reach day zero, when the taps won't run because there won't be any more clean water.

The Tenterfield water supply and ageing water treatment plant on the outskirts of town. Picture: Peter Lorimer
The Tenterfield water supply and ageing water treatment plant on the outskirts of town. Picture: Peter Lorimer

On day zero, silt from the dregs of the town's dwindling dam will clog up and cripple the 87-year-old water filtration plant. If the town's only bore failed, Tenterfield would reach day zero in 24 days.

"We have no bloody water. You don't have to be an engineer to realise the town's in trouble," Tenterfield Shire CEO Terry Dodds said.

"If you want a town with the balls and backbone to be the canary in the coalmine and reuse wastewater, well, here we are."

One of the many water drilling test sites around Tenterfield. Picture: Peter Lorimer
One of the many water drilling test sites around Tenterfield. Picture: Peter Lorimer

NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey backs the controversial plan to reuse wastewater, and suggests other dry towns may have to follow suit.

"I support the initiative by Tenterfield Shire Council, who in the face of adversity is leading the charge to safeguard its water infrastructure," she said.

Council staff will meet with NSW Health on Tuesday, where they will demand a clear position on drinking water recycled from sewage piped back into the dam.

The ageing filtration plant has to be upgraded regardless, and the council wants it equipped with extra technology to purify wastewater from the sewerage treatment plant.

Provided they get the green light from health bureaucrats, the council will go to tender on Wednesday morning.

"Council won't condone (recycled water) unless the drinking water is even better than it is now," Mr Dodds said.

"Hell, I wouldn't drink it otherwise."

Tenterfield Shire CEO Terry Dodds and Tenterfield mayor Peter Petty inspect the Tenterfield water supply. Picture: Peter Lorimer
Tenterfield Shire CEO Terry Dodds and Tenterfield mayor Peter Petty inspect the Tenterfield water supply. Picture: Peter Lorimer

This year will be Tenterfield's driest ever, eclipsing the previous record set in 1915, even if there is a highly unlikely return to average rainfall. Volunteer firefighter Neville Smith was badly burnt and four homes were destroyed in one of two fires that ripped through Tenterfield in the past month.

A 500-hectare bushfire still burns in the bush, visible from the main street of town, and helicopters fighting blazes in nearby Drake and Busbys Flat buzz overhead.

The bushfires have compounded the town's water supply crisis, as ash laden with germs that lands in the dam is too fine to be caught by the water filtration plant.

For the past two weeks, locals have boiled water for drinking, washing uncooked food, making ice, cleaning teeth and pets' drinking water.

Tenterfield Shire’s water supply dam. Picture: Peter Lorimer
Tenterfield Shire’s water supply dam. Picture: Peter Lorimer

Patients at the Tenterfield hospital receive bottled water and when school goes back on Monday, kids will take bottled water or chilled boiled water.

In a rare case of good fortune, the latest bushfire burnt an outdoor airconditioning unit and electrical wiring at the filtration plant but smouldered out before the whole building caught alight. If the water filtration plant burned down, Tenterfield wouldn't have any drinking water at all.

Farming charity Rural Aid has lent Tenterfield a portable desalination plant, which cleans the backwash from the water filtration plant to save every last drop.

The town's only functioning bore can only be used every second day to allow the underground aquifer to recharge.

The ageing Tenterfield water treatment plant. Picture: Peter Lorimer
The ageing Tenterfield water treatment plant. Picture: Peter Lorimer

Hydrologists have been "drilling like demented dentists" for three months in the search for underground water, at a cost of $500,000, but so far they haven't found any.

Tenterfield needs to find more bore water to tide it over until a new filtration plant can be built, which may take two years. The only other alternative is to truck water into town.

The most promising drill site reached a lake 41 metres below the surface convincing hydrologists they'd found a "goldmine of groundwater", but when they hit bedrock 69 metres deeper down they realised the underground lake was dry.

Residents in Toowoomba rejected a proposal to drink recycled wastewater in 2006, West Australians already drink recycled sewage and by 2023 California will combine recycled water directly with drinking water.

'I WON'T DRINK IT', LOCAL MUM SAYS

Sisters Kyla and Macy Battersby can't stomach the thought of drinking recycled sewage out of the kitchen taps in their Tenterfield home.

The girls are among more than 4000 locals who will need convincing that drinking water recycled from local wastewater is palatable.

"I don't like the idea of people's poo in my water," Kyla, 8, said.

Macy Battersby, 11, has some fun in the backyard with sister Kyla, 8, without using a hose. Picture: Peter Lorimer
Macy Battersby, 11, has some fun in the backyard with sister Kyla, 8, without using a hose. Picture: Peter Lorimer

 

The Battersbys don't water their garden, haven't washed their car in six months and the girls bathe in the same water two or three times before pulling the plug. The girls' mum Michelle would rather buy bottled water than try reused water from the sewerage treatment plant.

"I won't drink recycled water, that's for sure," Mrs Battersby said. "I worry about the girls missing the fluoride but not worried enough to give them recycled water."

Sisters Kyla and Macy Battersby have to save and reuse their bathwater in Tenterfield. Picture: Peter Lorimer
Sisters Kyla and Macy Battersby have to save and reuse their bathwater in Tenterfield. Picture: Peter Lorimer

Tenterfield Mayor Peter Petty faces the fight of his life to win his town over to the idea of recycled wastewater.

"This will be the biggest challenge this council's had," Mr Petty said.

"But if we can use water that we're otherwise wasting out of the sewerage treatment plant, and if that will get us through this drought, we need to."

He said it would be cleaner than the drinking water currently flushing through the pipes. Tenterfield's old water filtration plant doesn't remove odours, so those with a keen sense of smell can often detect the remnants of a rotting fish in their glass of water.