Water plant standing between us and day zero

 

DESALINATE or die. That was the dire warning from then-premier Peter Beattie as he was confronted by a lone protester at the under-construction Gold Coast desalination plant during the so-called "Millennium Drought" in 2007.

The protester, local green activist Inge Light, had slipped through a security detail to shirtfront Beattie about the controversial $1.2 billion project's environmental and financial costs.

"I've got to be honest with you, we're going to build it (the plant), we've got no choice - unless you go up there and play God and make it rain for me," the premier declared.

"If you don't allow us to get desalinated water, frankly no one's going to be alive.

"If we don't have desal, we're not going to have any water.

"If you don't have water, you're dead."

It may not be quite life or death - Beattie wasn't averse to a bit of hyperbole - but as Queensland grapples with arguably its worst drought on record, the Tugun desalination plant is playing a key role in keeping water flowing to residents in the state's southeast.

Largely on "hot standby" since it opened in 2009 due to consistent rain events, the facility has been cranked up to full capacity after a tinder-dry spring and early summer which has seen dam levels plummet.

Since hitting 100 per cent production on November 18, the plant has pumped more than two billion litres of water into the southeast Queensland water grid.

It represents about 15 per cent of the region's water use, currently averaging at 212 litres per person per day, up from 183 litres this time last year.

The first large-scale desalination plant on Australia's east coast (Perth's plant opened in 2006), the Tugun facility occupies a sprawling site next to Gold Coast Airport, a few hundred metres from the beach.

It was originally planned as a much smaller Gold Coast City Council facility. But as the Millennium Drought bit deeper, the Beattie government invested almost $870 million in the project to more than double its capacity to 133 megalitres per day.

Gold Coast desalination plant manager Tina Feenstra. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Gold Coast desalination plant manager Tina Feenstra. Picture: Nigel Hallett

 

Gold Coast mother and environmentalist Inge Light wept at Gold Coast City Hall in October 2006 after councillors voted 12-2 to approve the project, saying it would worsen global warming and damage the marine environment.

"I'm emotional because I see my children's future being affected by global warming," she told The Courier-Mail at the time.

"It's incredibly sad and incredibly frustrating that we've got yesterday's politicians making tomorrow's decisions."

But the council, led by green-leaning mayor Ron Clarke, decided overwhelmingly that the desal plant was needed, and urgently.

"The region will run out of water if we don't deal with this and make the hard decisions," then finance committee chair and now Member for Southport Rob Molhoek said.

Construction began immediately by an "alliance" involving French water giant Veolia, construction firm John Holland, infrastructure company Cardno and engineers Sinclair Knight Merz.

In 2007, The Courier-Mail revealed that Veolia expected to take in at least $351 million from running the desal plant over the following decade.

Anna Bligh, who had succeeded Beattie as premier, took the first sip of desalinated water at a public open day in December 2008.

The plant officially opened in January 2009, but the State Government refused to accept ownership after a raft of serious defects were revealed, including rusting pipes, cracking concrete and faulty valves, as well as concerns over potential contaminants leaching from the former Tugun rubbish dump on which the facility was built.

In April 2009, the plant - supposedly the showpiece of the $9 billion southeast Queensland water grid - was shut down for almost six weeks as technical experts crawled through pipes to pinpoint faults.

A year later, the plant was again shut down, this time for three months, as a giant barge was brought in to make repairs.

Only months later, southeast Queensland was hit by the devastating 2010-11 floods.

Inside the Tugun desalination plant. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Inside the Tugun desalination plant. Picture: Nigel Hallett

Critics have labelled the desal plant a costly white elephant, but it has been used to help supply water during floods as well as drought, and when water treatment plants have been shut down for upgrades.

The Courier-Mail recently took a tour of the plant with its manager, Tina Feenstra.

Right on cue for our visit, the heavens have opened.

"It's a running joke for us here: whenever we're at full capacity, it starts raining," Feenstra says, handing us umbrellas.

Feenstra explains the desalination process, which begins with sea water being fed through a 4m mushroom-like inlet on the seabed, about 1km offshore, and into a pipeline to the plant.

Larger particles are screened out before the water passes through a finer filter which removes smaller particles.

The water is then pre-treated in large tanks which blend small suspended particles into clumps which are then removed by sand filters.

Next, the main process begins - removing the salt.

The water passes through thousands of reverse osmosis membranes to purify the water. It ends up being so pure, Feenstra explains, that chemicals and minerals then have to be re-added to make the water suitable to drink before it is pumped into the water grid.

Desalinated water does not come cheap, costing up to $800 a megalitre to produce.

It's also energy-intensive, consuming the equivalent electricity of about 12,000 houses a day when running at full capacity.

"But when it's hotter and drier than average as it is now, having use of a facility like this is a real asset, particularly when we don't know how long this drought will last," Feenstra says.

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