Ramblings of an old fella


This post was written for global blog action day 2010 in the name of water.


I grew up in the South Island of New Zealand around the time of construction of the major hydroelectric dams. The dams were a tourist attraction. In transit from Christchurch to Queenstown the buses would make a special trip into the Benmore dam so we could all wonder at the size of the dam wall, the spill way and the huge turbines which were going to supply power for both the South Island and the North.

For the next two plus hours the bus would travel alongside the ever-growing dam itself. We could see the tops of trees that had been drowned by the rising water. Houses, farms, towns all went under water.

Not that many years later the dams started to dry up. The rain had stopped in the Mackenzie basin. Everyone blamed the new dams. Why did we play with nature – anyone with half a brain would know that without the trees the rain would stop. So it went on. Everyone had his or her theory.

Without the rain and the ever decreasing water levels electricity output was reduced. We were put on power restrictions. That is when I developed the habit of turning the lights off when I left a room. Not something my wife appreciates when she is doing the crossword!

It got to a stage where there were demands from South Islanders to ‘cut the cable’ and stop power being supplied to the North Island. The feeling was high enough with North v South rugby games and more North Islanders being in the All Black teams, but supplying them with electricity while the mainlanders went without was too much to accept.

As nature does the rains returned and the dams started to fill again. They have remained at acceptable to high levels ever since.

In fact just recently due to low power consumption Benmore opened the floodgates and released thousands of cubic metres of water thundering down the Waitaki River. Now again, as nature does, this was a blessing for the Waitaki River because didymo, the weed that smothers rocks and chokes waterways, had accumulated in the Waitaki. The deluge of water from Benmore flushed the weed away. Nature at its best.

A number of years after the South Island drought I moved to Auckland, in the North Island, with my wife and four sons, much to the derision of my South Island mates. I became what they called a Jafa which I won’t explain here – a hint is J is for just and the last A is for Aucklander.

Supplying them with electricity while the mainlanders went without was too much to accept

Well nature did its thing again and the rains stopped falling on Auckland. So by 1994 we had what was know as ‘Auckland’s great water shortage.’

The powers that be used some imagination and used the low water storage coverage to get in and dig out the reservoirs to make the storage areas deeper so once the rains returned there would be more capacity. Not a bad idea!

They also constructed a pipeline from the mighty Waikato River to serve the greater Auckland region. This was not done with full approval and acceptance by local Maori.

Again as nature does the rains returned. In fact I don’t think it stopped raining from 1994 until I left in 1999.

The doomsayers were left without a story. Or were they? It seems that even now the leaders of Auckland have serious concerns about the Auckland region’s water capacity.

However having experienced what seemed like 5 years of constant rain I decided to up the family and move to the sunny Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia.

After the first six months of constant rain I started to wonder why we had left Auckland.

Now as people who know Australia understand there is a pattern and it goes something like this. Drought, which can go for years; floods, which cut off towns and drown stock, usually followed by good to dry weather which allows the lower growth (fuel it is called in Australia) to get a spurt on so we can have the bush fires! Seems to happen like that all the time.

The last large bush fire in New South Wales, circa 2006, let more CO2 into the atmosphere than the city of Sydney in an entire year. Nature can be very strange.

Back to my rambles. The past six years or so have generally been drought in Queensland. Our water levels decreased to alarming levels. At one stage the main city of Brisbane only had 21 days of drinking water in reserve.

As with all politicians this level of water crises made them think of possible solutions.

One of the first actions was to start the design and construction of a pipeline to take brown water to cool our coal fired power plants. Yes believe it or not a State with consistent water problems was using millions of litres of drinkable water to cool power stations. Bad enough we still had coal powered stations but to waste drinking water!

The Gold Coast Council went event further. At this stage the Coast Council still had control of local water – another story.

With Ratepayers money an off/on shore desalination plant was commenced. Now $1.2 billion seems a very large amount to protect future water supply and even more so when the end product can’t run at more than 30% capacity. The cost per million litres from the plant is $730 compared with $200 from the dams. If the plant was running at 100% it would consume enough electricity to light a city the size of Mt Isa – look at a map to find that. Is that good planning?

The council also decided to raise the floodgate wall of the main Hinze dam by 10 metres. A costly, but on the surface wise decision. When completed the Hinze dam would be capable of holding double the current water supply.

Then came the State Government’s decision to take control of all water and sell it back to the local authorities. Sound economics – I don’t think so.

Nature then reverted back to its cantankerous best and decided it was time for a wet period.

Dams that were 10% full are now over flowing, the river system of central Australia has wandered down to Lake Eyre that is in bloom. Both Wivenhoe and Hinze dams are releasing millions of litres of water every day. Good management – one would think not.

Toowoomba located on the Darling Downs south of Brisbane had 7.8% capacity in its dam in January. With the wet times it has now risen to 30%. They can pump water from the overflowing Wivenhoe but it costs money to pump the water uphill to the dam. Add to that the fact that the State Government wants to charge them for this water – that is the same water they are releasing at the rate of 24,000 ML per day. Good management – I think not.

What is my point with these ramblings? Well they are two fold.

1. Nature has a habit of correcting itself. Where microclimates are changed due to mankind’s constructions or damage they seem to adjust and return to a similar pattern. The floods of today are often a repeat of the floods 30 years ago.

2. Management. We simply don’t manage water well. Water is like gold, it attracts every politician and crook around. I once sat in a meeting with Federal Government officials who talked abut spending the first $21 million of a $48 million budget on writing white papers. It is still costing the Gold Coast ratepayers $36,000 per day to run the desalination plant when millions of litres of water are being released from the dam.

It cost the Indian Government $3 billion to build the infrastructure and run the recent Commonwealth Games. A games that had nobody in the stands but had a dengue infected river/drain next to the athlete’s village. Would that $3 billion not been better spent delivering clean drinking water to the billion plus population?

Our politicians at all levels seem to react to what nature throws at them rather than plan for using nature to our advantage. Harvest the water when it is plentiful and use when it is not. Don’t allow homes to be built on flood plains, ensure that flood prevention constructions will in fact withstand the force of nature.

All these rambles bring me to my next point – fluoride in our drinking water. What do you think of that?