Bathurst Burr: The tragedy of wasted water

The bobcat is a metre deep in sludge, its treads resting on the concrete floor of this council-made lake.

I watch it, enjoying the warmth of this year’s February sun.

The bobcat ladles each bucket of sludge to a holding pond from which the gunk is transferred to trucks and thence to a distant toxic waste dump. Thousands of tonnes of it.

Lake Northam in Victoria Park, Chippendale, is being cleaned out by the City of Sydney, which has complete dominion over it and all that happens there.

When the bobcat and trucks are gone the lake will once again receive rain and water borne sludge from the park it sits at the bottom of.

Lake Northam in Victoria Park, Chippendale.

From here the sludge and water flows to Sydney Harbour where each year 500 billion litres or similar sludge and pollution from Sydney’s roads, houses and parks pollutes the water where whales, fish and little critters breathe. (1)

[Ed Note: The City of Sydney said it was:

  • installing two new stormwater pollution traps for Lake Northam
  • removing existing sediment and installing a new recirculation system, pump and weir to improve water quality
  • installing a new bio-retention zone and a new wetland designed with reed plants to clean and filter stormwater runoff in the lake.]

And each year Victoria Park sends over 18 million litres of polluted sludge and water to Blackwattle Bay in Sydney Harbour.

In Australian towns and cities we see road gutters run full of only-moments-ago beautiful clean rainwater, tonnes of precious water wasted to pollute rivers and oceans.

This “toilet cleaning” of Lake Northam is remarkable for one thing – the invisible pall of hypocrisy which hangs over the lake. Mmmm … maybe it’s more ignorance?

Anyway.

On 13 December 2016 its Mayor, Clover Moore, said, “We have two options: dramatically cut emissions in the next four years or watch global warming steam past the 1.5 degree mark – that’s the reality we now face … (t)o meet this desperately urgent challenge, we need to do twice as much in half the time. Incremental change won’t do, we need a step change in action.”

Sounds like a useful goal – work to achieve “twice as much in half the time”.

In the musical L’il Abner they sing:

“Them city folks and we-uns are pretty much alike,
Though they ain’t used to living in the sticks.
We don’t like stone or cement, but we is in agreement
When we gets down to talkin’ politics:
The country’s in the very best of hands,
the best of hands, the best of hands.”

So, is Sydney “in the very best of hands”?

In treating rainwater as a waste product the City of Sydney is different from other councils in one noteworthy way; it’s hypocrisy.

Since the mayor spoke those words her council has begun works at Victoria Park to increase the amount of water to be wasted from the park from over 18 million litres of water a year to over 22 million litres.

It’s building another 5000 square metres or so of impermeable paving that’s not designed to keep rain where it falls to irrigate trees and plants but designed to send it to the harbour. And the council’s swimming pool building in the park with almost 5000 square metres of roof and hard surfaces – harvesting over six million litres of rainwater a hear – wastes that water to pollute Sydney harbour.

So, what are the pros and cons here?

What does this park redesign project say about this and other councils? If other councils don’t say they want to be more sustainable does that make them honest?

Does honesty have a higher value than trying to be outperformers but failing?

The thing is, this little park and how it’s designed is ringing an alarm bell that needs to be heard across Australia.

Here is the point: we cannot cool our cities unless we keep rainwater where it falls to nourish and grow trees and plants as quickly as they can. For the City of Sydney to focus on energy and ignore water is to choose failure, to misunderstand how fundamentally connected our cities are – or can be.

Mayor Clover Moore, and her goal of cutting energy use quickly, is being knee-capped by staff carrying on with business as usual park design that treats water as a waste product instead of what water is – a fundamental life-giving force.

Yes, this is an old pool in an old park. Most things need a fix occasionally.

But the council’s redesign and new work is in grassy and treed parts of the park where they are installing more hard surfaces without onsite absorption to keep the water from the paths to irrigate the trees, plants and grass. The pool, and the water wasted from its huge roof, is being ignored.

And here’s the challenge we have, which Clover Moore so correctly named. We have to fix up what we’ve built, the cities we have – the roads, gutters, paths, parks and privately owned properties.

Now: if the council can’t make sustainable its own properties, how can the mayor expect them to get right the work they’re to supervise that’s to be done to sustain privately owned properties?

Having identified and accepted the challenge, it’s in both the mayor’s, the council staffs’ and the citizens’ interests for both failures and successes to be called out, acknowledged and faced.

That’s the point of these observations – to acknowledge the mayor’s courage and to invite her and her fellow councillors to say to the staff: “Thanks, but no thanks. Let’s keep rainwater where it falls in this and all our parks, new and old. Change the park redevelopment project to stop water leaving it.”

Our cities won’t get cooler until rainwater is kept where it falls – the opposite of what’s been happening for decades at this park and almost every other Australian council park and road.

Trees and plants cool our cities with their shade and cut use of aircon and fridges – major energy users and polluter of Earth’s air.

To grow fast, trees and plants need rainwater and healthy soil.

Every one degree of temperature reduction brings around five per cent energy savings through reduced cooling loads on fridges, air con and other appliances. (2)

Nearby the park in Chippendale. and around the time the mayor spoke in December 2016, I watched and worked with a six-year-old girl who laid leaky pipe beside a footpath.

We and other neighbours buried it so it would catch rainwater from the path and disperse it below the soil, preventing the rainwater evaporating or wasting, and making the water available to plants.

Not a consultant, hydraulic engineer or politician in sight.

When we citizens care for and harvest local water brought to us and our trees and plants cleanly and for free by Earth’s beautiful design, well, the country’s in the very best of hands.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach and author of Sustainable House and Sustainable Food. For a video explaining how and why to cool cities with rainwater see: www.streetcoolers.com.au

Author’s personal note: No stormwater or sewage has left my Chippendale terrace house site in 21 years. Two million litres of stormwater and as much sewage has been kept on the clay soil site. Simple, low-cost solutions work here and in parks. The data, monitoring and design are in my books. There’s no secret about how and why to keep rainwater where it falls.

Notes:

  1. A NSW Parliament publication says this of stormwater pollution:

Stormwater is the most significant contemporary source of heavy metal contamination in Sydney Harbour. It has been estimated that Sydney Harbour receives an average annual loading of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, lead and zinc of 0.8, 0.5, 1.7, 3.2, 1.1, 3.6 and 17.7 tonnes respectively (28.6 tonnes in total). Copper concentrations in stormwater almost always exceed the guidelines, zinc concentrations frequently exceed guidelines and arsenic, chromium and lead concentrations exceed guidelines on occasion. Nickel concentrations never exceed guidelines.

Researchers have modelled the length of time it would take for heavy metal concentrations to decrease to two times pre-anthropogenic concentrations based on recent trends. The time taken for particular metals to decline to two times background concentrations ranged from two to 92 years. However, this is optimistic given sediment concentrations cannot decrease below the levels found in stormwater entering the Harbour, which is up to 10-20 times background levels in some locations.

Harbour sediments contain a variety of contaminants, the worst of which are dioxins, heavy metals and organochlorine pesticides (e.g. DDT). Except for a small area near the entrance, all sediments exceed guidelines for at least one contaminant. The most polluted sediments are found in Homebush Bay, Hen & Chicken Bay, Iron Cove, Rozelle Bay, Blackwattle Bay and Long Bay.

Microplastics (fragments smaller than 5mm) are an emerging problem. Early studies have found alarming levels. While the Government is working towards eliminating one source – microbeads in products like shampoo – it appears that the largest source are clothing fibres from washing machines.

Most sediment contaminants entered the Harbour prior to 1970, when industrial practices were poorly regulated. Today, three primary sources pollute the waters and sediments of the Harbour: stormwater, sewage overflows and leachate from contaminated reclaimed land.

  1. A 10 per cent increase in urban green space can cool surface temperatures by up to 4°C. Shade trees can reduce surface temperatures by up to 19°C.

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