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SUNDAY 10 MARCH, 2013 | RSS Feed

Toilet-to-tap: recycled water gets the hard sell

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A $10 million drive, partly funded by the federal government, aims to convince the community that introducing recycled water into drinking supplies is a palatable, cost-effective alternative to measures such as desalination. The ''engagement strategy'' will target households, students, politicians and the water industry. Public scepticism and fears of health risks have kept the toilet-to-tap concept off the political agenda. Forced to shelve plans for recycled wastewater because of public opposition: Former Queensland premier Anna Bligh. Forced to shelve plans for recycled wastewater because of public opposition: Former Queensland premier Anna Bligh. A member of the project's research advisory committee, Ian Law, said the measures should be examined ''when dams are full ? so we have the ducks in a row when the next drought comes''. Advertisement Critics of the concept, such as infectious diseases expert Peter Collignon, have warned of ''catastrophic'' public health implications if the treatment process fails. Rosemary Morley, whose group Citizens Against Drinking Sewage fought the scheme in Toowoomba, said Australians would be hard to convince. ''It would not be a natural thing for the ordinary, average citizen to think about treating sewage and then extracting water from it,'' she said. ''It's a Third World country option." In 2006, Toowoomba residents rejected a plan to drink treated effluent, even as the town faced a dire water shortage. In the 2007 NSW state election, then premier Morris Iemma accused opposition leader Peter Debnam of planning to ''force people to drink recycled sewage''. The project, led by the University of NSW, will develop a national engagement program to show that recycled water is safe and reliable. It will include education programs, a social media campaign and demonstration projects where the public can see wastewater being treated. The Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence is co-ordinating the project, which will also examine recycled stormwater. In a surprise move last year, the NSW government said it would examine the viability of adding treated sewage to drinking water in a review of the metropolitan water plan, reversing the position of the previous Labor government. It followed a 2011 Productivity Commission report that found recycling wastewater for drinking was generally cheaper than desalination, although the cost of managing health risks was higher. The project will target politicians and their advisers, who have long considered the concept too risky. In 2008, then Queensland premier Anna Bligh shelved plans to add recycled wastewater to Wivenhoe Dam after stiff public opposition. Sydney Water is helping to fund the three-year program, which began last year. A project team has visited an education centre at the St Marys Water Recycling Plant. About 60,000 residents in Richmond and Windsor drink a mix of recycled sewage, stormwater and river water treated in North Richmond.

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