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Recycled water poll: five years on
The Chronicle | Link to original
This was to be the year Toowoomba's taps were to flow with recycled wastewater, but the people would not let that happen.
At a poll on July 29, 2006, with the world watching, the city rejected the controversial scheme.
It voted 62% against recycling 25% of its water from its own sewage.
A city that had endured years of drought – and would have to endure many more – pinned its hopes on three other options.
They were expensive, unproven and over time most fell by the wayside.
One of those though, the pipeline from Wivenhoe Dam to Toowoomba, became a reality in January 2010, at a construction cost of $187 million.
The bill to ratepayers – $112 million.
In early 2006, independent engineers estimated the Water Futures recycling scheme would cost $68 million.
That figure was widely disputed, but, if proven correct, would have left ratepayers with a bill of just $18 million.
Mayor at the time Di Thorley, who became the public face of Water Futures, based much of her Yes campaign on recycling wastewater being the cheapest way to solve the water shortage.
Addressing the public, she used words like “social justice” and phrases such as “water shouldn't be the right and privilege of the rich”.
Five years on, from her home in Tasmania, she stands by her fight to bring recycled water to Toowoomba.
Ms Thorley blames the bitter fallout from the referendum on the No campaign, claiming the tactics used by Water Futures' opponents left the city permanently scarred.
“I think Toowoomba was used by Snow Manners, Clive Berghofer and Rosemary Morley and destroyed, literally destroyed.
“It turned families against each other and frightened the s*** out of people.”
The referendum was not the idea of Toowoomba City Council.
On March 24, 2006, the Federal Government announced it would only provide funding for recycled water if the city voted yes at the poll.
To get the money, we had to go to a referendum.
Ms Thorley said she never expected victory but that did not stop her and Toowoomba City Council launching a $460,000 ratepayer-funded advertising campaign.
Almost $7000 a day was spent to convince about 60,000 people to support the world's most ambitious wastewater recycling scheme.
In the face of defeat, Ms Thorley claimed there had been “no winners”.
Five years on, with Toowoomba ratepayers funding a $187 million pipeline, she remains convinced of that fact.
To those part of an outspoken No campaign, five years later there are no regrets.
Their campaign was fought on many fronts – the “yuck” factor, the “fear” factor and the worry that Toowoomba was going to become a “guinea pig” for the rest of Australia.
Former city mayor and now millionaire property developer Clive Berghofer used his riches and public profile to drive the No campaign.
He went as far as to produce an eight-page advertisement that resembled a newspaper, circulating it across Toowoomba.
Five years on, Mr Berghofer said his stance on recycled water had not changed.
“There were a number of reasons we were against it, but the big one was the perception – just the thought of it – let alone the damage it could have done.
“They say it was being done all over the world but nowhere in the world was going to get it like we were.”
Mr Berghofer laughed off suggestions by Ms Thorley that he had contributed to the “destruction” of Toowoomba.
He said the city was better positioned because it had rejected recycled waste water.
But Mr Berghofer still does not agree with the decision to build the Wivenhoe pipeline, labelling it “another very, very expensive solution”.
“We could have done it a lot quicker and a lot more affordable,” he said.
Rosemary Morley, a grassroots campaigner, started the anti-Water Futures movement when she founded Citizens Against Drinking Sewage in late 2005.
Half a decade later, Mrs Morley has no regrets about her fight against recycled water.
She said the fact Toowoomba dams were full today was proof the city did not need an alternative water source, let alone recycled sewage.
“We never needed it. We still don't need it and quite frankly I'm dumbstruck so many people said it would never rain again,” she said.
Snow Manners used the popularity earned as a prominent “no” campaigner to win his way on to Toowoomba City Council.
“I just put my hand up like people have to every now and again in life to stand up and say what you think is right,” he said.
Mr Manners said during the water debate “all eyes were on Toowoomba”.
He said it transcended a local issue, with other governments keen to use the city as a precedent for similar sewage treatment schemes.
“Roll over one city and you could roll out recycled water in cities around the world.”