Government's good intentions in TasWater takeover

The Hodgman government’s plan to take control of TasWater raises an important question – why does the government want to take TasWater over?

“As a community we need to ask ourselves:

  • For how much longer will we allow our sewage treatment plants to discharge treated effluent that pollutes our waterways?
  • For how much longer will small communities remain on boil water alerts or worse still do not consume alerts?
  • What will be the next township to suddenly find themselves with a temporary boil water alert?
  • Which community will next experience water supply outages as we continue to have more than double the water main breaks per 100km of water main compared with the rest of Australia?
  • For how much longer will we have double the number of breaks and chokes per 100km of sewer main compared with the rest of Australia?
  • For how much longer will we regard it as acceptable for the combined stormwater and sewerage infrastructure in Launceston to discharge raw sewage into the Tamar River following heavy rain?

The clean green image on which Tasmania relies is at risk if we do not grasp the nettle and push forward with this plan.”

Only, these aren’t my words or my statistics.  They’re the words of TasWater chairman Miles Hampton, when he wrote to me last year saying “we have a problem that needs to be addressed urgently”.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Hampton that Tasmania’s water and sewerage infrastructure is inadequate and that our state’s image is at risk.

And I’m perplexed that he now says TasWater doesn’t believe there is a crisis and that the government is misrepresenting statistics about TasWater’s performance.

The latest State of the Industry Report from Tasmania’s independent Economic Regulator confirms little has changed and in some cases has gotten worse since Mr Hampton wrote to me and the Regulator points out that “Tasmania’s water and sewerage assets are deteriorating faster than they can be replaced".

That report found sewer overflows have increased by more than 20 per cent and that only one of our 79 major sewage treatment plants is fully compliant and that’s only because it is not assessed on contemporary standards.

Twenty five systems were operated under a temporary or permanent boil water alert while another five systems had a public health alert (do not consume) in place and 13  water supplies had chemical contaminants detected above safe health limits.

This is critical public infrastructure essential not only for the basic health of our population, but for our environment, our agricultural and seafood industries and for Tasmania’s economic future.

TasWater belatedly says it now has a plan to deal with these issues but this has gone on too long and too many deadlines have passed for them to be believed.

Take towns like Derby, Gretna, Ringarooma and Branxholm.  The expectation was that they would already be fixed but this hasn’t happened. Unbelievably because of the delay, at the Enduro World Series in Derby only last month, when Tasmania was hosting the international mountain biking community, TasWater had to supply thousands of bottles of water and five 15,000 litre water tanks – because you still can’t drink the water at Derby.

And not only that there continue to be spills of raw sewage into our pristine environment, since 2016 TasWater has reported around 100 incidents of sewerage overflows and spills to the Environment Protection Authority.

We cannot allow the current situation to continue.

The current governance model simply isn’t working.  Tasmania’s 29 local councils each own a slice of TasWater and treat the business like an ATM, withdrawing $180 million in returns over the last eight years, instead of investing in the infrastructure that we desperately need.

I want to be clear, the government is not taking TasWater over for the revenue stream. Nor is it an attempt to undermine local councils to force amalgamations. That’s why we have guaranteed the promised returns to Councils until 2024-25, meaning that councils won’t have to put up rates.

After that, councils will get 50 per cent of all returns, and the 50 per cent we get will be reinvested either back into water and sewerage infrastructure, or to put further downward pressure on prices.  Importantly, we will guarantee price increases are kept between 2.75-3.5 per cent instead of the 5 per cent proposed by the owners of TasWater, saving the average customer up to $550 over six years.

And, we’ll speed up the current works program and complete the remainder of the TasWater’s 10-year infrastructure plan in five years once we take them over, creating an estimated additional 1000 jobs in the sector, which will be good for the economy especially in regional Tasmania.

  • Peter Gutwein is the state Treasurer