Double or quits – Sydney’s desal approach

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As rain boosts Sydney’s water storage levels, the city’s new desal plant has been doubled in size. The project has still come in under budget, writes Max Borchardt.

At the beginning of the year, NSW Premier Morris Iemma was using the Kurnell desalination plant as part of his election campaign, pledging to proceed with the project if re-elected. With the polls bringing the necessary reassurance, the Iemma Labor Government now has a solid mandate to make tough decisions. One of these is to continue with the desalination plant now that he’s back in office. In the meantime, it has started raining.

Although it might appear that the drought affecting Sydney may be over for the present, it would be foolish to think that the problems will not return. Iemma knows this. Announcing the winners of the tender for the Sydney desalination plant at Kurnell, he indicated that the government is firmly committed to a desalination programme even with the rains refilling the dams. “I am not going to gamble with Sydney’s water needs,” he said.

On 26 June, the Blue Water Consortium was named as the winner, and the Veolia Water/John Holland/SKM/Maunsell consortium will start work in late July. The plant is expected to take 26 months to complete.

The Premier took delight in pointing out that the overall costs of the project are expected to be A$1.76 billion, less than the original estimate of A$1.9 billion. The plant itself is expected to cost A$730 million, while the seawater intake and outlets are projected to cost around A$230 million. A further A$500 million will be required for the 18km distribution pipeline, with the remaining A$300 million covering other project costs. The advanced design, and a levelling off in desal plant construction costs, mean that the plant’s initial capacity will now be doubled from 125,000m3/d to 250,000m3/d, while still coming in under budget.

Sydney Water was keen to play down the impact of the announcement on customers’ bills when it announced a price hike less than a week later. “These price changes are not related to the recent decision about desalination,” the company stated, pointing out that customers who use less water will be rewarded, given that the fixed part of the water charge has been reduced, while the usage part has been increased.

Concurrent with the announcement of the preferred tenderer for the Sydney desal plant, Premier Iemma also revealed the results of the tender for the Western Sydney Recycling Project. This A$250 million project will recycle 50,000m3/d of wastewater, thus helping to increase water recycling in the Greater Sydney area to 70 million m3/d by 2015. The winning Deerubbin Water Futures Consortium features General Electric, McConnell Dowell and United Group.

Wastewater from three sewage treatment plants will be recycled at a new advanced wastewater treatment plant. The recycled water will replace water currently released from the Warragamba Dam for river flows, and eventually, the recycled water will also be available for industrial, agricultural and domestic use.