As the challenge of how to ensure ongoing future water supplies becomes one of the biggest issues facing the Australian nation, the election of a new chair to the board of Rous Water could herald some changes in how we plan and develop our local water supply strategies.
Byron councillor Richard Staples was last week elected as chair of Rous Water, which is made up of two councillors from Lismore, Richmond Valley, Ballina and Byron shires. Cr Staples has been sitting on the Rous Water board for the past 11 years and said he has long involved himself in water-related issues.
“I value water as a special natural asset and I believe in treading lightly on environment,” Cr Staples said. “If we are taking these gifts from nature, we need to make sure we get good value out of it and maximise the utility of water.”
Cr Staples said his election to the post would herald a more integrated approach to water and supply and demand, involving a range of measures including educational promotions to reduce water use, and promote and encourage a more decentralised water supply through on-site rainwater tanks.
“If I have a say I will be pushing people toward water cycle management, rather than commodity supply,” he said.
Cr Staples said he is concerned about recent planning reforms announced by the NSW Department of Planning, which he believes are retrogressive and will fail to protect drinking water supply catchments and groundwater sources from human activities and pollution
“The reforms affect Local Environmental Plan renewals across the state,” Cr Staples said. “Rous Water is concerned that the reforms will facilitate development at the expense of local water utilities and local councils will be disarmed in being able to prevent development that fails to have a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality.”
Cr Staples said the reforms require local councils to prepare new land use and development controls based on a standard template issued by Planning NSW and they could potentially allow development to take place on rural lands without appropriate safeguards to protect the water catchment.
Mr Staples said Rous Water had sent a submission to Planning NSW outlining its concerns and would continue to work with local councils to secure the best possible protection for regional water supply catchments and biodiversity in the area.
When asked about the key issues he will be facing as chair of Rous Water, Cr Staples said the Dunoon dam proposal and the issue of water fluoridation were two of the most controversial.
“I’ve always been asking about the financial plan for the proposed dam at Dunoon,” Cr Staples said. “I was given a figure of 100 million dollars, but that is not a detailed costing and it is likely it would cost significantly more than that. Dams are not cheap these days… once you get them, it’s a vicious cycle and water authorities may want to pump water around to supply other places… and that costs too.
“I’ll be putting a strong emphasis on encouraging Rous Water to look for wider solutions than building a dam and look more closely at demand management.”
Cr Staples said he was concerned about water fluoridation and the fact that members of the board felt backed into a corner by NSW Health and those in favour of fluoride. At present, community activist Al Oshlack is fighting the introduction of fluoride into the water supply on the basis that Rous Water claimed it was required to fluoridate the water supply by NSW Health during the consultation period.
“I think the councillors were conned on that one,” Cr Staples said. “Col Sullivan [the previous chair of Rous Water] said we had no choice and other councillors said they felt pressured and liable to personal penalties if they didn’t vote for fluoridation. I disagree: there are provisions in the Local Government Act to protect councillors who act in good faith. It’s too early for me to jump in and call the shots…and I’m not saying we abandon the court case but people should consider the financial impacts of court cases and their potential success.”
Cr Staples said he was enthusiastic about working toward having consensus on the board when dealing with issues, rather than having to cast the deciding vote.
“There will be some big changes, but hopefully not more frustration,” Cr Staples said. “I think I have a good personal working relationships with the other councilors and some of them are ready for change.”