The Guardian April 10, 2002


Barcoo outlet fails first test

by Bob Briton

It is very cold comfort for environmentalists and the residents of 
Adelaide's western suburbs to be able to say, "we told you so". Recent 
rains broke a 56-day dry spell and put the Barcoo Outlet to its first test. 
The project, which was completed last December at a cost of $17 million, 
was designed to divert storm water from the Patawalonga River as it snakes 
its way towards Glenelg and Holdfast Shores. Instead of ending up in a 
"lake" near those seaside suburbs, polluted stormwater was meant to be 
stored in a holding pond and, from time to time, released via an 885-metre 
long pipeline into Gulf St Vincent.

Unfortunately, while the Barcoo Outlet restored water quality in the 
Patawalonga long enough for a "milk carton regatta" to take place this 
summer, the river remains unfit for human contact for seven days after a 
downpour, and suspect at the best of times.

Despite former Liberal Premier Dean Brown's much reported wish that kids 
should swim in the "Pat" again, visitors and locals quite naturally avoid 
the river and swim at nearby beaches, instead.

Even more predictable was the impact that the outlet has had on the sands 
and waters of West Beach and beyond. Following the rains in the week 
leading up to the Easter long weekend, discharge from the Barcoo Outlet 
blackened the coastal waters and left a dark stain on the popular beach.

Bathers were officially warned off swimming at the beach for several days 
and investigations are still being carried out into the "incident".

While authorities have guessed that the discoloration is due to oil, 
rubber, heavy metals and nutrient rich runoff from road surfaces, its 
actual composition is unknown at the time of writing. The longer-term 
effect of further regular "incidents" on the sea grasses offshore is also 
unknown.

The results would appear to be in for the Barcoo Outlet and they have 
backed up the objections of most of the scientific opinion available before 
its construction.

The protests of the local people represented by the Henley and Grange 
Residents Association are also vindicated.

The decision of the State Government to press ahead with the project 
following its unveiling seven years ago was taken after giving what appears 
to be scant consideration to the alternatives being proposed at the time.

Many of these included the construction of wetlands to deal with the runoff 
and other means of neutralising the hazards carried by the water. Indeed 
some wetlands were constructed but there is still resistance to the further 
application of this measure.

Environmentalists have suggested wetlands at Oaklands Park. It is more 
likely that expensive housing will be put there instead. It is also more 
likely that golf links will be established on the southern perimeter of the 
airport rather than extra wetlands.

A very innovative proposal from the City of West Torrens was also 
dismissed. The proposal to install a plant to purify the water and then 
sell it to Councils to water ovals was deemed "not feasible".

The project would have cost $38 million  which is a lot of money. 
However, the cost of constructing the Barcoo Outlet blew out by an 
undisclosed amount, largely as a result of the collapse of the tunnel for 
the project that destroyed a lot of expensive equipment into the bargain.

The City of West Torrens' suggestion may well have been cheaper as it has 
turned out.

In fact the water purifying proposal had the potential to generate income. 
As well as reducing dependence on waters from the Murray, 41c per kilolitre 
was to be charged for the grey water. Maybe a factor in the rejection of 
the proposal was the fact that SA Water currently sells water for these 
purposes at 92c per kilolitre.

Approval for the Barcoo Outlet was also given BEFORE the findings of two 
separate investigations were available.

In 2000, the Federal Senate called for an inquiry into the very complex 
issues facing the Gulf St Vincent environment and to come up with an 
integrated coast and waters plan.

The issues to be considered included: the quality of the waters, the 
reduction of sea grasses in the area, the movement of sands on metropolitan 
beaches, the threat to recreational fishing, the impact on tourism, etc. It 
made 16 recommendations, none of which have been implemented.

The State Government responded to this Federal move by establishing its own 
"Gulf St Vincent Coastal Waters Inquiry". This inquiry is still in only the 
first stage of its investigations!.

Stages three and four will be about implementation and the spending of 
money.

Rather than wait for these results, though, the State Government funded the 
"Willing Report", which supported the construction of the Barcoo Outlet.

Responding to requests from the community and organisations like the Henley 
and Grange Residents Association, the City of Charles Sturt arranged for a 
report from Sydney experts Manly Hydraulics. Their report found that the 
science of the Willing Report and the Barcoo project simply did not stand 
up.

So what could explain this grim determination on the part of the then 
Liberal State Government to press ahead with the project? Why would Mark 
Brindal, the former water resources Minister, still be saying that the 
Barcoo Outlet is a success and be telling the media that it makes sense to 
dump our heavily polluted storm water into our coastal waters where "the 
gulf and nature can deal with it".

The probable answer is to be found in the flurry of building activity and 
investment in Holdfast Shores and Glenelg. Trendy and very expensive shops 
and apartments, many with moorings at marinas incorporated into the 
developments, have sprung up in the area. It appears that no amount of 
public money was to be spared to enhance the attractiveness of these 
investments and to further pamper the privileged residents.

It would be wrong to think that the impressive demonstrations of resistance 
organised mostly by the Henley and Grange Residents Association were 
wasted.

While their efforts deserved better outcomes, they have changed the 
attitudes and behaviour of authorities to these complex environmental 
issues.

The newly appointed Environment Minister John Hill is said to be 
considering responses to the problems thrown up by the Barcoo Outlet.

A much more measured response to erosion problems is being trialled on 
metropolitan beaches with the establishment of a parallel groyne made of 
sandbags at Semaphore South.

Local residents and organisations have been included in the planning of the 
trial that still has a number of negative consequences to be considered.

"The huge protests at West Beach taught the Government a lesson. They have 
pulled their head in to some extent and there is now a far greater level of 
consultation", Henley and Grange Residents Association President Jim 
Douglas told the Guardian.

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