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.