Conclusion: A new solution

Patrick Troy

Table of Contents

Potable water
Stormwater drainage
Twenty-first-century outcomes
Features of the demand and supply of urban water
Development of water supply: The case of Sydney
Reduction in demand for potable water
The problem of recycled water
Making the transition to sustainability
An equitable pricing regime
Present water consumption patterns
Other waste-management systems
Local-area water management
Industrial and commercial development
Institutional arrangements

By the 1860s Australian cities were generally facing four problems with their water supplies:

While all four were important, the health of their population was the prime consideration in securing new water supplies. The mid-century recognition in England, documented by the sanitation reformer Edwin Chadwick, that many health problems were directly related to the lack of secure supplies of potable water (Flinn 1965) was followed by pressure in Australian colonies to develop such supplies (Dingle, this volume, Chapter 1).

Potable water

From settlement, Colonial administrations had tried to secure reliable supplies of potable water by exploiting sources ‘beyond’ the urban boundary, but growth of each colony was such that often the urban area quickly grew beyond the area reserved and supplies were compromised. Households harvested and stored rainfall from roofs in tanks and occasionally from surface runoff in underground cisterns. These supplies often failed in long summers or drought periods. In addition, it became increasingly apparent that underground cisterns provided poor-quality water because of infiltration of runoff and due to seepage of sewage effluent into the cistern (Lloyd et al. 1992). ‘New’ sources periodically had to be sought from further afield to provide the secure supplies of potable water.

As the cities grew, the demand for the reticulation of secure supplies of potable water increased. Underlying the development of these supplies was the assumption that the demand for water could always be met by seeking/developing new supplies. The initial assumption, in 1878, for demand in Newcastle, which was similar to Sydney and advised by the same engineers, was that personal consumption of 20 gallons (91 litres) per head per day was sufficient to meet the demands for consumption, food preparation and personal hygiene (33.2kL pa) but that this might rise to 50 to 80 gallons per head per day to meet the needs of manufacturing and garden watering (Lloyd et al. 1992). In Melbourne the estimated demand was originally 40 gallons per capita per day but reduced to 30 gallons per head per day before construction began (Dingle and Doyle 2003).

While potable water was needed for health reasons, the supply seemed reliable and generous enough to allow households to use water of a standard fit for domestic consumption for sanitation, to water gardens and for other uses. The seemingly adequate supply also meant that domestic bathing and laundry practices changed, with consequent dramatic increases in the discharge of wastewater from households. Households were no longer able to rely on the use of cess pits and drainage sumps to dispose of wastewater and ‘excess’ wastewater drained onto the street and into the general surface drainage system that was already inadequate to cope with stormwater runoff. The result was an increase in noisome flows of wastewater and sewage onto the city streets.

By 1880 the issue of managing waste disposal assumed greater proportion as urban populations grew. The worldwide popularity of Edwin Chadwick’s ideas for improving urban sanitation and the development and increasing take-up of water closets exacerbated the sanitation problems in Sydney and Newcastle but also offered the idea for its solution in the form of the development of a piped sewerage system.

There was a neat symmetry in this. The supply of water met all the needs of households for potable water and there appeared to be water enough to provide the medium for the transport of wastes. This was seen as an elegant solution and in the original Chadwick proposal offered the first environmental solution to the management of human body wastes because it proposed to collect them and transport them to be used as fertiliser on nearby farmlands — a solution that, as Dingle points out in Chapter 1, was experimented with in Sydney and Adelaide but only seriously adopted in Australia by Melbourne.

The virtuous circle that was ultimately taken in most Australian cities was to develop a reticulated water supply and later a piped sewerage system to remove sewage. This solution was made more financially attractive for water authorities with the banning of rainwater tanks and the preferment of waste-management technologies that relied on water transport to the exclusion of technologies that did not. The attractions of water-based sewerage systems were so compelling that a networked sewerage system was developed to transport wastewater, human excreta and other wastes. This seemingly felicitous solution to the problem of sanitation ultimately led to a large environmental problem in the form of discharges of sewage to the ocean. Property owners were required to connect to the public water supply and later to the sewerage system on public-health grounds. Water consumption rose as households took advantage of the apparently abundant supplies for their flush toilets and for personal hygiene.