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SA debates desalination for irrigation

With calls to open the Adelaide Desalination Plant up for irrigators mounting, South Australia’s water chief has called for an evidence-based debate between varying stakeholders.

SA Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources Chief Executive Sandy Pitcher will be presenting a keynote address on irrigation allocation and the Adelaide Desalination Plant at the upcoming Water2020 conference on August 12.

Pitcher said times had changed since the plant was first planned and constructed.

“The South Australian Cabinet was at the point of deciding whether bottled water was to be supplied to some towns. We were at that crisis point,” she said.

“The decision to build a desalination plant stemmed from that and it's very much talked about colloquially as an insurance policy for Adelaide; if we ever risk running out of water again, the desalination plant is ready.

“But the question that we are now asking is: in what ways does having a desalination plant affect policy decision-making? And one of the starkest examples is to look at water allocation decisions.”

With South Australia’s primary water sources under pressure, Pitcher said some irrigators have argued for access to the desalination plant for irrigating crops and stock.

“Essentially, along with the reservoirs of the Mount Lofty Ranges, the River Murray is what Adelaide’s population depended on for drinking water and all of our water use,” she said.

“Irrigators are major water users too, but there is a debate about what it will mean for every individual’s water bill if we [allow plant use for desalination] and what’s best for the state?

“I am keen for us to be talking about this as a community because it is complicated and it’s challenging, but it is also the forefront of real evidence-based policy making.”

Pitcher said the process of debating potential options for all stakeholders has only just begun, with plenty more analysis needed to ensure the right decisions are made.

“The first round of evidence showed the cost of desalination. We planned to use it as the last resort because it’s the most expensive water in South Australia,” she said.

“That was a good first step, but now it is about taking the debate to the next level.”

What would be essential, Pitcher said, is ensuring all parties to the debate agree on the realities of the situation at hand.

“We need to engage stakeholders in a policy debate where all of the information and challenges are on the table, so that we can come to a consensus about the best way to deal with the issue.

“Even if we just get to a place where all the parties understand all of the positions put forward, it will put South Australia in really good stead in terms of a sophisticated debate about choices.”

Register for the South Australia’s Water2020 to hear more from Sandy Pitcher about South Australian irrigation allocation and desalination.