I once played my rugby under the auspices, not of the much-maligned WRU or even the old farts of the RFU, but of GRUFF (the Goldfields Rugby Union Football Federation). The mining town of Kalgoorlie, like most of the Goldfields of Western Australia was in a water challenged environment.
The Goldfields of Kalgoorlie
Paddy Hannan’s gold find at Kalgoorlie in Western Australia in 1893 led to a boom from which developed the famed Golden Mile in Kalgoorlie (‘the Mile that Midas touched’). In the 1890’s gold had brought hopeful people there in their thousands, they came on foot, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying their swags; they came by horse, by camel and by bicycle; they brought their tools and equipment. Only later did they come by motor vehicle. It was a long journey from the coast to the Goldfields.
As the town grew it became evident that supplying it with water was going to be a problem. A very ambitious and staggeringly expensive engineering plan was developed at the turn of the 20th century to get fresh water from Perth to the Goldfields by pipeline, involving a series of reservoirs and eight pumping stations. The proposed pipeline was to stretch some 530km (330 miles) and raise the water over the 400m (1,300 ft) of the Darling Range.
Capital was raised and the pipeline scheme constructed. It was always the subject of severe debate, partly because of its innovative engineering ambition and partly because of the enormous cost. The original engineer C.Y. O’Connor, who attracted harsh criticism from press and politicians committed suicide a year before the scheme was completed by his deputy. A later government inquiry into the scheme and found no basis for the press accusations of corruption or misdemeanours on the part of O’Connor.
Water eventually flowed from the pipeline into a grateful Kalgoorlie in the middle of January 1903. When built, the pipeline was the longest fresh-water pipeline in the world.
At the time of my rugby playing days in the town, potable water was still brought to the Kalgoorlie by the pipeline. The water resource was valuable but limited so that local parks and pitches were watered with treated sewage water. Health regulations demanded that the watering should take place at least 24 hours before a game. Just long enough to bake the playing surface to the consistency of concrete. During the season my knees were never without evidence of abrasion. My right knee still troubles me and so reminds me of water related issues.
The River Wye
In a recent social media post Welsh Water (Dwr Cymru), the ‘not for profit company’ which serves most of Wales together with parts of Western England that border Wales, claimed a high rate of satisfaction amongst its business clients for the services it provides.
Over the same period (2022), the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) reported on the 105,000 incidents of raw sewage discharges into Welsh and English rivers, for which Dwr Cymru has some responsibility. There has been confusion in some quarters on who bears responsibility for the condition of the Rivers along the Wales England border.
A petition to UK Government regarding the health of the Wye and Severn rivers was briefly rejected by the UK government on the grounds that it was a “devolved matter” for the Welsh government.
Environmental and political writer George Monbiot was one Twitter user to ridicule the Government’s decision, saying:
“This is astonishing.
A petition about the pollution of the Wye and Severn catchments has been rejected by Westminster on the grounds that they are the sole responsibility of the Welsh government.
Could someone lend the officials at UK Parliament a map?”
Mr Monbiot later tweeted:
“Congratulations to Mark Cheetham, (who sponsored a petition) which has managed to persuade UK Parliament that Shropshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire are in England”.
The Senedd produced a report in March 2022 entitled “Storm Overflows In Wales” which examines a number of the issues affecting river quality, including agricultural runoff, historic mine drainage and sewage discharges. It suggests that “Combined Storm Overflows” and sewage discharges are a relatively small part of the overall problem of river health, if one with a highly emotive public response.
Combined Storm Overflows
Combined Storm Overflows (CSOs) are designed to allow the discharge of both surface water runoff and sewage in rivers and seas, at times of high rainfall. They prevent a sewerage system being overwhelmed by storm-water flows in excess of their design parameters which could otherwise back up sewage into homes. Much of the CSO infrastructure is old, possibly Victorian and is likely to need expensive upgrading whether by conventional engineering or preferably by more environmentally friendly SUDs schemes.
Are the regulations fit for purpose?
The House of Lords amendment to the Environment Bill was passed in the Upper House which aims to:
“… place a new duty on water companies and the government to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows and requires that they progressively reduce the harm caused by these discharges.”
The government then whipped their MPs to support their original Bill without the amendment. West England Bylines shamed all these MPs in an earlier article.
Is the enforcement of the regulations robust and adequate?
Questions could be asked on the adequacy of monitoring of river quality and/or government funding for it.
The UK’s government’s supervisory body, the Environment Agency, (and presumably the equivalent Welsh agency Natural Resources Wales) does have enforcement powers. Does it use them? Christine Colvin (Director for Communications at The Rivers Trust thinks not. As she points out, “400,000 discharges of raw sewage from storm overflows in 2020 give clear evidence that this isn’t the case currently.”
There is a rise in ‘citizen science’ schemes, particularly along the River Wye for independent monitoring. I find it sad that such schemes should be considered necessary.
What can the Goldfields tell us?
To go back to Kalgoorlie, the West Australian Goldfields, Country Towns and Agricultural Water Supply Scheme is now considered a “monument to the foresight of a statesman at the turn of the century and to the engineering skills and the determination of the designers and builders of the scheme”.
The UK’s climate is not ‘water challenged’ but water resources do need to be managed. Any commitment of the present UK Government to address future water quality and river health matters is not evident. The government defers, yet another can is kicked down the road!
That there will eventually be a requirement to address the issue of CSOs in order to protect what is an important natural environmental resource seems to me to be inevitable. Like the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, this will require a major capital investment. Whether this will be by private or public investment remains to be seen; I know where my sympathy lies. The potential scale of this investment implies that we may not currently pay enough for adequate water management.
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