Uncharted waters as Bellingen Shire Council considers 'emergency' restrictions

Flow rate in the Bellinger River is at the trigger level for 'emergency' water restrictions
Flow rate in the Bellinger River is at the trigger level for 'emergency' water restrictions

Our drinking water is extracted from the Bellingen Borefield upstream from the bridge, processed at the water treatment plant, and then distributed to Bellingen, Urunga, Mylestom, Repton and Raleigh.

When flow in the river measured at the 205002 (Bellinger @ Thora) gauge drops below 2.5ML per day, which is roughly equivalent to daily consumption, that's the trigger for Level 5 'Emergency' water restrictions.

Supposedly.

After rain on the weekend, the river's flow rate has climbed back up to 2.5ML, having spent last week below that trigger point without causing a shift from the Level 4 'Severe' restrictions that were imposed on November 20.

Emergency level restrictions are uncharted territory for Bellingen Shire Council, which is currently in talks with the state government about installing a temporary desalination plant to treat river water taken from east of the town, in the tidal zone.

As noted in the papers for the November 27 council meeting:

"The Council has written to the Minister for Water Property and Housing the Hon Melinda Pavey MP and the Cross Border Commissioner and Regional Town Water Supply Coordinator James McTavish seeking emergency funding to establish a temporary membrane reverse osmosis treatment module on the Bellinger River to feed the towns of Bellingen and the Coast. Council is working with State Government agencies to establish any necessary approvals for such a solution."

At the meeting on Wednesday, Cr Dominic King asked when we would be moving to Level 5 water restrictions.

"We're not sure triggering emergency levels would achieve anything," Deputy General Manager Operations Matt Fanning replied.

He noted that there was often an increase in consumption when restrictions come in, "a bit like panic buying", and that council had already issued some warning letters.

A fine of $220 can be imposed for breaching water restrictions and council also has the power to disconnect people.

Asked by the Courier-Sun how far off was the decision on the desalination plant and what was happening with water restrictions, council sent the following reply:

"Council actively monitors the river flows in the context of its licence conditions. Council is working with the State Government to implement contingency measures, including use of reverse osmosis. These discussions relate to both process and funding. Recent rains have helped river flow rates a little, however, given the current drought conditions Council urges residents to conserve water, particularly noting that water consumption levels across the shire have not reduced notably since the introduction of Level 1 water restrictions."

The target reduction that Level 4 restrictions hope to achieve is 30-40 per cent and for Level 5, it's 40-50 per cent.