It was not a difficult decision to make - at their extraordinary council meeting yesterday Bellingen Shire councillors unanimously voted in favour of proceeding with plans to hire a 2.5ML/day portable reverse osmosis (RO) plant to ensure the shire's water security.
In his detailed report to the meeting the council's Manager Water and Wastewater, Craig Salmon, wrote that on December 9 the flow was 1.8ML/day with the previous lowest recorded flow at 5 ML/day.
"The Never Never River is at 5.1 ML/day and the flow at Fosters gauging station is 15.3 ML/day. Should the flow in the river cease, Council and the NSW Government are unsure what the true storage of the aquifer that supplies the entire seaboard is," Mr Salmon wrote.
He noted predicted estimates were for at least 100 days storage, however with no fresh water flowing down the river there was the risk that extraction could trigger a saline intrusion making the bore field unusable.
"The option available to quickly supply water is to install a portable RO plant. These plants come in a series of 12m long shipping containers ready to hook up to a water source and produce potable water.
"In this case it is planned to set up the plants on the river flats at the rear of the Old Butter Factory in close proximity to an existing water trunk main.
"A pump will be set up on the banks of the river and supply water to a filtration unit and into a holding tank which will feed to the RO plants. The RO plants will then treat the water.
"Approximately 50 per cent of the treated water will be potable and pumped to the Bellingen water treatment plant and distributed to the network. The remaining 50 per cent is wastewater and will be discharged back into the river downstream of the intake."
The NSW Government and the Minister for Water, Melinda Pavey, have committed to stand by the council both technically and financially, saying the emergency work will be subsidised by between 60 - 100 per cent however the total funding package for the RO plant is pending final approval.
The council's expenses could be as much as $400,000 and will be sourced from the water reserves.
Mr Salmon said assuming the worst case scenario of only a 60 per cent subsidy, then the budget deficit would be $399,068.
Looking to the future, a comprehensive study of permanent alternate water sources to secure the water supply in the medium/long term is underway.
Options being considered include tapping into new aquifers, sourcing water from the Kalang River, a small off stream storage dam, connecting to a neighbouring Council water supply and permanent emergency RO plant installations.