What’s with the water around here?

Brendan Guiney

Brendan Guiney

There has been a lot of talk about the cost of electricity causing financial stress on the community but what about the cost of water?

With water being an essential part of life, a call was put out on Facebook across the Gloucester Advocate, Wingham Chronicle, Great Lakes Advocate and Manning River Times pages for questions you wanted answered by MidCoast Water Services.

The questions were correlated, send to interim director water services, Brendan Guiney and the answers are below.

1. Why is there not more done to protect Gloucester river in times of drought?

Water security is a long term issue – dams take 10 to 20 years to develop. Having said that, the Barrington River which is the source of Gloucester’s town water supply has never stopped flowing in recorded history (since approximately 1940s).

2. It would be a good idea if the GST was taken off the bills for pensioners and the pensioners rebate should be more. The rebate has not gone up in years. Who would be responsible for this?

GST has never been applicable to water and sewerage bills since the GST was introduced in the year 2000.

The NSW Government is responsible for the pensioner rebate, but the Australian Government has a role in funding pensioner subsidy. Councillors of the former MidCoast Water (county council) were active for many years before the amalgamation in advocating for reform to the pensioner rebate and I have no doubt that councillors elected to MidCoast Council will continue to advocate to both state and federal government to improve the current situation with the rebate.

3. Why is the access rate so high? (compared to Sydney, Central Coast, and Tamworth)

Sydney (population of over 4 million) and Central Coast (over 300,000) both have populations well in excess of MidCoast Council (around 90,000). MidCoast Council’s operating area is similar to the Sydney basin – approximately 10,000 square kilometres, but we operate 21 water and sewerage schemes for many small towns. Sydney, Central Coast and Tamworth have the advantage of economies of scale, while MidCoast Council relies on larger towns such as Taree and Forster to subsidise smaller towns such as Stroud, Bulahdelah and Gloucester as we keep the one uniform price for water and sewerage services across the MidCoast area.

Water prices are set by council annually and are placed on public exhibition for the community to provide input before any price changes are adopted. This practice will continue as part of MidCoast Council.

4. Can water rates and council rates be combined?

Yes they could. However we believe it is more socially responsible to keep them separate so that customers don’t receive them all in one bill, which would increase ‘bill shock’, as well as to clearly identify what general rates pays for as against what services water and sewerage charges pay for.

5. Why is unconnected sewer charges nearly $300 a quarter?

More than two thirds (66%) of costs to provide water and sewerage services are fixed – to service principal and interest on loans for capital works, and also depreciation on more than $700 million in sewerage assets – depreciation funds are used to keep the assets in a serviceable condition. MidCoast Water Services operates sewerage schemes in 16 villages. Many are very small, less than 1000 population, and need to be subsidised by larger towns. This is quite different to Sydney and Central Coast.

6. Why do we pay water rates plus water usage? We pay electricity usage not rates as well. Would be much cheaper if water could be the same?

Electricity charges have a fixed component and a usage component just like water. The fixed charge (access charge) for water is intended to offset fixed costs whilst the usage charge provides a signal to customers about conserving their usage of a finite resource.

7.  I'd like to know why I got a substantial water bill for the first quarter of the year for my holiday house at Forster when no one had been there for that period so no water was being used. Am I just being billed an estimated amount based on previous bills, rather than actual usage?

Like all regional NSW water utilities, our sewerage charge does not have a usage component – it is 100% fixed, and this would represent a significant portion of the bill under the circumstances described.

8. Why do you have to pay water and sewage rates on a block of land that is not connected to either; not even a water meter on the block.

Because MidCoast Water Services operates assets that need to be kept in good condition – as answered in question 5, two thirds of our costs are fixed – servicing debt that provided the water and sewerage assets, and covering depreciation to keep the assets in good condition. Both these factors are independent of usage. A block of land is that is sold with town water and sewerage available is worth much more than a block of land that doesn’t.

9. What are they doing to reduce costs and what are their intentions for the future as it is getting unaffordable, the main costs are primarily administrative rather than usage.

Technically, the costs aren’t really administrative as discussed above – debt servicing and depreciation are relatively fixed for the long run. In terms of administrative costs – our corporate overheads, such as employment costs, are expected to reduce in the next period as a result of our integration with MidCoast Council.

11.What is in the water (chemicals, etc)?  Why does it taste terrible?

MidCoast Water Services operates five water treatment plants and all of them have challenges with the quality of water that is found in river water or groundwater. All our treated drinking water meets the stringent requirements of the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, overseen by NSW Health. Some aesthetic problems – taste and odour – which are not health risks – result from organic compounds found in untreated water. The water is independently tested regularly to ensure it is always safe for drinking. Water testing results are publicly available on our website, at http://www.midcoastwater.com.au/site/water-quality-testing

Information on the chemicals in water supplies can be found on our website.

12.  If I spray water on my car and let it dry why does the residue etch my glass? Shouldn't it be almost pure and pH neutral (slightly alkaline is better). If it does that to glass what's it doing inside us? Can you employ an independent testing company to see exactly what we are drinking, the possible side effects and how it rates against other stricter official global guidelines?

MidCoast Water Services adds lime to most water supplies because river water and groundwater is naturally slightly acidic and need lime added to ensure chlorine disinfects water efficiently and to limit corrosion to metal plumbing such as copper pipes. Our water is already independently tested and results are reviewed by NSW Health and meets stringent Australian Drinking Water Guidelines upon which the World Health Organisation drinking water safety standards are modelled. 

13. Why does Midcoast water not have a Q&A system as most water authorities do? Why do the state government and MidCoast Council think that they will do better under MidCoast Council when the MidCoast Council are the worst performing council as identified by the NSW government survey into merged councils?

We have assumed the first part of this question is in regards to a Quality Assurance program. MidCoast Water has a Drinking Water Quality Management System that complies with the Australian Drinking Water Quality Guidelines and NSW Health requirements and compliance is regularly published in public reports.  The Drinking Water Quality Management System documents our approach to managing water quality from the catchment to the tap. It shows our commitment to providing safe and reliable drinking water and covers how we manage the quality of water from the catchments, through to our storages, treatment and distribution processes to ensure quality at our customers' taps. The system has been developed with the involvement of NSW Health and documents our comprehensive management system to ensure the water we supply is maintained both to protect public health and meet regulatory requirements.

A document summarising this system can be found at http://www.midcoastwater.com.au/site/managing-water-quality

In regards to the second part of the question, MidCoast Council has created a water services division that is specifically focused on water and sewerage service provision. This will continue the excellent service that was successfully provided by MidCoast Water for the last 20 years.

14. My meter was replaced yesterday with a note indicating that 'account will be slightly higher both in usage and cost'. What cost are they talking about? Will we be charged for them to replace their own failing equipment when we pay approximately $1200 per year plus water usage?

Water meters wear out over time and we write to customers before replacing their worn out water meter, as worn out water meters will under-read the customer’s usage, meaning bills are reduced in the customer’s favour but will return to fair measurement after we install a new meter. Customers are not charged for the cost of the new meter. The slightly higher cost referred to means that as the new meter will record water use more accurately, customers may find their usage increases very slightly on previous accounts.