Bega Valley Shire Councillors have approved the location of Merimbula’s new ocean outfall with a real sense of not really having too much choice.
All spoke of their desire to see more of the treated effluent reused in the environment and community rather than dumped at sea but also of being directed by the NSW Government to build an ocean outfall.
Over almost a decade a range of disposal and reuse options have been considered and discounted with the NSW EPA amending Council’s operating licence to include a requirement to construct an ocean outfall and upgrade the Merimbula treatment plant.
The outfall location adopted by Council is known as the “north short” diffuser location which is about 2600 metres from the shoreline in a water depth of approximately 30 metres in Merimbula Bay.
The Community Working Group (CWG) Council commissioned to advise the process had preferred the “north long” option which is located 4300 metres offshore in a depth of approximately 40 metres.
“The CWG has indicated a general awareness of the cost implications of a longer outfall and was generally supportive of measures to reduce the length of the pipeline provided the environment is not compromised in the process,” according to the staff report to councillors.
“Whilst detailed modelling and costing of all options was not available to the CWG, it is clear from subsequent modelling undertaken by AECOM (Council’s expert consultant) that the north short option can achieve the project’s water quality objectives without compromising the environment.
“The project team consider a shorter option to be preferable as the dispersion modelling indicates that adequate mixing would occur, and the significant additional expenditure for a longer pipe is unwarranted on technical grounds.”
The locations considered all put an end to the beach face outfall that has discharged treated effluent on to the sand between Pambula and Merimbula since the 1970s and the dunal exfiltration ponds that sit behind it. Both impact on groundwater, oyster production in Lake Merimbula and Aboriginal heritage.
However, the CWG is frustrated other disposal options they presented weren’t considered.
Speaking at this week’s council meeting, CWG member and former councillor Fraser Buchanan spoke of feeling as though the group had been “used as a PR exercise.”
Mr Buchanan and others who addressed council on the issue argued that the $32 million budget should be redirected towards treating the effluent to the highest standard so that more reuse options could be considered – including using the end product as drinking water.
“Send it to me, I’ll drink it,” Pambula’s Russell Jennings told councillors.
The Merimbula Big Game and Lakes Angling Club also raised concerns about the impacts on the new artificial reef in Merimbula Bay.
New club president Peter Haar spoke with the support of his 230 members, “nowhere do I see any documentation about the impact on the artificial reef.”
“How can you make this decision without that information.
“We’ll be fishing over the diffuser within minutes [of leaving the boat ramp] and that bothers me.”
In the discussion among councillors that followed, the chamber was reassured that the detailed Environmental Impact Statement that will now follow will investigate any impacts on fishing and the marine environment.
“But given the work done to date the likelihood of that [environmental impacts] is low,” Anthony McMahon, Council’s Director of Assets and Operations said.
“This will certainly be an improvement on what is currently the case.”
Recognising the potential of reusing as much of the treated effluent as possible councillors also approved the investigation of expanding the current reuse program with the Pambula Merimbula Golf Club and asked staff to prepare a detailed report on other reuse options across the shires 10 existing ocean/river/beach face outfalls.
“We’ve never had a full report and we’ve been asking for a full report and costings for a couple of years,” Cr Robyn Bain said.
“We are all committed to reuse,” Cr Cathy Griff said.
Cr Russell Fitzpatrick acknowledged that the decision to move forward on the ocean outfall was about balancing the cost and better environmental outcomes.
“It comes down to what people are willing to pay in sewer rates and we are told now they are too high,” he said.
A point echoed by Cr Jo Dodds, “We’d all rather that this water be made potable and returned to the land, but that’s just not possible in this budgetary position.”
Cr Tony Allen pointed to the eight years of discussion leading up to yesterday’s decision, “This outcome has been a long time coming and is a step forward.”
In summing up the mood of her colleagues prior to the unanimous vote, Mayor Kristy McBain said, “Anything will be an improvement on what we currently have.”
The EIS is due in May next year prior to formal approval of the overall project.
Those who spoke against the project at Council and the Merimbula/Pambula Wastewater Alternatives group have all vowed to keep fighting the idea.