Legislative Council: Wednesday, February 07, 2024



Eyre Peninsula Water Supply

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (16:54): I move:

1. That a select committee of the Legislative Council be established to inquire into and report on the water supply needs of Eyre Peninsula, including a focus on the potential location of desalination plant/s and with particular reference to:

(a) assessing the current and future water supply and distribution requirements of Eyre Peninsula, including for potential industrial growth needs;

(b) evaluating the feasibility and impact of locating desalination plant/s on Eyre Peninsula, including the selection process for locating a desalination plant in Port Lincoln, with particular emphasis on community engagement and consultation processes with residents and key stakeholders;

(c) examining the environmental, economic, cultural and social implications of desalination plant operations in the proposed locations;

(d) exploring the decision-making responsibility for water supply and distribution on Eyre Peninsula, including community engagement and consultation processes to ensure the active involvement of residents and key stakeholders in decision-making regarding water infrastructure;

(e) any other relevant matters.

2. That this council permits the select committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it sees fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to such evidence being presented to the council.

The Uley South Basin supplies about 75 per cent of Eyre Peninsula's drinking water supply, with most of the remaining drinking water sourced from the River Murray. In 2008, SA Water released a long-term plan for Eyre Peninsula that identified an eventual need to augment the Uley South Basin's supplies through desalination to meet ongoing community needs. Since the release of that plan, SA Water has monitored demand and water resources to manage overall water security.

Continued low levels of the recharge to the basin led SA Water to activate its long-term plan in 2020 to supplement Eyre Peninsula's water supply through the construction of a desalination plant. At that stage, it was assessed that the summer of 2023-24 was the critical date. However, independent advice, initiated under the previous Liberal government in 2021, indicated that extractions from the basin could be sustainably managed through to the end of 2025. This was the result of favourable rainfall over the winter and spring months, as well as enhanced monitoring and modelling.

In November 2021, in response to public consultation feedback and independent water security information, the previous Liberal government put on hold the process for the proposed desalination plant on Eyre Peninsula to allow SA Water to undertake further investigations and for more consultation to be conducted with the community and business sector. This was led by government and included the appointment of an independent third-party community engagement expert, with input from SA Water.

As part of that process, a site selection committee was established. The committee included representation from local government, regional development, industry associations representing businesses and other key stakeholders and was chaired by the former member for Flinders Mr Peter Treloar. Over 2021-22, the site selection committee shortlisted sites based on cost effectiveness, proximity to existing water infrastructure and environmental considerations. They also considered existing aquaculture and marine park sanctuary zones. This process continued when the Malinauskas Labor government won the 2022 state election.

Work was also underway with the Marine Science Review Panel, which was established in 2021 and chaired by professional bureaucrat Dr Don Plowman, former deputy CE of PIRSA and former executive director of SARDI. In April 2022, a shortlist of four sites was announced as a result of the site selection process. The four shortlisted sites were Sleaford West, Point Boston, Shoal Point and the Sleaford original site.

In May 2022, TSA, the independent project advisory consultants contracted to support the site selection committee, held 13 community consultations across Eyre Peninsula. Community feedback has been and continues to be heavily and persistently against the original chosen site of Billy Lights Point for the desalination plant. For example, Eyre Peninsula residents and business leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the desalination plant being located within the highly productive aquaculture zone of Boston Bay.

Despite that unanimous opposition, a current SA Water-owned site at Billy Lights Point within Boston Bay was announced as the preferred location. Furthermore, a community group called Hands off Boston Bay was formed in protest of the site selection. This community group is continuously increasing in numbers, and the community forums have been extremely well attended, unlike the SA  Water community information meetings.

Our media reports that all 11 Eyre Peninsula councils have written to the government to formally oppose Billy Lights Point as the site selection of the desalination plant, and Regional Development Australia Eyre Peninsula has also formally opposed the location of the desalination plant at Billy Lights Point. EP Seafoods and other seafood industry bodies have also publicly declared their opposition to Billy Lights Point. Marine biologist Paul McShane of Global Marine Resource Management, a researcher who worked with EP Seafoods, has said that Billy Lights Point was 'one of the worst possible locations for a desalination plant' and has also claimed that SARDI's modelling is flawed.

One of SARDI's own research scientists Dr Paul Rogers reported that the sulphuric acid and hydrochloric acid discharged from the desalination plant was a risk to aquaculture, as well as the possibility of juvenile marine life, such as natural mussels, being sucked into the intake pipes within Boston Bay.

Recently, we also had correspondence from the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation, who also do not support the proposal of Billy Lights Point as a site for the EP desalination plant. So it appears that currently the only people who are in favour of a desalination plant at Billy Lights Point are SA Water and the state's water minister, the member for Port Adelaide, Susan Close.

In August 2022, the site selection committee chair, Mr Peter Treloar, announced that the Sleaford Bay west site was identified as their recommended location after taking into consideration a wide variety of factors. Mr Treloar said at the time that, whilst the Sleaford west site was more costly to set up than Billy Lights Point, it ticked community requirements in environmental management and social and community benefit. Despite all this, SA Water and Susan Close have remain undeterred by the strong opposition and, in March 2023, announced the intention to ignore advice from the site selection committee and to continue to push ahead with the plant at Billy Lights Point.

It is proposed that an independent review or inquiry will look into the consultation, research and decision-making process in regard to water security on Eyre Peninsula. It is important to look at the outcomes these decisions have on the community, businesses and also, of course, the environment. This inquiry is critical for transparency. A public review ensures not only that government agencies involved in consultation, research and decision-making processes are held accountable for their actions but may also shed light on why some aspects received a higher priority or a higher weighting than others. It allows for a transparent evaluation of the decision-making process.

Eyre Peninsula needs water security. Such a review would not and should not question this but rather would make an overarching review of the options available for water security into the future. It should ensure that fair and unbiased decisions were made with the best interests of the community, business and the environment. Public inquiries demonstrate a commitment to transparency and open communication between the government, their contractors, their investors and the public they serve. By openly evaluating the government's consultation, research and decision-making process it creates confidence in the community.

There will be plenty of evidence to support the current and future needs for water security on Eyre Peninsula. As I have already said in this place, this is not up for debate. The early stages of this committee will be to inform and to examine the volume required, the source options available and the associated economic, cultural and environmental costs.

The committee will investigate what the consultation process was for the current desalination proposal, from initial discussions to the present day. There are a range of reasons—including the strong public reaction to the desalination plant, as raised above—that warrant an inquiry into certain aspects of the proposed Eyre Peninsula desalination plant, but it is important that this inquiry considers all aspects of Eyre Peninsula water supply and distribution more broadly.

In particular, it is important that, in considering water security on Eyre Peninsula, we look to futureproofing the region. We know that there are current plans for a Northern Water project to support industry in the region. What we need to be asking ourselves is whether there is an opportunity for government to work with industry to create a significant infrastructure project to sustain broader water needs for the EP and what that might look like going forward. Is there an opportunity to create one large project, rather than having multiple projects that lack vision into the future? I truly believe that this is something the committee could investigate in a multipartisan manner.

I think it is worth noting that, in its recent draft determination of SA Water's regulatory business proposal, ESCOSA raised concerns with SA Water's proposed operating costs for the EP desalination plant for the 2024-28 period. In summary, ESCOSA has stated that SA Water has overestimated its costs by over 30 per cent, from $35.9 million to $26 million, stating that:

SA Water's proposal for operating expenditure has not been supported by sufficiently detailed business cases and other supporting evidence;

SA Water's proposed $5 million contract costs are inefficient and unjustified; and

SA Water proposed some future costs that would not eventuate.

ESCOSA's recent comments point to another reason to further interrogate SA Water's assessment of the Eyre Peninsula desalination plant.

In closing, I do hope that members in this chamber, including the government, support the establishment of this committee. Water security is an important issue on Eyre Peninsula and one that needs careful consideration and scrutiny by this parliament to ensure that we have vision for the future and that the needs and experiences of communities on Eyre Peninsula are understood appropriately when it comes to their long-term water supply.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.