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Desalination Plants in Australia
Location Hempton Park, Victoria
Estimated Output 410 megalitres per day
Extended Output 550 megalitres per day
Estimated Cost (A$) $3.5 billion
Proposed Energy Generation Offset Windfarm at Glenthompson
Proposed Technology Reverse Osmosis
Percent of Water Supply Estimated 33% of Melbourne
Location map of the proposed site

The Wonthaggi Desalination Plant (also referred to as the Victorian Desalination Project) is a proposed water desalination plant currently under construction on the Bass Coast near Wonthaggi, in southern Victoria, Australia, scheduled to be completed by the end of 2011. Once completed, the plant is intended to be an integral part of the privatisation of Victoria's water system, supplying water via a series of existing and proposed pipelines, to the highest regional bidders in a future state water market.[1][2]

The desalination plant was marketed to the Victorian public through the late 2000s in response to the water restrictions and population growth as being part of the Victorian Government's "Our Water, Our Future" "water plan", via print, digital and television advertisements, which included other major projects such as the North-South Pipeline, the Cardinia Pipeline and a proposed interconnector to Geelong.[3]

The proposed site is about 500 metres inland from the coastline. Associated infrastructure would include tunnels connecting the plant to marine intake and discharge structures up to 2 km out to sea, an 85 kilometre pipeline to connect the plant to Melbourne's water supply system, and power supply infrastructure for the plant. The plant is intended to provide up to 150 gigalitres of additional water per year, with the potential to expand production to 200 gigalitres per year.[4]

The project has been the subject of intense criticism from the Australian Greens, community groups and local residents, regarding almost every aspect of the project. Regular public rallies have been conducted on the site and in Melbourne since its proposal. One community group Your Water, Your Say was sent bankrupt following a lost legal case after the group legally pursued the Victorian Government over lack of reports and consultation. The group lost and costs were pursued against it by the state government, sending it bankrupt. The case centred on initial water requirement figures, feasibility studies and environmental effects reports amongst other issues. A new opposition group Watershed Victoria, has since taken its place.



South eastern Australia has experienced widespread drought for the last 10 to 15 years that has been linked to human-induced climate change.[5] and also rapid population growth due mainly to immigration. Reserves in the state's water storage dams have been decreasing since 1998 to around a third of maximum capacity and are expected to increase to normal levels after the current drought passes.[6][7] Water restrictions have been in place for much of that time in an effort to utilise the region's water sources more efficiently and reduce water consumption in a traditionally high water consumption region.[8]

During the 2006 Victorian State election, the Labor Government opposed the construction of a desalination plant, however after winning the election, it reversed its position and committed to building it.

By June 2007, the Victorian Government released its "water strategy" marketed as Our Water Our Future. As part of the plan, the government announced its intention to develop a seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant to "augment Melbourne's water supply, as well as other regional supply systems."


Schematics of a reverse osmosis system (desalination) using a pressure exchanger. 1:Sea water inflow, 2: Fresh water flow (40%), 3:Concentrate Flow (60%), 4:Sea water flow (60%), 5: Concentrate (drain), A: High pressure pump flow (40%), B: Circulation pump, C:Osmosis unit with membrane, D: Pressure exchanger


Associated infrastructure includes tunnels connecting the plant to marine intake and discharge structures, an 85 km pipeline to connect the plant to Melbourne's existing distribution network at Berwick, and power supply infrastructure for the plant. Water will enter the City water supply system through Cardinia Reservoir.[9]

A two-headed marine structure extending up to 2 km offshore will be constructed. It is estimated that the plant will take in 480 billion litres of seawater and pump back 280 billion litres of saline concentration brine every year.[10]

A windfarm located at Glenthompson is proposed to be built to offset the electricity used by the plant.[11]

Proposed outcomes

Map of the proposed Cardinia Pipeline

Once built, the plant is intended to operate at full capacity for a number of years until Melbourne's dams exceed 65% capacity, at which point the plant will not supply any further water to Melbourne's storages.[12]

Estimated water production is 150 billion litres (150 gigalitres) of desalinated water per year, potentially capable of providing around a third of Melbourne's annual water consumption based on 2007 consumption levels. It is intended that the water produced will be supplied to Melbourne, Geelong, Western Port and South Gippsland.

The plant is expected to emit around 200 million tonnes of brine to the ocean. This will severely increase the salinity in the affected coastal areas depending upon dispersion rates.[citation needed]

More than 1.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gas will be emitted during the construction of the plant and another 1.2 million tonnes emitted every year once it begins operation. Greenhouse emissions during the construction of the plant, and an estimated 70,000 tonnes from waste decomposition and transport during its operation, will not be offset.

When completed, the desalination plant would represent the largest addition to Melbourne's water system since the addition of the Thomson River Dam in 1983.

Early assessments

The disbanding of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1992 transferred control over the planning process regarding major water and sewerage construction projects to developers. This process came under increased criticism during initial feasibility studies and assessments of Melbourne's water supply and the desalination plant.[13]

Early assessments of Melbourne's water supply were based on restricted statistical information. Official water forecasts were based on running a regression through rainfall for three severely drought affected years from 2004 to 2006. Adequate statistical analysis conventionally runs a regression curve through at least 10 years, ideally more. As a result of the inaccuracies in initial assessments of water supply, once the plant is complete, and even without restrictions on consumption, the excess of supply is estimated to be anywhere between 60 - 100% by 2016.[13]

Feasibility Study

Environmental Effects Studies

In August 2008, a 1600-page environmental effects study report was prepared and found that; "...several protected species could be affected by the plant's construction and operation — including the orange-bellied parrot, the growling grass frog and the giant Gippsland earthworm — but none would be left "significantly" worse off.". The community was given 30 business days to read, study and prepare responses to the 1600-page report.[10] This was deemed by Watershed Victoria to be insufficient time for community groups to analyse the report and prepare submissions.

Contract to build and operate

There were 8 contenders to win the contract. [1] Two consortia were shortlisted for the construction and operation of the plant — AquaSure (Thiess/Suez) and BassWater (John Holland/Veolia Environmental).[14]

On 30 June 2009, the consortium AquaSure, which is made up of Degremont, Macquarie Capital and Thiess, was chosen as the winning bidder.[11] Simultaneously, it was announced that construction was scheduled to commence in late 2009, proposing that water be delivered by late 2011.[9]


Bass Coast region of Victoria, indicated in yellow

The proposed site is a 20 hectare site on Williamsons Beach on the Bass Coast in south eastern Victoria. It is between Wonthaggi and Kilcunda and near the Powlett River.38°35′19″S 145°30′47″E / 38.58861°S 145.51306°E / -38.58861; 145.51306Coordinates: 38°35′19″S 145°30′47″E / 38.58861°S 145.51306°E / -38.58861; 145.51306 The proposed site is located on traditional Bunurong land and many significant archaeological artefacts have previously been discovered around the construction site, including a significant fossil site on a nearby coastline.

Nine sites were included in the "long list" in the feasibility study. These were "short listed" to four (Surf Coast, East of Port Philip Bay, West of Western Port, and Bass Coast). The Bass Coast was chosen as the premium location.[4] Compulsory acquisition notices were issued to the residents of the proposed desalination site on the 25 January 2008.[15]

40% of the area where the plant is to be located was formerly an open-cut coal mine.[citation needed]


  • The capital cost for the project was initially estimated to be AUD$2.9 billion in the initial feasibility study, this was later revised to $3.1 billion[16] and then to $3.5b, then after the winning bidder was announced, it was revised yet again, to $4b.
  • Operating costs are to be charged by a private firm over a 25-30 year period and are predicted to be around $1.5 billion. This includes labour, replacement of membranes, chemicals costs and energy, and were initially estimated at AUD$132 million per annum (in 2007 dollars)[17]. Unlike previous water infrastructure works in Melbourne, the plant will be built and operated as a public-private partnership and the water produced will be privately owned, currently there is no mechanism for residents to boycott receipt of this water.[citation needed]

A report by the Water Services Association of Australia conducted in 2008, modelling several national water-supply scenarios for 2030, determined that sourcing water supply from seawater desalination was the most energy-intensive. The report predicted that if desalination became the primary source of supplying around 300 litres per person per day, energy usage would rise by 400% above today’s levels.[18].

On 12 December 2009 The Age newspaper published details of considerable areas of land made cheaply available to the plant's developers without the value of such land being included in the project's official costs.[19]

  • The average water bill for residents living in Melbourne is estimated to rise by around 64% over the next 5 years. Water price plans released by the Essential Services Commission illustrate that metropolitan water providers will charge between 87 per cent and 96 per cent more for water. Water Minister Tim Holding, has stated that; "Melbourne residents need to help pay for major water infrastructure projects, such as the desalination plant and the Sugarloaf (North South) pipeline."[20]
  • Comparatively, the Kwinana Desalination Plant in Perth was completed in 2006, has roughly 30-50% the output of the Wonthaggi plant, however, it cost a mere $387 million to build.

Energy consumption

The plant is estimated to require between 90 and 120MW of electricity to operate. In comparison to the energy consumption required for domestic water tank pumps:

  • Domestic water tanks are capable of supplying over 95 per cent of the water for a house in Melbourne.
  • 600,000 households could save up to 160 gigalitres of water per year by using captured rainwater and reducing their daily consumption.
  • The energy required for domestic water tank pumps would multiply to 140 MWh of energy per day for these same households.
  • The proposed desalination plant would consume 15 times as much energy just to operate. More energy would be required to pump the water it produces to Melbourne.

However, the viability of domestic rainwater tanks is reliant on rainfall in the Melbourne metropolitan area.

Additional energy will be required to pump the desalinated water from Wonthaggi to Cardinia Reservoir in Melbourne.

A commitment was made to invest in renewable energy to offset the power the plant uses in an attempt to make it carbon neutral, it is likely the plant will be partly powered by a new co-located gas fired power station or from power from the grid from coal-fired power stations, both of which will produce significant greenhouse gas emissions while Australia's power production is dominated by coal.

Similar claims by the Western Australian Desalination plant were proved by the ACCC to be false, they determined that the WA plant was "deceptive their carbon neutral claims".[citation needed]


The Victorian Government estimate approximately 4,745 full-time equivalent jobs will be generated by the project over the two-year construction period.[9] Construction work officially began on October 6, 2009.[21]


Spring St, looking south from Little Bourke St. with Parliament House on the left

There are several community groups opposed to the proposal, including the 3rd largest political party in the country, the Australian Greens, however the general public remain unaware of the proposed privatisation of their water resource.[1] In an article written by Kenneth Davidson in late 2009, he explains; "the government relies on a weak opposition, and a general public apathy and the diabolical complexity of the arrangements to avoid public scrutiny."

Watershed Victoria [22] also opposes the project. The community group Your Water Your Say was one of the first organised oppostion groups and legally pursued the government in relation to the plant. The group lost and the government pursued legal costs, effectively sending the group bankrupt.

Public rallies and protests have been held both at the site in Wonthaggi and in Melbourne on Spring Street outside the State Parliament buildings throughout 2007, 2008 and 2009.[23] In July 2008, a group of around 50 people conducted a rally on the site, several people were removed from Crown land, none were arrested.[24]

In June 2009, a petition including 3,000 signatories opposing the plant was presented to the Victorian Parliament.[25]

Your Water Your Say v Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Your Water Your Say (YWYS) opposed the proposal, taking legal action against the Victorian State Government regarding non-disclosure of financial information and lack of environmental studies and reports.[26] As of July 2008 YWYS lost the action, and the Federal Court awarded costs to the State Government estimated to be up to $200,000, effectively rendering the community group broke.[27] YWYS was subsequently disbanded.

In their submission response to the EES, YWYS stated: "The Federal and State Governments are aware that YWYS is unlikely to be in a position to pay its significant legal costs and hence their apparent inability to make a decision on this front can only be interpreted as an attempt to further avoid community scrutiny of this project."[28]

Bribery and corruption concerns

Objectors have cited the past history of bribery and corruption within Suez and its subsidiaries, particularly the Grenoble corruption case, in which it was found that a $3 million bribe was exchanged between French government officials and a Suez subsidiary. The individuals involved were sentenced to jail and Suez lost their contract in Grenoble. French authorities also found that the subsidiary had overcharged customers by using fraudulent accounting methods and ordered it to return all water fees collected in an 8 year period between 1990 and 1998.[29]

A similar deal is suspected to have taken place between the Victorian State Government and Suez, Veolia or their subsidiaries.[1] The deal involved is suspected to be the assurance of a contract to supply Melbourne's water for 30 years with built-in price escalations and other measures to exclude any competition. The inadequate initial assessments and community consultation, inappropriate environment reports and treatment of community groups are all suggested to stem from this alleged corruption. If such a deal has taken place, it could potentially assure financiers of a solid investment in the project.[29]

Sharing of private information with private consortia

In December 2009, it was revealed that private information obtained by Victoria Police during surveillance efforts on individuals involved or corresponding with YWYS, Watershed Victoria and other community groups, had been made available to the private consortium building the desalination plant, Aquasure, via a 'memorandum' between the State Government, Victoria Police and Aquasure.[30]

Community groups, individuals, civil liberty groups, free speech groups, the Australian Greens and many others, related their opposition to such action which was deemed as an invasion of privacy to which Victoria Police responded to by explaining that the information would be used to better "manage" future activities and potential "security threats".[30]

It was simultaneously revealed that such 'memorandums' are common practice between all parties in Private Public Partnerships on major construction projects in Victoria, the North South Pipeline also being named. The news made the front page of The Age newspaper on Saturday December 5.[30]

Project timeline



  • June 19 - the Victorian Government announces its intention to develop a seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant on the coast near Wonthaggi. The plant is explained to be part of a water plan marketed as Our Water Our Future.[31]
  • July - treasurer John Brumby replaces the retiring Premier Steve Bracks.
  • Mid year - the proposed site floods for the first time.
  • December 28 - the Minister for Planning for the Victorian Government determines that the project would require assessment under the Environment Effects Act 1978 and preparations for an Environment Effects Statement (EES) begin.


  • January 25 - Compulsory acquisition notices issued to the residents of the proposed site.
  • February 4 - the Federal Government determines that the project will have to require approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
  • February 5 - Around 150 people protest against the plant in Spring Street and the steps of Parliament House in Melbourne.
  • February 21-March 13 - draft scoping requirements for the EES placed on public exhibition.
  • Late March - Community rally in Wonthaggi.
  • May 4 - final scoping requirements for the EES issued.
  • Late May - A 24-hour picket line begins at the proposed site.
  • June 13 - Justice Heerey awards costs to the Federal and State Governments a result of the action - Your Water Your Say v Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts & Anor; Federal Court Proceeding VID188/2008.
  • July 5 - The plant is addressed during the Climate Emergency Rally at various locations in Melbourne.
  • July - DSE prevent access for the van that the community was using as a hub for its 24-hour picket line, ending the 6 week 24-hour picket.
  • July - a group of around 50 conduct a rally on the site, several people are removed from Crown land, none are arrested.[24]
  • Mid July - Proposed site floods for a second time, 100m of coastline is landscaped to alter the flow of Powlett River.
  • August 20-September 30 - Environment Effects Statement (EES) released for public comment by the State Government, community given 5 weeks to submit responses to the 1600-page report.
  • December 1 - Legal costs between the State Government and YWYS settled via consultation with the Federal Government Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett. The state government has not yet responded to the consultations and YWYS has effectively been forced to disband.


  • January 11 - Planning Minister, Justin Madden, approved a planning scheme amendment to allow for a pilot desalination plant to come into effect on the 17 January.[32]
  • February 12 - ATA holds a seminar on alternative water supply options for Melbourne.
  • June - a petition of 3,000 signatories opposing the plant is presented to the Victorian Parliament.
  • July 30 - Winning bidder announced.
  • October 6 - Construction commenced.
  • December 5 - The Age publishes news of the "memorandum" to share surveiled information with the private consortium.


  • February 4 - First sections of the new pipeline are laid
  • Late year - 2010 Federal Election is expected to be held.
  • November 27 - 2010 Victorian State election day.


  • End of Year - Expected to commence production and related operations.


  • Contract for the operation of the plant expected to expire.

See also


  1. ^ a b c D!ssent, Article by Kenneth Davidson "Water Lies", Issue 31 Summer 09/10
  2. ^ "Victorian Desalination Project". Department of Planning and Community Development. 2009-02-20. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  3. ^ "The Next Stage of the Government's Plan". Melbourne Water. 16/06/2009. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  4. ^ a b "Seawater Desalination Plant Feasibility Study - Executive Summary". Melbourne Water. June 2007. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Answers to your questions on storage levels". Melbourne Water. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  7. ^ "Government Programs & Action - Background". Melbourne Water. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  8. ^ "Melbourne water storage levels continue to drop". ABC News. March 10, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  9. ^ a b c "Facts Sheet". Melbourne Water. June 2007. 
  10. ^ a b The Age, August 21, 2008.
  11. ^ a b "Desal consortium selected". ABC News. 2009-07-30. 
  12. ^ "Dams set to receive major desal boost". ABC News. 2009-07-11. Retrieved 2009-07-12. 
  13. ^ a b The Age, 25 September 2008, "Water policy is based on flawed figures", Kenneth Davidson
  14. ^ "Water policy delivers scary possibilities". The Age: p. 17. June 25, 2009. 
  15. ^ "Compulsory acquisition notices". Your water, your say. 25th January 2008. 
  16. ^ "Our Water Our Future - The Next Stage of the Government’s Water Plan, Desalination Plant to Deliver 150 Billion Litres of Water Per Year". Victorian water Industry association. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  17. ^ "Seawater Desalination Plant Feasibility Study - Chapter 9a". Melbourne Water. June 2007. 
  18. ^ The Age, 30 August 2008, "Water plant to guzzle energy", Peter Ker
  19. ^
  20. ^ ABC, "Water bills set to rise", Fri Nov 7, 2008 11:52am AEDT.
  21. ^ "Desal plant construction gets underway". ABC News. 2009-10-06. Retrieved 2009-10-06. 
  22. ^ Watershed Victoria home page
  23. ^ "Desal opponents resume protest at Wonthaggi". ABC News. July 14, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-19. 
  24. ^ a b "Protesters met by police at desal site in Wonthaggi". Herald Sun. July 14, 2008.,21985,24016990-661,00.html. Retrieved 2008-07-19. 
  25. ^ "Vic Parliament receives Wonthaggi desal petition". ABC News. June 11, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  26. ^ "Action group loses legal challenge over desalination". ABC News. May 16, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-19. 
  27. ^ "Opponents of Victorian desalination plant must pay costs". Herald Sun. June 13, 2008.,21985,23857427-661,00.html. Retrieved 2008-07-19. 
  28. ^ "YWYS EES Submission". 30 September 2008. 
  29. ^ a b The Age, "Water policy delivers scary possibilities", Page 17, published Thursday, June 25, 2009.
  30. ^ a b c The Age, Front Page, Saturday December 5, 2009.
  31. ^ Our Water Our Future
  32. ^ Bass Shire Council, January 15, 2009

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