Council discharges treated sewage into 'sick' Aussie river that feeds city's water supply

Tests have revealed "unsafe" levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water and an expert says it needs "urgent" attention.

An image showing Wingecarribee River last week. Houses can be seen on the bank above it.
A sewage smell was documented in water flowing through Wingecarribee River last week. Source: Ian Wright

A regional Australian council is discharging treated sewage into a river that feeds a capital city’s main drinking water supply. And locals are reporting a terrible “stench”.

Water expert Dr Ian Wright has been studying Wingecarribee River in the NSW Southern Highlands since the 1990s, and its current health is was the worst he’s ever seen.

“It is a really sick river. And no one seems to be looking at its condition and how urgently it needs attention,” he told Yahoo News.

“If it was a person we’d be wanting to get them to the hospital. But it’s almost like we’re watching it die in front of us and no one is doing anything.”

Wingecarribee Council maintains it's unaware of “any ongoing smell issues or complaints associated with the river”, but Wright says it is a well-known issue that residents just put up with.

“For a drinking water catchment this is not appropriate,” he said. “It’s clear that protecting the waterway is being forgotten… And this is not consistent with looking after Sydney’s long-term water quality… and the EPA needs to step up.”

The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) permits Wingecarribee Council to release the treated effluent into the river under what it says is a “strict environment protection licence”.

"In addition to strict monitoring, we regularly review licence conditions, taking into account factors such as the surrounding environmental conditions, type of activity and available technology," it told Yahoo.

The EPA said it is working with Wingecarribee Council to upgrade the sewage treatment plants it manages. It added it has not received any recent reports of major sewage pollution events in the [Wingecarribee] River.

Despite the EPA’s assurances, Wright isn’t convinced all is well with the river.

The Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Western Sydney University he has been preparing a research paper, after his testing detected “unsafe” levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. He believes discharges from Bowral Sewage Treatment Plant are directly contributing to the problem.

“Council are within their licence, but it’s a very poor licence,” he said.

After Yahoo put Wright’s concerns to the EPA, it engaged in internal discussions with Wright and he's now sharing his research findings with the agency.

While the idea of discharging treated sewage into rivers is controversial, the state government's water authority, Sydney Water, treats it effectively so what comes out of the tap is “high quality” and completely safe to drink.

“Raw water sources can contain impurities, whether from the natural environment (flora and fauna), agriculture, stormwater, or urban runoff, which are managed by our treatment processes,” it told Yahoo in a statement

As you may have gathered from Sydney Water’s statement, it’s not just treated sewage that finds its way into rivers that feed Australia's largest concrete dam — Warragamba Dam.

Close up of the dirty water in Wingecarribee River.
Wright wants the EPA to rethink the conditions of its permit to Wingecarribee Council. Source: Ian Wright

Wingecarribee Council, which manages the Bowral Sewage Treatment Plant responded to Yahoo, saying; “Many factors are known to affect water quality including development, urban stormwater, rural industries, carp, extreme weather, and industry, and the catchment audits take all of these factors into consideration.”

Wright agrees that there are many contributors to the river's current situation. And he notes it's in such poor health the discharge coming out of the Bowral treatment plant near Burradoo is actually clearer than the river water itself.

“The river has very high nutrients. It has almost constant blue green algal blooms, but it's got this extraordinary turbidity – muddiness, cloudiness... Some of that is due to algae, and some of it is also due to sediment from overdevelopment," he said.

But it’s not just the homeowners who live along its banks who are affected. Platypus are also being impacted, and researchers are studying how their food sources are potentially being harmed.

Platypus eat around half their body weight in food every day, and having access to large amounts of food is particularly important to pregnant and lactating females.

“It's almost like no one is noticing, because this is a really beautiful area. And the river is a central feature. It supports platypus. Plus we drink [from it].

"It's just ... it's bizarre,” Wright said.

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