Desal kept WA growing: Smith

Former Federal Cabinet minister Stephen Smith has drawn parallels between WA's embrace of desalinated water and the legendary exploits of C.Y. O'Connor, saying it has underpinned Perth's recent prosperity.

In a speech this week to commemorate the famed engineer, Mr Smith said the decision in 2004 to build a desalination plant at Kwinana came amid heavy criticism but was correct.

"Imagine what further domestic water restrictions there would be and what constraints would apply to industry if government hadn't taken the visionary decision to produce this reliable water source," Mr Smith said.

The former foreign affairs and defence minister said the move was comparable to the engineering feats O'Connor drove, including the Goldfields pipeline and Fremantle Harbour.

He said the desalination plants also served to highlight the importance of governments pushing such transformational developments. "As well as the capacity, skill and professionalism of individuals like engineers … building infrastructure which changes State and national social and economic outcomes requires the political will, courage, commitment and leadership of the government of the day," he said.

"The WA government under Dr Geoff Gallop's leadership was the first in Australia to invest in desalination as a major contributor to the water supply.

"It was highly controversial at the time but with a drying climate, the investment in desalination is now seen to have been a game-changing decision.

"It was criticised as an expensive, energy-hungry extravagance compared to other, rain- dependent sources but the achievement is a fundamentally substantial one."

Mr Smith said the decision to back desalination contrasted with a current unwillingness to go ahead with big projects such as the Perth airport rail link.

Mr Smith said Perth had an over-reliance on cars - a situation the Heart Foundation linked to obesity - and the long-term solution demanded investment in public, walking and cycling transport. He said it would be cheaper than building roads.

The West Australian

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