Australia: crackdown on recycled water after crop damage

Water recycling safeguards in Melbourne will be tightened amid fears that contaminated water has damaged food crops
in one of Australia's primary vegetable growing regions.

A six-month investigation by the State Government into the yellowing and stunted growth of vegetable crops in the
Werribee irrigation district was yesterday unable to report a definitive cause, but also unable to rule out recycled water
from the nearby Werribee Treatment Plant as the source of the problem.

But in a report that Werribee farmers said was a virtual admission that recycled water was to blame, investigators from
the Department of Primary Industries noted that recycled water from the treatment plant was "a strong common factor"
across the 15 affected properties, and such water had been delivered to farmers in record amounts this summer.

The report also made recommendations to upgrade the monitoring and testing of recycled water at the treatment plant
before it reached farmers, and warned that the risk of contaminants entering the recycled water system by illegal
dumping warranted a review.

The Werribee district supplies about 70 per cent of all lettuce consumed in Australia, and is a significant producer of
other vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.

With drought-ravaged Victoria set to become increasingly reliant on recycled water for irrigation, farming and industrial
uses, Werribee farmers believe the State Government has been keen to ensure recycled water was not blamed for the
crop problems, which surfaced in September and October last year.

Those suspicions were increased yesterday when the report noted that samples of recycled water from immediately
before and after the crop damage incident were made available to the investigators, but no water samples were
available from the day most in question — September 18, 2006.

The report said the absence of those samples and delays had "severely reduced the effectiveness and ability of the
investigation to determine the cause".

Crops planted after the incident in September and October have shown no ill effects.

Melbourne Water, which operates the treatment plant, said tests were carried out in line with official guidelines, either
weekly or "continuously".

The failure of the Government report to find an answer is likely to be challenged by local farmers, who are today
expected to release findings of tests they had conducted by an independent laboratory.

Werribee land owner Nik Tsardakis, who represents a group of affected farmers, said the Government's report virtually
conceded water was the problem, and the Government needed to invest money to secure a safe water supply.

"All of the recommendations deal with water and the lack of effective monitoring by Melbourne Water," he said.

"The Government wants recycled water to be the panacea for a lot of their problems, but this report really casts doubt
and exposes a huge risk to other users of recycled water."

Water Minister John Thwaites said authorities would carefully consider the recommendations and implement them as far
as practical.