2007/12 + 2019 – Tenterfield (New South Wales) – E.coli, Iron, Nickel, Colour, Turbidity

WARNING: Water supply ‘unsafe’ without boiling

TENTERFIELD residents are urged to take caution when using water due to poor raw water quality.

Tenterfield Shire Council said recent fires at the Tenterfield water supply dam have caused problems with water treatment, making drinking water in the Tenterfield township unsafe.

Council said all water used for drinking or food preparation should be brought to a rolling boil to make it safe.

Bushfires and drought leave NSW town of Tenterfield without clean water for 72 days

Turbidity levels in the Tenterfield dam have been measured at 60 times the World Health Organisation’s limits


For 72 days, but who is counting, residents of the New South Wales town of Tenterfield have been told to boil their drinking water.

Straight from the tap it reeks of bushfire smoke and heavy doses of chlorine. The community’s filtration system, built in 1932, cannot cope effectively with turbidity levels in the Tenterfield dam that have recently been measured at 60 times the World Health Organisation’s limits. The town’s swimming pool has been closed indefinitely through weeks of extreme heat.

“I don’t think anybody has any idea about how bad it really is here just in this locality,” says Helen Duroux, a Kamilaroi traditional owner and chief executive of the Moombahlene Local Aboriginal Land Council.

“When you get to the stage where you can’t turn the tap on and get a drink of water out of it then something is severely wrong.

“It is depressing. We’ve been through a whole range of catastrophes that have brought us to this place to where we can’t drink our water. I’m not the only one asking: where is it going to end, how is it going to end?”

The Tenterfield shire council began advising residents to boil water in early October when the dam levels dropped to about 18% – within months of when the town and its surrounds were expected to run dry.

In late November, a storm brought hail and heavy rain and almost two months’ supply of water. The storm also badly damaged silt traps designed to prevent sediment entering the dam and swept massive amounts of ash and debris from recent bushfires into the catchment.

Images sent to Guardian Australia, taken during a fishing competition held at the dam on 1 December, show large numbers of dead Murray cod, some more than 1m long, and other fish species washed on to the banks.

Residents say the town water supply has at different times smelled of fish, bushfire smoke and chlorine.

“You don’t even feel like having a shower in it”, Duroux says. “Everywhere I turn people are saying you can’t even turn your tap on without that smell coming into your kitchen. We’ve still got to wash up in it, we’ve still got to bathe in it. It’s the saddest situation I’ve ever been in I think.

“My memories of growing up here has always been a beautiful place, beautiful fresh air, beautiful drinking water. I’m very saddened by the way everything has changed in such a short amount of time. We don’t know if it’s ever going to be like that again.”

A worst-case scenario

Stuart Khan, a water security expert from the University of NSW, says the combination of drought, bushfire and a one-off heavy rainfall event is a “worst case scenario” for water supply in areas where facilities are often outdated and not able to cope with extreme circumstances.

“You’ve got a combination of events happening,” Khan says. “First of all you’ve got a drought which means the catchment is very dry. It also means the reservoir level is very low and there’s no opportunity to dilute new flows that come in.

“Fire followed by heavy rain will wash ash into the waterways. There’s also a lot more erosion because you don’t have the trees and roots holding the ground together. Having a reservoir full of soil and sediment and ash is in itself a real problem because it makes water treatment processes more difficult.”

Khan says the strong chlorine smell in Tenterfield’s tap water is probably the result of larger than usual doses being used to kill bacteria.

“When you have high turbidity, that consumes a lot of the chlorine [used to treat the water],” he says. “You have to super-dose the chlorine to … achieve a certain residual concentration. They would be ramping that up.”

Khan says a fish kill in the dam is “exactly what you would expect” from the bushfire ash, which would have created a chemical reaction and taken oxygen from the water supply. He says that despite treatment processes there remains a risk to human health in similar circumstances.

“These might seem like exceptional circumstances but they’re circumstances that can be anticipated to occur. There’s a very strong argument that a lot of towns in New South Wales don’t have the resilience in their drinking water supplies to get through these sorts of scenarios.”

The Tenterfield shire mayor, Peter Petty, says the council is doing everything it can to resolve the situation, including ordering a temporary reverse osmosis treatment system that – combined with water from a new bore – should eliminate the smoky taste and odour within weeks.

Petty says water that passes through the treatment process is tested twice daily to ensure it meets health department guidelines.

“There have been some concerns and people asking for advice and what council is doing. Council is doing everything we can, plus some, to relieve the community of this problem.”

He says the old treatment plant’s “use-by date has passed” and the council has plans to build a new one within two years.

‘People shouldn’t be scared’

Tenterfield holds a special place in the Australian story; the birthplace of Federation and the bush town memorialised by the entertainer Peter Allen, whose grandfather George Woolnough sat on his High Street verandah and made his saddles.

There are stunning million-dollar Federation-era homes set across from places where the realities of remote Australian communities are writ large; a 10% unemployment rate and an ageing community isolated from services.

Few residents question the efforts of local authorities to find an alternative water supply and fix their water problems, but many are angry that temporary measures have not been taken to bring in a supply of fresh and clean drinking water in the meantime.

“If it smells, then it’s not an acceptable clean water source. People shouldn’t have to be scared of the drinking water coming out of the taps,” says Luanna Legge, a local artist who has started Tenterfield Water Relief, a charity to distribute clean water to community members.

On Wednesday, Legge handed out about 2,600L of clean water to several hundred families. She says demand was overwhelming and that speaking to residents about their experiences was shocking.

“I had people with five kids telling me they had to put contaminated water in their kids’ formula because they couldn’t boil or refrigerate enough at a time,” she said.

The charity water scenario is increasingly familiar as towns face “day zero” – the end of their water supply – with desperate residents accessing supply brought by community groups rather than governments. Legge says she has been assisted by Russell and Sue Wantling, who started Granite Belt Water Relief across the Queensland border in Stanthorpe.

The water comes from the Wivenhoe Dam, less than three hours’ drive to the north, which supplies south-east Queensland.

“I’m doing my best but in the long-term I don’t think it’s a feasible option for people to be setting up charities to bring people clean drinking water, I feel like it should be a government responsibility,” Legge says.

“There are a lot of children here who are about to have one of the worst Christmases of their lives and that doesn’t seem that reasonable that the reason they’re having to have such a tough time is that governments have left us high and dry.

“I feel incredibly angry to be honest. I know a lot of people feel depressed and rejected at being forgotten about. After the horrific fires we’ve experienced here and all the financial burden of the drought these are taxpaying citizens. They pay their rates. These are good people. There’s no justifiable reason why governments shouldn’t be providing them water.”

Legge says the United Nations and World Health Organisation guidelines say drinking water should be an acceptable taste, colour and odour, but that she had obtained legal advice that Australian law was insufficient to force government action in the circumstances.

“We’ve now been living like this for 70 days and I’ve not heard the slightest skerrick of concern for people here,” Legge says. “If people in Sydney were being forced to live the way people in Tenterfield are forced to live, they would be outraged.

“A town of 4,000 people who have been bathing in contaminated water every day for 72 days. Are they going to send someone to see if we’re OK? Where are they?”

2007/2012 – Tenterfield (New South Wales) – E.coli
From a total of 279 samples, 25 E. coli detections. 200cfu/100mL (max)

Thermotolerant coliforms are a sub-group of coliforms that are able to grow at 44.5 ± 0.2°C. E. coli is the most common thermotolerant coliform present in faeces and is regarded as the most specific indicator of recent faecal contamination because generally it is not capable of growth in the environment. In contrast, some other thermotolerant coliforms (including strains of Klebsiella, Citrobacter and Enterobacter) are able to grow in the environment and their presence is not necessarily related to faecal contamination. While tests for thermotolerant coliforms can be simpler than for E. coli, E. coli is considered a superior indicator for detecting faecal contamination…” ADWG

2007/12 Tenterfield (NSW) – Iron

2007/12 – Tenterfield (NSW) – Iron 1.86mg/L (max), 0.693mg/L (mean)

Based on aesthetic considerations (precipitation of iron from solution and taste),
the concentration of iron in drinking water should not exceed 0.3 mg/L.
No health-based guideline value has been set for iron.

Iron has a taste threshold of about 0.3 mg/L in water, and becomes objectionable above 3 mg/L. High iron concentrations give water an undesirable rust-brown appearance and can cause staining of laundry and plumbing fittings, fouling of ion-exchange softeners, and blockages in irrigation systems. Growths of iron bacteria, which concentrate iron, may cause taste and odour problems and lead to pipe restrictions, blockages and corrosion. ADWG 2011

2007/12 – Tenterfield (New South Wales) – Turbidity

2007/12: Tenterfield (New South Wales) Turbidity 14.2NTU (max), 4.07 NTU (mean)

Chlorine-resistant pathogen reduction: Where filtration alone is used as the water treatment
process to address identified risks from Cryptosporidium and Giardia, it is essential
that filtration is optimised and consequently the target for the turbidity of water leaving
individual filters should be less than 0.2 NTU, and should not exceed 0.5 NTU at any time
Disinfection: A turbidity of less than 1 NTU is desirable at the time of disinfection with
chlorine unless a higher value can be validated in a specific context.

Aesthetic: Based on aesthetic considerations, the turbidity should not exceed 5 NTU at the
consumer’s tap.

Tenterfield (New South Wales) Nickel

2007/12: Tenterfield (New South Wales) Nickel 0.03mg/L (max), 0.075mg/L (mean)

Nickel: ADWG Health Guideline 0.02mg/L. A chemical element and silvery white corrosion resistant metal with a golden tinge. 60% of nickel production is used in nickel steel (particularly stainless steel). In water, mainly a problem with nickel plated fittings. Main releases to the environment are from the burning of fossil fuels and in waste discharges from electroplating industries.

Tenterfield (New South Wales) – Colour

2007/12: Tenterfield Colour 48HU (max), 12.94HU (mean)

Based on aesthetic considerations, true colour in drinking water should not exceed 15 HU.

“… Colour is generally related to organic content, and while colour derived from natural sources such as humic and fulvic acids is not a health consideration, chlorination of such water can produce a variety of chlorinated organic compounds as by-products (see Section 6.3.2 on disinfection by-products). If the colour is high at the time of disinfection, then the water should be checked for disinfection by-products. It should be noted, however, that low colour at the time of disinfection does not necessarily mean that the concentration of disinfection by-products will be low…