2012/14 + 2018/21 – Warburton (Western Australia) – Nitrate, E.coli, Naegleria Species

Warburton gets safe source tap water but health concerns remain about its plumbing



Angelica McLean mixes baby formula with bottled water to protect her four-month-old daughter from toxic chemicals in her community’s water supply.

Every two days, the 24-year-old Warburton mum buys a 15-litre container of water so baby Bluebell has safe water to drink and bathe in.

Ms McLean said not everyone in the community could afford multiple containers of water each week.

Many towns and remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia like Warburton, 750 kilometres north-east of Kalgoorlie, get their water from bores that tap into underground water reservoirs.

Christine Jeffries-Stokes, a paediatrician and one of the chief investigators for the Western Desert Kidney Project, has conducted extensive research on links between nitrates in drinking water and kidney disease.

She said the chemicals were particularly toxic to babies but could also harm adults.

This can lead to blue baby syndrome, a potentially fatal condition.

Dr Jeffries-Stokes said nitrates have been associated with an increased risk of stillbirth, birth defects, thyroid disease, type 2 diabetes and kidney disease.

WA Department of Communities deputy director general Catherine Stoddart said the government regularly provided free bottled water for infants under three months of age to the Warburton Health Clinic.

Both Dr Jeffries-Stokes and Ms McLean said many Warburton families were not aware of how to access the free bottled water.

New water plant to treat toxic supply

Last month, the state government completed a $3.4 million water treatment plant in Warburton to address its high levels of contaminants.

It includes an ultrafiltration system, a reverse osmosis plant, a wastewater pipeline, and an evaporation pond.

Ms Stoddart said water from the plant was tested and supply to the community began last month.

She said, as a precaution, carers of infants under three months of age are advised to keep using bottled water during the testing period, until mid-January.

Nitrates aren’t the only issue

Ngaanyatjarraku Shire President Damian McLean said he welcomed the new treatment plant.

But along with problems in the source water, Warburton has been grappling with ageing and cracked water pipes for decades.

He said he wanted a commitment to replace the pipes because when they burst, contaminants can get into the drinking supply.

$3.4 million water treatment plant begins operation in Warburton

Tuesday, 30 November 2021
  • New reverse osmosis water treatment plant completed in Warburton
  • Water treatment plant began operations this month
  • The $3.4 million water treatment plant will provide a source of fresh water in the community

The northern Goldfields community of Warburton will have a reliable source of potable water with the completion of the Warburton Water Treatment Plant (WTP) this month.

The $3.4 million WTP project included the design, installation and commissioning of a fully functioning ultrafiltration system and reverse osmosis water treatment plant, along with other infrastructure including a wastewater pipeline and evaporation pond.

Warburton relies on water sourced from underground and this contains naturally-occurring elements such as nitrates that can affect water quality.

Nitrate levels in the community’s drinking water have been safe as determined by Australian Drinking Water Guidelines for all residents other than infants under three months of age.

In accordance with Department of Health guidance, the State Government has provided free bottled water for bottle-fed infants under three months of age.

With the WTP project complete and the new plant in operation, bottled water will no longer need to be provided.

The Department of Communities has overseen the WTP project through its Remote Essential and Municipal Services program for regional and remote Aboriginal communities.

The Department is also undertaking the design, installation and commissioning of a new water treatment plant and infrastructure upgrades at Kiwirrkurra in the East Pilbara, widely considered to be the most remote community in Australia.

The State Government has been entirely responsible for the provision of essential services to remote communities since the Commonwealth Government withdrew from its role in the joint funding of power and water infrastructure and services.

Comments attributed to Housing Minister John Carey:

“The McGowan Government is committed to improving the outcomes for people living in remote Aboriginal communities, and this $3.4 million water treatment plant will provide the people of Warburton with a reliable source of potable water moving forward.

“With this water treatment plant beginning operations, the provision of bottled water will no longer be required for bottle-fed infants under the age of three months which is a great outcome.

“The McGowan Government is making significant investments to improve water infrastructure in a number of remote Aboriginal communities, including a new water treatment plant and infrastructure upgrades at Kiwirrkurra in the East Pilbara, widely considered to be the most remote community in Australia.”

2012/20 – Warburton (Western Australia) – Nitrate

2012/14: Warburton (Western Australia) – Nitrate Levels: ~70mg/L-~80mg/L


8 tests above ADWG Child Guideline 2012-2014

32 tests above ADWG Child Guideline 2017-2019

2017: ~82mg/L (highest). ~63.5mg/L (average)

2018: ~80mg/L (highest). ~72.8mg/L (average)

2019: ~100mg/L (highest). ~81.4mg/L (average)

One in five communities exceeded safe levels for nitrates or uranium

The most significant chemical issues for water quality come from nitrates and uranium, which occur naturally and are common in the Goldfields and Pilbara. Excessive nitrates in the diet reduce blood’s ability to carry oxygen. In infants, this can cause the potentially life-threatening Blue Baby Syndrome, where the skin takes on a bluish colour and the child has trouble breathing. Housing provides bottled water for infants under three months in communities with high nitrates. Long term solutions would likely include asset replacements or upgrades or finding new water sources, or a combination of these.

In 2013-14, fourteen of 84 communities in the Program recorded nitrates above the safe health level for bottle-fed babies under three months. Two communities had readings above the standard for adults (Figure 5).

Child Heath Levels Nitrate: 50mg/L. Adult Heath Levels Nitrate: 100mg/L

Warburton (Western Australia) – E.coli

1 test above ADWG Guideline 2012/14


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

Warburton (Western Australia) – Naegleria Species

3 tests above ADWG Guideline 2012-2014

“GUIDELINE No guideline value is set for Naegleria fowleri in drinking water, but an ‘action level’ is recommended for water supplies likely to be contaminated. If the organism is detected, advice should be sought from the relevant health authority.

Naegleria fowleri is a free-living, thermophilic amoeboflagellate which causes the waterborne disease primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). This rare but fatal condition has followed use of water for swimming, or domestic bathing. The organism occurs naturally in freshwater of suitable temperature, feeding on bacteria. Its occurrence is only indirectly related to human activity, inasmuch as such activity may modify temperatures or promote bacterial production. PAM has been reported from many countries, usually associated with thermally polluted environments, geothermal water or heated swimming pools. N. fowleri is almost exclusively aquatic, and water is the only known source of infection. Numerous nonvirulent Naegleria species are known in Australia.

PAM cases have been recorded from South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales; Naegleria fowleri has been detected in water in each of these states and in the Northern Territory. Australia is the only country where N. fowleri has been detected in public water supplies (Dorsch et al. 1983). Most of the available data on the density of N. fowleri in water relates to water supplies in South Australia (including the highest reported densities). In temperate Australia, significant seasonal cycles of density occur, from below one organism per litre to hundreds or thousands per litre in poorly disinfected water (Robinson and Christy 1984). N. fowleri detected at water temperatures below 18°C is likely to be present as cysts, which are not infectious, but which may seed a suitable environment.” Australian Drinking Water Guidelines 2011.