Bombala (New South Wales) 2018
Where tap water was so dirty even dogs wouldn’t drink it
Bombala was almost the nation’s capital. In 2018, it is battling for clean drinking water.
By Emily Baker
Bombala is known for its extreme temperatures: highs up to 40 degrees in summer and lows well below zero in the depths of winter. Throughout the cooler months, frost blankets the ground and woodsmoke hangs in the air. The mean minimum temperature for June was less than 1 degree.
Alison Gimbert has lived in the south-east NSW town of about 1400 people since 1983. Last year, when the mercury dipped below minus 5 degrees six times in July alone, she gave up on hot showers.
Ms Gimbert was not worried about her power bill. She was not worried about her water bill, though that came later. Ms Gimbert was worried about her dreadfully itchy skin.
“I thought it must’ve been my soap, my shampoo. I went through everything,” she said.
“I tried creams and everything. I’ve made my legs bleed, laying in bed and scratch, scratch, scratch.
“All last winter I had what I would call a cold shower trying to stop it, and I used to freeze. I knew it had to be something but I couldn’t get any answers.”
Finally, in February this year, it clicked. It wasn’t the temperature of the water. It was the water. And Ms Gimbert wasn’t the only Bombala resident having an uncomfortable reaction.
Margaret Smith, who has lived in Bombala 11 years, said she was usually itchy after a shower. Dina Dracopoulos’s skin was once so unbearably itchy she scratched her arms with the blunt side of a knife until they bled. Seventy-five-year-old Sylvia Brown was prescribed medication to manage her dry, itchy skin, as was hairdresser Nicky Gulliford’s 18-year-old daughter, Lahiesha, who visited three GPs before being issued with antibiotics and creams.
There are stories of Bombala babies being taken to other towns to bathe, a woman with peeling hands, and children with sudden and severe bouts of eczema and dermatitis.
It seems a mysterious phenomenon. But Bombala’s water hasn’t just made people itchy – at various points, it has been visibly filthy. Jars filled with tap water seen by Fairfax Media were heavy with sediment. Some samples were so dark they appeared more like mud than water.
The issue has caused much anguish in the town. Women with washing tie-dyed brown and yellow this year stormed the council’s office brandishing their ruined whites. People turned to bottled water for their cooking. Kettles, toilet cisterns and hot water systems were breaking. Even animals refused to drink water from the tap.
By March, when a fed-up Ms Gimbert called a public meeting on the situation, Bombala had been battling brown, smelly water on and off for about six months. Longer, according to some. They were sick of being ignored.
And although the Snowy Monaro Regional Council is now working to right the town’s water woes – after intense lobbying and the fiery public meeting – it has also proposed to more than double what Bombala residents pay for what comes from their taps.
Bombala’s water is pumped from the Coolumbooka River into a decades-old filtration plant described variously by Snowy Monaro Regional Council Mayor John Rooney as “a museum piece” and “obsolete”.
According to Cr Rooney, the 60-year-old pipes through which the water flowed were clogged with 60 years of “sludge”. Both issues were a hangover from previous councils, he told the March public meeting. Those bodies were amalgamated in 2016.
Event attendees were told it was difficult for the filtration plant’s old equipment to monitor how much of each chemical was required to filter the raw water. Chemical dosages had “not been optimal” for about 20 years, council water and wastewater manager Mark Rixon said, and a build-up of aluminium flowed freely through the water when there was an imbalance. He said that explained the water’s turbidity.
“It’s not necessarily bad for you, though I wouldn’t recommend you drink it, but it is not a significant health impact,” Mr Rixon said, later adding: “It looks shitty and it probably is.”
An investigation of the plant, also held in March, found on-site testing equipment was “not clean”. Slides from a PowerPoint given to residents in May said some water testing was not done and daily results were not recorded.
The plant’s broader equipment was old and unmaintained, the chemical dosing pumps weren’t working, there were no records of raw water quality and the plant’s human operators had little technical support.
Further, there were no chemicals at the plant for removing taste and odour from the water, nor for removing iron and manganese.
In April, specialist divers vacuumed almost 70 cubic metres of sludge from the main holding tank at Bombala’s water facility.
The public meeting was told the council planned to annually replace three kilometres of Bombala’s 36-kilometre water pipe network – “provided we get sufficient funding from the state government to do so” – meaning the system would be replaced within 12 years. Later, Cr Rooney said the town would have clean water within 12 months. The water mains have since been cleaned and some upgrades made to the plant.
Fairax Media approached several bodies for clarity on what was wrong with the supply, potential health risks and what had been done to address the problems.
NSW Health, when asked about the testing of water within the Snowy Monaro Regional Council’s boundaries, said the council was responsible for water supply and its quality. It did not know how many NSW towns were without clean drinking water.
A Southern NSW Local Health District spokeswoman confirmed the Bombala hospital had used bottled water four times between June 2017 and June 2018.
“This is in line with advice from the Snowy Monaro Regional Council that the water did not meet stringent health guidelines due to severe drought and lower than average river and dam levels,” she said.
A Snowy Mountains Regional Council spokesman did not respond to questions about health risks to residents. The spokesman said the council had “made considerable improvements” to water quality, recently spending more than $100,000 on maintenance work.
An inquiry to the office of NSW Deputy Premier and Monaro representative John Barilaro – who pledged $15 million to fix the issue at Ms Gimbert’s public meeting in March, and has previously promised funding – also went unanswered.
Affected residents said they were still unsure of the water’s impact on their health.
Things had improved, they agreed. “Personally, I don’t itch as much,” Ms Gimbert said.
Bombala is not the only town within the Snowy Monaro Regional Council’s jurisdiction without clean drinking water. The water supply to Delegate, a town of about 350, was declared unsafe for drinking in 2015 after its chlorination regime was deemed inadequate for controlling disease-carrying micro-organisms.
Delegate General Store owner Irene Butterworth said she now sold six 15-litre containers of water each week and had “lost count” of her four and 10-litre sales.
Delegate Cafe uses rainwater in its coffee machines; elsewhere, filters are employed. Owner Uland Sievert said each filter was replaced three times last year.
Nicole Mellon was shocked to learn she couldn’t drink water from her tap when she moved to Delegate from Jervis Bay. Her cat fell ill with a kidney infection soon after her family moved to the town. The vet said it was unrelated to the water, but she’s not so sure.
Ms Mellon’s baths run brown and her shower smells like dirt. When she doesn’t cook with bottled water her food tastes like chemicals, she said. And, as in Bombala, her white washing often stains brown.
“I’m so frustrated – it’s a frustrating feeling being charged for water when we’re not able to use it, drink it,” Ms Mellon said.
“I think the council needs to listen to the people of Delegate because Delegate gets left out of everything.”
Delegate was well-represented at the public meeting organised by Ms Gimbert, as was nearby Nimmitabel. Between 200 and 300 people attended the event.
Delegate was told it would have potable water within a year.
Bombala was once touted as a possible site for the nation’s capital. At least the water now mostly seems clean. But some residents still don’t trust the supply, which sometimes runs brown when taps are first turned on.
The federal government’s Australian Drinking Water Guidelines suggest drinking water should be aesthetically pleasing in appearance, taste and odour.
” … ultimately it is consumers who will be the final judges of water quality,” the 1167-page document said.
“System operators must maintain a personal sense of responsibility and dedication to providing consumers with safe water, and should never ignore a consumer complaint about water quality.”
People within the Snowy Monaro Regional Council district have until August 14 to send in a submission on whether Bombala residents should receive a $1.56 per kilolitre rebate due to “water quality issues”. Otherwise, their water rates will be upped to more than $3 per kilolitre.
Ms Dracopoulos, who has kept “Tap water (brown)” on the menu at her business, Cosmo Cafe, has considered taking the council to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
“They’re a corporation who will not accept responsibility for their services,” she said.
“If I gave you a bad hamburger in the shop, I would have to acknowledge that somewhere along the line there was a fault. I’d investigate it, look at it and go yep, we’ve done something wrong. I’d refund it or there’d be some sort of compensation.
“I can’t believe the mentality, more than anything. I know this council didn’t create the problem but guess what? They’ve adopted it, and they’ve adopted us, and they’re stuck with it.
“Do something. Fix it.”