March 13 2023: Wowan (Queensland). Poor Quality Water/Unpotable

Wowan residents push to get permanent drinking water supply after rainwater tanks run dry

Journalist: Katrina Beavan

Joelene Kapernick may have running water throughout her home, but she can’t drink it and says it’s not much use for anything.

The mum of four lives in Wowan, a small town in central Queensland with a population of about 200 people.

Wowan has a non-potable water supply that’s not suitable for drinking – instead, residents rely on rainwater tanks.

But in periods of drought, the tanks can run dry.

In the nine years Ms Kapernick has lived there with her family in a suburban home, she has had to truck in drinking water four times.

“It gets a bit much when we have six people living in our house, rainwater does not stretch far at all,” Ms Kapernick said.

“[Town water] is so bad. I don’t even know how much cutlery I’ve bought because it just rusts it if you try and wash up with it.

“It’s not even good for the toilet, [you should] see how many toilets are corroded around here.”

A spokesperson for the Banana Shire Council said building a desalination plant was too expensive, but the council was looking at other options to improve water quality.

Wowan is one of many small towns across rural Australia grappling with water security, though the extent of the problem is hard to quantify, a water security expert says.

Desalination plant too expensive

Fellow Wowan resident Robert Huston moved to town a couple of years ago and said it was not long before he noticed his clothes were being bleached in the wash.

“I don’t even feed it to my dogs, I give them rainwater from the tank,” Mr Huston said.

At the start of the year, he paid almost $5,000 to install a filtration system on the house so he could use the water for washing and showering.

He still doesn’t use it for drinking.

“I feel safer washing our clothes now. I don’t have to go to a laundromat,” he said.

Wowan’s bore has been moved multiple times since the town’s inception, and a council spokesperson said the council was looking at drilling a deeper bore in the next 12 months to try to improve water quality.

Residents like Ms Kapernick and Mr Huston said if quality could not be improved, then they wanted to see the cost of water dramatically reduced.

The council charges $1.96 a kilolitre for tier one supply in Wowan, and $2.38 for tier two.

However, the spokesperson said the council had to subsidise the supply as what it charged for the water did not cover the cost of extracting it.

Dylan Jones, who runs businesses in nearby Theodore and Dululu, is working to reopen his service station in Wowan after it was forced to close following storm damage in 2021.

Mr Jones said when it was operational, he had to use treated rainwater for the Wowan business, which was tested by the council.

When that was not available, he had to truck water in at a cost of thousands of dollars.

“That doesn’t last too long in a business … three months,” he said.

“If you haven’t got water, you haven’t got a business, you can’t serve coffees, you can’t clean.”

Water security data unknown

Less than 50 kilometres from Wowan, water is still being trucked into the town of Mount Morgan, which has struggled through drought for several years.

A pipeline to secure a permanent potable water supply to the town is now being built.

Ana Manero, with the Water Justice Hub and the Australian National University Crawford School of Public Policy, said the exact number of areas struggling with drinking water security was not known.

“We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that this is happening across Australia, [but] we are still unable to know how many people do not have access to safe drinking water, which quite frankly, is astonishing,” Dr Manero said.

“We don’t have a systematic centralised record of water quality in Australia.

“[Australia has] the technology, not only to deliver the services, but to monitor and report the places that are not meeting those targets.”

Dr Manero said a survey from the Water Justice Hub found there was a “high level of support” among the Australian population, even from those not affected by water security issues, to have drinking water supplies secured for everyone.