Port Fairy has long been renowned for its drinking water, just not for the right reasons.
John Konings, who heads up the Port Fairy Pipeline Supply Support Group, said the water tasted awful, and was "totally incompatible with the other aspects of the town".
"Port Fairy is a world-class tourist destination with a third world water supply," he said.
So in what will be welcome news for many local residents, businesses and visitors, Wannon Water managing director Andrew Jeffers has confirmed this week the water authority is forging ahead to solve the issue once and for all.
It is the latest step in the organisation's Great Tasting Water project, which launched in 2020 to explore options for improving the drinking water in Port Fairy, as well as Portland and Heywood.
"We couldn't keep seeing those low customer satisfaction scores when it came to taste and do nothing about it," he said.
The first step in that process was working out whether a business case could be made for a major intervention.
Mr Jeffers said after months of work, the benefits were at least on par with the cost and Wannon Water was moving on to seeking finance for the project.
But what is wrong with Port Fairy's water?
Port Fairy's water comes from a deep underground aquifer. The water is rich in mineral salts from the surrounding rock, which imparts a distinctive flavour.
Mr Jeffers said the entire south-west coast had aquifers beneath it, but different areas had much higher levels of minerals than others.
"Port Fairy has the highest level of salts, which is measured in a unit called total dissolved solids (TDS), and Port Fairy is around 900 TDS," he said.
The Australian guidelines for drinking water have an upper limit of 600TDS, which makes Port Fairy's water an outlier, but Mr Jeffers stressed salt levels were an "aesthetic parameter" and exceeding the guideline wasn't a safety issue.
"It's really important to say that Port Fairy's water is safe to drink. In fact some people would say the salts are good for your health," he said.
"For salts there's a thing called a taste threshold, so once you get below around 300TDS the average person won't taste it."
Mr Jeffers said the objective was to get Port Fairy's water below the threshold. For reference, Warrnambool's drinking water measures 200TDS.
There are other problems caused by water that's rich in minerals. Port Fairy's water wreaks havoc on kettles and hot water systems, and Mr Jeffers said that was another factor that made the business case more compelling.
But he said Wannon Water's analysis had been more "holistic" than that, looking into the ripple effects that bad-tasting water could have on residents' health, wallets, and even the environment.
"What we found is the taste of the water actually has cost impacts on customers," he said.
"Firstly hot water services and other appliances don't last as long. Then you buy more bottled water, which also has an environmental impact.
"We also found if you improved the taste of the water people are less likely to drink sugary drinks, so you have a dental health benefit and an obesity and public health benefit."
Mr Jeffers said it ultimately wasn't fair for Port Fairy residents to be paying the same as other Wannon Water users for water that had those additional costs.
Mr Konings agreed, saying Port Fairy residents had been "paying for a level of water quality that they hadn't actually been receiving".
But while he agreed with Mr Jeffers about the problem needing intervention, Mr Konings said he didn't agree with Wannon Water's approach to the solution.
At the start of the Great Tasting Water project, Wannon Water canvassed four options for fixing the water in Port Fairy, Portland and Heywood.
One was desalinating seawater, another was treating the existing ground water "at point of use" with residents having a filtration unit in their homes. A third option was a desalination plant treating the mineral-rich ground water, and the final possibility was piping the water from the Otway system that Warrnambool uses.
Mr Jeffers said there were clear problems with the first two options. Desalinating seawater was a hugely expensive and energy-intensive prospect, especially when there was an abundant source of ground water available.
"While that's nominally included it's not really a viable option," he said.
Individual filtration units also posed issues.
"They don't solve the issue of impact on hot water systems and kettles, and they strip out the fluoride, so the dental health benefits aren't there," Mr Jeffers said.
Portland and Heywood were much too far from Warrnambool for the Otway pipeline to be extended to either town, meaning a ground water treatment plant was the only option. But Port Fairy was close enough to make a pipeline extension feasible.
Mr Konings has consistently said a pipeline should be the only option considered for Port Fairy and was far superior to removing salts from the ground water.
"What I really want to know is, does Wannon Water really want to get the best outcome for Port Fairy's water supply? Because the pipeline is the best option," he said.
The Standard asked Mr Jeffers whether he believed one option was superior if cost considerations were factored out.
"No I don't think so," he said.
But Mr Jeffers also said it was difficult to remove cost from the decision.
"If we ranked community feedback on the project, the top thing would be bills not going up," he said.
Mr Konings said this view conflicted with a petition he and fellow local David McLean had collected, featuring 2000 signatures from Port Fairy residents, business owners and visitors saying they wanted a pipeline rather than a treatment plant.
Mr Konings said he also challenged Wannon Water's cost estimates, which show the pipeline option costing between $18 million and $26 million, more than double the $11.8 million for a treatment plant.
"Their estimate is costing nearly $1 million per kilometre, I don't know why it's so high," Mr Konings said.
His own pipeline estimate, which was produced by a professional estimator for a major infrastructure company, comes in at $10.3 million, comparable to the treatment plant option.
Mr Jeffers said he couldn't account for the major disparity between the two estimates, saying the project had not reached the point where Wannon Water had a detailed technical breakdown. But he said the choice was more complicated than Mr Konings suggested.
"It's not as simple as just having a reserve (dam) and a pipeline from Warrnambool to Port Fairy," Mr Jeffers said.
"There will also definitely be effects on the existing pipeline back to the Otways."
Wannon Water currently draws around 9000 megalitres from the Otway system each year. If it was linked up, Port Fairy would draw a further 600ML, and Mr Jeffers said the current infrastructure couldn't handle that extra load and would need upgrades.
Wannon Water is licenced to take up to 12,500ML from the Otways, but Mr Jeffers said that didn't mean the pipeline was capable of drawing that much.
He also said the water authority was already concerned about the amount of water they were taking out of the Gellibrand River system.
"We are already supplementing the Otway water in places like Warrnambool to take pressure off that source."
Mr Konings said it was up to Wannon Water to find savings in other parts of the system so that people in Port Fairy could get the same quality of water that Warrnambool locals had.
"For example, the seepage losses for piping systems are generally 10 to 15 per cent," he said.
Mr Jeffers said Wannon Water was constantly looking for efficiencies in its network.
He also stressed that both the pipeline and treatment plan options for Port Fairy were equally likely at this stage in the process. The next step was working out how much money the authority could commit to the project.
"We are currently preparing our 2023-2028 submission to the Essential Services Commission, which regulates our water prices because we're a monopoly. That involves listing out all the things we need to invest in," Mr Jeffers said. "This project is one of those things."
The submission has to be lodged in September this year.
"We will have to make a decision about how much we can afford," Mr Jeffers said.
Then it would be a matter of how much the government would chip in. Mr Jeffers said this was also "complicated".
"Everyone we've spoken to loves this project. The government loves this project. But it's a completely different question between 'does government love this project?' and 'is government going to provide funding for this project?'"
"It's unlikely we will have any definitive decision from government this year."
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