Water rights row could delay Western Australia desalination plant

A row over water rights in the north-west of Australia could lead to delay in the construction of the West Pilbara Seawater Desalination Plant, despite assurances in February 2011 from Western Australia’s (WA) state government that the project was on track.

The state’s Water Corporation is due to short-list two bidders around now for the 6 million m³/year plant from a total of nine local, national and international responses received by 21 January 2011.

The WA Minister for Environment – Water, Bill Marmion, told the state parliament on 15 February 2011 that following the short-listing, design and development would commence on a fast-track basis. The award of the contract is scheduled for November 2011, with the first water due in April 2013.

The desalination plant and associated infrastructure would cost approximately Aus$ 370 million (US$ 379 million) to construct, said Marmion, and an estimated Aus$ 15 million (US$ 15.4 million) a year to operate.

However, the Australian Financial Review reported on 28 March 2011 that Rio Tinto was in a row with Water Corporation over the amount of water it is entitled to for its mining operations under rights established some 40 years ago. At present, Rio Tinto uses around 5 million m³/year from the Millstream borefield, but argues that it is entitled to use 15 million m³/year.

The Water Corporation confirmed to the Financial Review that it was seeking to cap Rio Tinto’s entitlement to 5.4 million m³/year due to the growing needs of the surrounding towns. The new desalination plant was to support residential and small commercial growth in Karratha, Dampier, Roebourne, Wickham and Port Samson, according to WA premier Colin Barnett following a cabinet meeting in October 2010.

However, this would be affected if Rio Tinto claimed its full 15 million m³/year from the existing source, rather than developing a new 10 million m³/year borehole source at Bungaroo Valley. Local MP Vince Catania has called for Rio Tinto to quickly develop this source, release its existing rights back to the community and put back the need for the desalination plant altogether.