PETER and Vickie Burn received a pleasant letter from Hunter Water only weeks after moving to their new home on a property north of Dungog.
“Hunter Water welcomes you as a customer and looks forward to providing you with safe, affordable and reliable water and wastewater services,” said the letter in late November, 2015.
Less than a year later Hunter Water urged the Burns and 70 other property owners on the road to Chichester Dam to sign non-standard agreements ending their existing water use rights from the Chichester trunk gravity main pipe running past and through their properties.
“There was no mention in the first letter we received that things were uncertain. It was ‘Everything’s good’. We bought this farm with a reliable, affordable water supply. It was a bit astounding to get the next letter saying they wanted us gone. The feeling was ‘We’ve just bought a lemon’,” Dr Burn said.
Hunter Water has been accused of “close to bullying” the property owners to sign the agreements. The water authority denied the allegation. At least 20 property owners have refused to sign and accept alternative arrangements of treating the water themselves to drinking standard, or having rainwater tanks for drinking water, with restricted access to pipeline water for gardens and toilets.
Signing the agreements and opting for rainwater tanks means paying up to five times the price per litre of their existing service if tanks run dry and water has to be carted in.
Hunter Water said the move is needed because water to the properties, between Chichester Dam and the treatment works at Dungog, is untreated and does not meet Australian drinking water standards.
Residents say the standards had been in place for nine years before Hunter Water acted. Many question whether the push is evidence the water authority might be privatised.
Dr and Mrs Burn moved from Dungog town to their acreage five kilometres away for family reasons. Also living on the property are children, including a child with a disability requiring water therapy.
The Burns continued using the water main water until late last year when Hunter Water advised the untreated water to the few remaining properties between the dam and Dungog was “not safe to consume” after giardia was detected.
Hunter Water provided the Burns with a 1000 litre rainwater tank but later upgraded it to a 10,000 litre tank, in part because of the children’s needs.
“It’s a temporary measure but we don’t know how long that will go on,” Dr Burn said.
“I think they’re just going to drag it out as long as they can. They’re just waiting for us to fold and say ‘We’ll take your tanks’ because we’re just a problem to them, an encumbrance.”
Resident Peter Tomlinson, who has lived along the road for 15 years, said the Chichester trunk gravity main was built with “a lot of goodwill on the part of landowners because it had to run across their properties”.
“For allowing the water authority to run the pipeline where it made the most sense, people were able to gain access to the water. There’s no goodwill being shown by Hunter Water now,” Mr Tomlinson said.
Resident Jenni Denniss, who has lived on her property since 1989 and runs holiday accommodation, said she could not rely on tank water but the maintenance and testing schedule would take her average yearly water bill from about $1000 to $3500.
A Hunter Water maintenance schedule seen by the Newcastle Herald requires her to pay $50 per month for tests, with filtration system replacement costs as high as $1600 for a single part every five years, with installation costs extra. One item is $390 for the part only every two years, Hunter Water advised.
Resident Gus Gallagher signed the non-standard agreement and will rely on a 10,000 litre rainwater tank he installed himself, and a 50,000 litre tank installed by Hunter Water, for his property.
“I use the pipeline water for the cattle because I don’t want it cut off and it’s handy to have,” he said.
“I was one of the early ones to sign because life’s too short.”
He understood people with businesses like B & Bs might have problems with accepting Hunter Water’s proposed new arrangements.
A Hunter Water spokesperson said the authority acknowledged affected customers had “unique circumstances and different water needs”.
“It is in recognition of those unique circumstances that we have been working one-on-one with each individual customer to tailor a drinking water solution that best meets their needs. To date, 29 properties have accepted Hunter Water’s offer of either a rainwater tank or an onsite treatment option, to ensure they have a safe, alternate drinking water supply,” the spokesperson said.
“Another 31 property owners are currently seeking legal advice. On 3 September 2018, we advised these customers that we would give them the option of proceeding with their rainwater tank or onsite treatment solution, while we continue to engage with them on the terms of the agreement.”
Hunter Water said it offered the Burns two 90,500 litre rainwater tanks for their property in October 2018. “Following installation, these tanks would be filled at Hunter Water’s expense. We await their permission to commence,” the spokesperson said.
Hunter Water said the temporary drinking water supply to the Burns and two other properties related to an increase in the naturally occurring compound geosmin at Chichester Dam.
“While there are no adverse health effects associated with geosmin for treated drinking water, it is known to cause an earthy taste and odour. To effectively remove geosmin at the water treatment plant, Hunter Water’s standard practice is to establish a temporary facility at Henney’s Road upstream of the plant, to dose the water with powdered activated carbon (PAC). While PAC is non-toxic and is removed at the water treatment plant, it does cause discolouration of the water for those three properties,” the Hunter Water spokesperson said.