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Desalinated Water Flows as Sydney Seeks Drought Protection

One of the world's biggest water desalination plants is about to open in Australia's biggest and thirstiest city, Sydney. The plant is part of a program aimed at providing water as the continent battles erratic rainfall and the city attracts 50,000 new residents a year.

The new $1.7 billion desalination plant is part of an effort to drought-proof Sydney, as concerns grow about a changing climate and erratic rainfall patterns.

Kristina Keneally, the premier of New South Wales, says the new facility is essential to provide water to the state's capital.

"Now, it's a great pleasure to be standing here inside Sydney's desalination plant. Now, this is about preparing for Sydney's expanding population. It is guaranteeing that we have a safe and a secure drinking water supply. In the face of climate change, in the face of increasing drought it is important we are securing Sydney's water supply," said Keneally.

Much of the Australian continent is arid, so its cities often face water shortages. And, as in many countries in Asia and the Middle East, Australian officials increasingly are looking toward desalinated ocean water as a way to meet increasing needs.

The Sydney plant can pump 250 megaliters of water each day, about 15 percent of the city's needs.

But it is not cheap: the water costs twice as much as traditional supplies from reservoirs.

But Kerry Schott, the managing director of the Sydney Water Corporation, says it is worth the price.

"The cost justification really rests on the fact that you don't want a city running out of water. We have historically had cities run out of water and they have been abandoned and that can happen in inland Australia also and we certainly don't want it happening in a major city like Sydney," said Schott.

The plant pulls water from Botany Bay through a large tunnel. The water is then pushed at high pressure through tiny membranes, which capture the salt, in a process called reverse osmosis.

Critics, though, consider the plant a waste of money. They say Sydney has no water crisis because consumers have learned to use far less and the big reservoirs will guarantee supplies for at least the next decade.

"Sydney's desalination plant should never have been. It was a huge mistake. The then-premier panicked at the crucial moment and pushed the go button on the desalination project when it simply wasn't needed," said John Kaye, a Greens party member in the New South Wales state parliament. "Sydney has lots of problems but water is actually the least of them. We as a city have reduced per household our water usage by 25 percent over the last 20 years. … We have lots of opportunities for making ourselves more water efficient."

As desalinated supplies flow for the first time in Sydney, residents have mixed feelings about their new processing plant.

"Australia really has [a] problem with water and a good supply of water," said a women. "The water is certainly not going to come from the desert, it has got to come from somewhere. So, yeah, if they can make use of the vast amount of seawater that we have got then, you know, it has got to be a good thing."

"Well, I think it is a waste of money. It has cost $1 billion or a couple of billion dollars to make it when you have got massive dams that are half full," said a man.

Water bills will rise by 40 percent over the next four years to pay for the plant.

Sydney Water says the facility will run non-stop for two years. After that, it will be used only when reservoir levels fall below 70 percent of capacity.

Across the continent, authorities in Western Australia are forging ahead with plans to open a second desalination plant near the state capital, Perth.