Deadly risk to water supply

MORE than 500 rural properties on the Northern Rivers have ‘high risk’ connections to the water supply with the potential to cause death if the drinking water becomes contaminated.

But it could take the region’s water authority five years and $330,000 to fix it.

A backflow prevention survey that will be presented to Rous Water councillors today has identified 519 ‘high risk’ properties.

These are mostly farms in rural areas.

Risk factors include the possibility of drinking water becoming contaminated by cattle trough water, chemicals or pesticide spray tanks.

The number of ‘high risk’ properties could reach 600 once they are all looked at.

The hazard assessment, based on the Australian standard plumbing code, found these properties had a ‘condition, device or practice that, in connection with the drinking water supply system, has the potential to cause death’.

Backflow happens if reverse water pressure draws dangerous chemicals into the drinking water.

Rous Water’s technical services director, Wayne Franklin, said the actual risk was ‘very, very rare’.

But he admitted it was possible for someone to become seriously ill.

“One misadventure could have the potential to be quite damaging,” he said.

“But having backflow devices in place will protect against the extreme event.

“We feel the 100,000 people who drink from our water supply will be better protected if Rous Water pays for the devices to be installed.

“It’s peace of mind.

“It’s like insurance. You hope you never need to use it, but you’ll be glad you’ve got it if you do.”

Mr Franklin said the revised plumbing code was ‘quite strict’. It came into effect in January last year.

In Tweed Shire, property owners must have suitable backflow devices installed to be able to connect to the water supply, and these must be tested every year.

North Coast Water also requires annual tests, as per the NSW Plumbing Code.

Mr Franklin said Rous was ‘not lagging behind’.

“We could tell property owners to put backflow devices in, but we will spend a great deal of time chasing them up, sending letters and doing inspections,” he said.

“We want to know that in five years we will have 100 per cent compliance.

“It would be nice to do it all tomorrow, but these properties have existed like this for many years.

“We have weighed up the risk. There have been no backflow incidences in our system and none in NSW that I can think of.”

Last year, a New Zealand family suffered stomach illnesses and their cuts turned to septic sores after their drinking water was contaminated by a cattle trough.

Rous Water councillors will decide today whether the council will pay for backflow devices. If approved, the five-year program will start in the 2010/11 financial year.

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