Tendering process for desal plant conducted ‘in a hurry’

The inept handling of the tendering procedure for Sydney’s desalination plant was partly responsible for the difficulty experienced in securing funding, a panel of industry experts said at the Infrastructure Partnerships Australia conference in Sydney.

Managing director of Sydney Water Dr Kerry Schott said Australia was in “a try-everything phase” to develop management models for the five desalination plants, including the Sydney facility, that are either under procurement or construction across the nation.

“Also we were in a hurry. The dam levels are falling every week, and it takes about two years and six months to build a desalination plant. We really didn’t have enough time to get into big discussions about the process,” Dr Scott said.

Peter McVean, chief executive of Veolia Water Australia, which is constructing the Sydney desalination plant, said it was easy to see problems in the cases where the contract process stalled, the size of the plant doubled or the clients replaced in the middle of the tendering procedure.

“The market was not mature enough to know the participants in it," he said.

“The projects required flexibility, adaptability and patience from the private sector.”

The panel also argued that poor public education had led to misconceptions about the process of desalination, which is able to provide a sustainable water source with minimum environmental impacts.

“We’ve not been very good at explaining and educating, and really showing people that this is just another water treatment plan,” Mr McVean said.

Dr Schott said that with the problems associated with climate change relying on dams as a major source of water would no longer be viable.

She said that while the current water security in Sydney seemed to be in good shape with dam levels just under 65 per cent, it was due to enforcing “unsustainable measures” such as water restrictions and pumping water from the Shoalhaven region.

Last week, Sydney Water signed a 20-year wind power contract with Babcock and Brown to supply enough renewable energy to run the desalination plant.

NSW Water Minister Nathan Rees said recently that the development of the Sydney plant was on budget, with 30 per cent of construction now complete.

The plant, which is being built on a 45-hectare site, is expected to deliver up to 250 million litres of water per day by the summer of 2009-10.

Once completed, it will be the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere and the second largest in the world.

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