Sydneys water to suffer due to cuts?
Five of the six top scientists in charge of monitoring the health of Sydney’s water have had their positions axed as part of state government cuts experts warn will compromise the safety of drinking water.
The loss of top scientific expertise is part of deep staff cuts of up to 25 per cent in the agency created to ensure the safety of Sydney’s water catchment after the city’s drinking water crisis in 1998.
Four top scientists, including Penny Knight, the organisation’s director of science, two senior scientists specialising in microbiology and catchment management and its principal scientist for physical chemicals have left the organisation this year. A fifth position is believed to have been downgraded from a scientific to an advisorial role.
“This is absolutely the worst thing to happen to water management in decades,” said Stuart Khan an Associate Professor at UNSW and a water contamination expert. “There’s essentially only junior scientists left.
“It will just take one more emergency […] to remind us what a stupid mistake this is. You have to remember why we created these jobs […] to protect the health of 4.5 million people.”
The cuts are part of swingeing cost-cutting at two recently-merged water bureaucracies in NSW, the Sydney Catchment Authority and the State Water Corporation, which have become Water NSW.
About 80 of the 270 jobs in the Sydney Catchment Authority are understood to have been cut in the last four months.
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The SCA was formed in response to an inquiry into the 1998 Sydney water crisis, when the city’s residents were told to boil their water because of fears it was infected with microscopic parasites.
Dr Khan said the scientists had been operating effectively in recent years and had quietly managed an outbreak of cyanobacteria, an event that had crippled other international cities’ drinking water for extended periods.
“When minor things go wrong they will turn into major disruptions,” Dr Khan said.
It is understood four scientists took redundancy packages but only after being presented with the option of staying on in positions with significantly diminished responsibilities and salary cuts of up to $50,000.
“The risks can’t be properly managed and the science cannot be done satisfactorily now,” one Water NSW insider warned. “We can’t really say that we’re ensuring water safety and quality.”
A spokeswoman for the NSW Water Minister, Niall Blair, admitted that its total scientific team of 31 was down by six scientists, but denied that water quality would be affected by “structural changes”.
“This is about streamlining corporate […] functions to achieve greater efficiency […] while enhancing the quality of frontline services,” the spokeswoman said. “Emphasis on the protection of Greater Sydney’s drinking water catchments and the delivery of high quality water [will not diminish]”.
The state government was unable to confirm by press time reports from sources that a fifth position, the principal scientist in charge of microbiology, has been downgraded to a “principal advisor’s” role.
The merging of the two bodies was announced in 2014. The then-minister Katrina Hodgkinson denied the measure was being taken for reasons of cost cutting.
Before the merger, the Sydney Catchment Authority had undergone a series of controversial changes under the Coalition government.
In 2012, following an overhaul of the board, the authority was left without a public health expert for the first time in its history, despite legislation stipulating the need for the board to have public health credentials. This was later rectified.
In 2013 civil engineer and former Liberal Party treasurer Mark Bethwaite was appointed its chairman.