Gardeners forecast “dust bowl” town

Lachlan Shire Council water users are being hit with higher water charges than any other nearby Local Government Area, putting pressure on many struggling to pay their bills.

• Local gardener and Secretary of the Condobolin Garden and Floral Art Group, Maxine Staniforth, has always taken pride in her rose gardens, which feature in the biennial Condobolin Garden Festival. However, she has now replaced 12 of her white ice berg roses in her backyard with water-conserving seaside daisies due to Lachlan Shire’s high water rates. LP

By Lara Pearce

Lachlan Shire Council water users are being hit with higher water charges than any other nearby Local Government Area, putting pressure on many struggling to pay their bills.

Many local gardeners say they cannot sustain their gardens at the current water rates, which currently stand at $2.05 per kilolitre for the first 400KL and $3.05 per kilolitre after that.

This is more than double the rate charged by Forbes Shire Council of $0.90 per kilolitre and 40 cents a kilolitre more than Parkes, which charges $1.65 a kilolitre.

Maxine Staniforth, who is the Secretary of the Condobolin Garden and Floral Art Group, believes that much more is at stake than just the flowers themselves. She sees the maintenance of attractive lawns, parks and community gathering places as crucial to Condobolin’s social and economic wellbeing.

“If we don’t get the water rates down, that will be it and the town will be a dust bowl,” she said. “We won’t attract businesses. Young people, teachers – they won’t want to come here.”

“At the Anglican Church, we have flower shows – they will be a thing of the past. We need these community events in a small town. Otherwise we don’t get together.”

As Chief Steward of the Cut Flowers and Floral Art exhibit at the annual Condobolin Show, Mrs Staniforth is also concerned with the decreasing number of entries the exhibit has seen in the past two years.

“The flowers have always been a favourite exhibit,” she said. “What is going to happen to the floral art? It will be gone.”

Herself an avid gardener, Mrs Staniforth has pulled out many of the water-hungry roses in her own garden to keep her water bills down.

“It is a shame because they always were a feature,” she said, “but people are not willing to pay $1,000 a quarter to have a greener garden.”

Lifelong resident of Condobolin, Conway Seymour, is also concerned about the impact on the town if people neglect their lawns and gardens.

“It will give people a bad impression of the town,” he said. “There will be less people inclined to buy in Condobolin and establish businesses in Condobolin. If you compare it with a town like Forbes, which has got good water rates, the town is a much lusher town.”

He has put bark over much of his own lawn to cut back on water costs.

“I have halved my water consumption overall and I am still paying fairly big bills,” he said.

Biddy Brady moved from a property into town three years ago and has worked hard to get her grass to grow and beautify her garden.

She had been paying around $200 a quarter for water, but the past two water bills saw this skyrocket to around $1,000.

“For the price of water to rise so dramatically without any warning, it was a shock,” she said.

She says she cannot afford to continue to pay such a high price for water.

“Do you let your lawns die? Do you let Condobolin become a dusty, rusty town? Or do you pay exorbitant prices? Then if you do that, you have to cut down on your living expenses – food and so on. It is very sad.”

Mrs Brady asked to have her bill explained to her by the Council when she paid her last bill last Thursday, 28 June, and was told someone would be in touch but as of Tuesday morning had not heard back.

When contacted by the Argus, the General Manager of the Lachlan Shire Council Robert Hunt said that the Council had to set water prices at the current rate to cover their water infrastructure costs.

“We have a $10 million project to replace the water treatment plant. Because we have to replace that, we have to increase our usage charges,” he said.

“We have to get a return on our assets, because [the State Government] wants every Council to.”

He notes that if the Council is unable to make a profit from its water charges, it risks having the State Government remove control of the water and sewerage works from Council and putting it in the hands of a county council.

Mr Hunt said that the new plant would offer a better standard of drinking water for the community and that it was possible that the Council would be able to reduce water rates once the water plant had been built.

“It will depend on the other towns and what other infrastructure needs upgrading,” he said.

The State Government mandates that 75% of the income from water rates be from usage charges, with the remainder coming from access charges.

“If we have a really wet year and people don’t use that water, we don’t get the income in,” Mr Hunt said. “I would rather have a 50% user charge, but it is set by the State Government.”

“The whole idea of this by the State Government to bump up the user charge is to conserve water.”

Mrs Staniforth believes that water restrictions should be used to encourage water conservation, rather than rate hikes.

“I feel that the Council has failed in its duty of care to their responsible rate payers, who feel very, very strongly about their community,” she said. “They are making money out of our excess water bills.”

“I care very much about our community. I have lived here for fifty years, have no intention of moving and I hate to see the general appearance of the town degenerating so quickly.”

Mrs Staniforth plans to get a community petition together and hold a community meeting in hopes of getting the water charges reduced.

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