Indigenous water project delivers for local community

An Indigenous water project, supported by the NSW Government, is providing numerous benefits to the rural community of Jubullum.

An Indigenous water project, supported by the NSW Government, is providing numerous benefits to the rural community of Jubullum.

After years of drought, when a bushfire caught hold in northern NSW, the small rural Aboriginal community of Jubullum was in danger.

Residents grabbed hoses and started to try to water their houses.

And the water ran out.

People were evacuated, and firefighters stopped the flames from destroying all the buildings. However, the fire highlighted a problem – water security and safe supply.

The infrastructure was old and inefficient. The water supply would pump from the Rocky River to a tank. However, it wasn’t adequate during drought and had potential health risks without better filtration.

So began the Jubullum Community Water Project. It is an innovative partnership under the NSW government’s Aboriginal Communities Water and Sewerage Program to deliver clean, safe, and reliable drinking water.

The project was a joint effort. The community leads it with the NSW Department of Planning and Environment and environmental consultancy Ecoteam.

The solution was two-pronged. One half was the construction of a new water treatment plant and river intake. This project is intended to address water quality issues and improve water security. The other half is a program of leak repair works and cultural engagement to deliver significant water savings.

What technology is supporting this Indigenous water project?

The new water filtration system sits inside a shipping container. It has been adorned with artworks created by the kids in a water workshop with renowned Jubullum artist Lewis Walker.

The water is still pumped up from the Rocky River. However, the newly-installed river intake, combined with the filtration system, repaired pipes and education program, means the village has reliable and safe water.

Ecoteam’s Keith Bolton said the previous system pumped water straight from the river and dosed it with chlorine.

“The idea was to get to a minimum use of chlorine and eliminate all the potential pathogens that can be in river water,” he said. “If the river’s up and dirty, the water coming through the system is too, which removes all that.”

The water is now filtered through several discrete membranes and carbon fibre stations. It captures microscopic particles, including viruses and parasites like cryptosporidium and giardia.

Christine Collins works for Ecoteam. She grew up in Jubullum, on Wahlubul country west of the Bundjalung nation, about an hour from Casino. When the river is flowing, the Jubullum kids will swim and dive for turtles most afternoons when they come home from school.

“But there was no water during that drought,” Collins said. “None of us, even the old people, had seen it like that.”

Construction of the new river intake system began during the drought, but the system had to sustain flooding.

Environmental consideration given to Indigenous water project

It was also crucial to the people of Jubullum that any works in or around the river didn’t cause erosion or other environmental damage. As such, the intake is covered in geo fabric and will blend in once vegetation grows.

During floods, when people in rural areas are cut off and surrounded by water, if there’s a blackout and the water system depends on electricity, they lose access to drinking water.

When the Northern Rivers region was hit by the catastrophic floods in February and March last year, most communities relied on helicopter drops of bottled water.

But Jubullum, which has its own small substation, kept on pumping. This was once an electrician had been helicoptered into McGyver up to the substation, which had been taken out by storm damage.

Wahlubul woman, Angie Collins from the Gungyah Ngallingnee Aboriginal Corporation, said the water project had made a big difference to Jubullum. She was grateful to the department and Ecoteam.

“It has helped the community. Honestly, sometimes you used to get up in the morning, and there’d be no water,” she said. “Jubullum is a beautiful place. People come here and meet us, and then they want to return. The water project is great, especially for the children growing up now.”

Tom Attwood, senior project officer with the Aboriginal Communities Water and Sewerage Program, said they had audited 32 houses. That represents almost 90 per cent of the houses in Jubullum. His team has repaired more than 100 internal leaks.

“Christine was instrumental in preparing the leaks and repairs program,” he said. “Going around to houses, chatting to people about their water use habits. If we had just sent plumbers around, there probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near the same success.”

Achievements of the Indigenous water project so far

Thanks to the repairs and an education campaign, water consumption dropped from 100kL/day (100,000 litres) to 40kL/day. This reduced consumption has been consistent for more than 12 months now.

For community member Joanne Avery, the water supply is a simple assessment.

“It’s nice and clear,” she said.

Ecoteam has worked in partnership with Jubullum before on a sewage treatment system.

They built wetlands from reeds and rushes to treat village effluent for reuse onto a lemon grove.

The community was engaged at all stages of planning and design. Residents were employed and received on-the-job training during construction.

The Jubullum Aboriginal Community Water Project is a finalist in the Australian Water Awards for the Best Infrastructure Project, Innovation Award (Regional). They will be announced on Thursday, May 11, as part of the OzWater’23 Gala Dinner and Awards.

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