I live on a farm.

I’m water self-sufficient.

Call me libertarian.

So I wasn’t happy when I discovered that some sparrows had been flushed through my water catchment pipes to the top hatch of a rainwater tank. The overflow on this tank is set too high so that, when the water level is highest, the water laps through the hatch. Bottom-line? My dead sparrows were sitting in the lapping water at the top of a full tank and potentially turning my water supply toxic.

Now I’m a rural pretender, a city slicker just trying to live and let live with some figs trees and a hammock.

I needed advice quickly about this water situation, perhaps a water test of some description.

Now I can’t for the life of me remember what I was thinking at the time but, for some reason, I had a brain snafu and did something 100% counter-intuitive for me: I contacted the government for help!

(I know. I know. Idiot!)

First the South Australian Department of Health. They had a rainwater hotline. I dialled. Got a voicemail. Left a message. No returned-call after two days. I called again, left a voicemail. No reply.


So I called SA Water. Got a voicemail. Left a message. No returned-call after two days. I called again and, bingo, a person named Andrew.

I explained that I wanted to have my rainwater tested. He explained that they couldn’t help with water testing but they could refer me to the specialist agency which does this. They’re called the Australian Water Quality Centre. “Great. I’ll call them.”, I said. He added worryingly, “And if you need any help interpreting their reports, we’re the people to speak with.”

Feeling relieved at least I had finally found the correct organisation, I started reading the Australian Water Quality Centre website, which describes itself as “an independent business unit within SA Water, a South Australian Government enterprise.” My confidence grew when I read “We provide our customers with world-class, NATA accredited sampling, testing and analysis” including biology testing, which I imagined might be appropriate given that the problem was dead sparrows. There were extensive instructions on how to take water samples.

I took the samples, gave them to my wife to drop in to the AWQC, but needed to call them because some of the website information was unclear.

Nigel answered and the following conversation ensued …

Nigel: AWQC

Kenelm: Hi. I’ve got a water problem and you’re the man to fix it for me. (I was in a good mood!)

Nigel: What do you want? (He said briskly)

Kenelm: I just need to know where my wife should drop-off the water samples I’ve taken.

Nigel: What?

Kenelm: I read your site. It says if the rainwater from your domestic tank needs a lab test, drop the samples at the dispatch window. I can’t see your address. Where is the dispatch window, please?

Nigel: No.

Kenelm: Sorry. What?

Nigel: You can’t do that.

Kenelm: But it says on your …

Nigel: No.

Kenelm: Well, I followed the instructions to the letter and took the time to take the water samples from both from the top and bottom of the tank. And I thought if my wife could …

Nigel: That’s all wrong.

Kenelm: Pardon?

Nigel: What did you put the water samples in?

Kenelm: Separate, small containers as per the instructions on the website.

Nigel: What containers?

Kenelm: Like plastic kitchen containers?

Nigel: No. You’ve contaminated the samples.

Kenelm: Well, I followed the instructions to …

Nigel: The website is wrong. Disregard it!

Kenelm: Let’s start again. I have dead sparrows in my rainwater. I want the water tested.

Nigel: What type of test do you want?

Kenelm: I want to test the purity of the water for drinking purposes?

Nigel: No.

Kenelm: Sorry?

Nigel: Do you want a chemistry, microbiology, biology or ecology test, or a combination of these, or all of these?

Kenelm: How do I know which is most appropriate?

Nigel: SA Water can help with that.

Kenelm: (Starting to sense what I was up against) But if I said to you, I just want to test whether the water in the tank is potable given that there are dead sparrows in the lapping water at the top hatch, which test would you say is appropriate?

Nigel: I cannot give that advice.

Kenelm: (Back-peddling now. Treading carefully) Of course not. Not advice. What test would you ask for if you were in my situation?

Nigel: This is not advice, you understand. And this call is being recorded to confirm we don’t advise on what test to order. It is completely at your risk to select a biology test. It will test for impurities caused by biological matter.

Kenelm: OK. At my own risk, I’d like to order a biology water purity test. Could you give me the link on your website where I can order it please?

Nigel: No.

Kenelm: What?

Nigel: You need a contract first.

Kenelm: That’s what I’m saying. I’d like to order a water test. Where do I go on your site to make the selection, punch in my credit card and tick your terms and conditions box?

Nigel: No. We have to send you the contract.

Kenelm: What do you mean?

Nigel: Would you like me to send you the contract? You sign it and we can perform the test for you.

Kenelm: I can’t do that online?

Nigel: No.

Kenelm: OK. Send the contract.

Nigel: What’s your address please?

Kenelm: (I give my email address)

Nigel: No.

Kenelm: Sorry, what?

Nigel: I need your residential address.

Kenelm: To come out and take the sample yourself?

Nigel: No. So I can mail the contract to you.

Kenelm: (In disbelief, I snap) Is this a joke?

Nigel: No.

Kenelm: You can’t at least email the contract?

Nigel: It’s not normal practice.

Kenelm: No. Normal practice is a page on your website where you can pay and tick a box to agree with your contract. You want to post the contract?

Nigel: Would email be easier?

Kenelm: Yes. Easier than a physically mailed contract!

Nigel: I’ll email the contract within three days.

Kenelm: (The ‘three days reacquainted me with public service timeframes) How much is the test?

Nigel: That depends.

Kenelm: On what?

Nigel: Your exact location

Kenelm: If I bring in the samples to you, what does it matter where the water is from?

Nigel: In that case, $372.85. We accept bank cheques.

Kenelm: (Silently fuming now) So, let me get this straight. You post or email a contract. I sign it. I post it back to you with a bank cheque for $372.85. Then you send a kit out to me. I take the samples in your containers. And then my wife delivers the samples to the dispatch window. Is that correct?

Nigel: The contract must be notarised if you opt for a mailed copy.

Kenelm: (Laughing now. It can’t be true!)

Nigel: If you opt for a physically mailed contract, it must be notarised. If emailed, that requirement is dropped.

Kenelm: Email, please. Email.

Nigel: I will email the contract within the next three business days.

Kenelm: SA Water mentioned your reports are complex and require interpretation which they could help with. Could you tell me what output I’m getting if I go to all this effort? Is the report highly technical? Would a layman like me understand it?

Nigel: The report will give you a score out of 2,000. 2,000 means your water quality is very bad. I’ve never seen a score that high before.

Kenelm: What’s the lowest score, the score which means the water is pure?

Nigel: 0.

Kenelm: So, if the score comes back, say, 1,000, that’s average and acceptable?

Nigel: No.

Kenelm: Well, how does it work then?

Nigel: If you get 0, we will certify that your tank water is suitable for human consumption. If you get any score other than 0, we will certify that your tank water is unsuitable for human consumption.

Kenelm: But wait. What if the score is 1 or 7 out of 2,000? That’s pretty good, right? Water quality will be at near pure on that scale, yes?

Nigel: No. If you score 1 or 7, or any score other than 0, out of 2,000, we will quarantine your water tank and have a contractor come and empty the water. We’ll then require testing of the tank itself.

Kenelm: (Nervously changing the topic) One final question. Where is the dispatch window where we deliver the samples?

Nigel: Do you know where SA Water is?

Kenelm: Off-hand, no.

Nigel: Well, if you use that as your starting point and walk down that road about 50-100 metres, turn left and you’ll see a cream-coloured building with a jacaranda tree out the front. Two doors past that is a driveway which slopes downwards. If you walk down that driveway, around the back is a window with a sign “Receiving/Dispatch”.

Kenelm: *silence*

Nigel: Hello?

Kenelm: I was just after the address so my wife can drop off the samples. Could I have the address please?

Nigel: Start at SA Water and walk down that road about 50-100 metres, turn left and you’ll see a cream-coloured building with a jacaranda tree out the front ….

The contract was emailed 8 days later. It was 72 pages long. And yes, the AWQC still uses an Anglo-Saxon era address system!

If ever there were a government agency undeserving of taxpayer funding, this would be it.

In the end, I did what I should have done. I walked over the road to my neighbour, a flinty, old farmer who knew his stuff.

I told him my adventure with the Australian Water Quality Centre.

His laconic reply, “Streuth!”

He had a look at my tank. His solution, remove the sparrows and continue using the water. Seeing my city-slicker yearning for safety and security, he left and came back with some peroxide. As he added it to my tank, he said with a twinkle in his eyes, “Nothing more pure to drink than the tears of God with a little magic lovingly stirred in.”

Total time taken on this solution: 23 minutes.

Government is rarely the answer. Far better to stick with flinty, practical people who love and value their freedom and liberty.

Lesson learned, again.

What lessons have you learned?

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