A Mount Isa business is filtering and bottling local water for a more palatable drop, and locals are lapping it up.

Story By Darryl Cooper

Water is a most precious resource for any outback community, and nowhere more so than in the north-west Queensland mining city of Mount Isa. In an area that has an average annual rainfall of about 450 millimetres, the city can usually store enough water in its Lake Moondarra reservoir to see its consumers through until the next wet season. And in dry times, water can be pumped from Lake Julius, about 100 kilometres further down the Leichhardt River, to augment the supply.
However, water quantity is not the only issue and many residents, as in most major centres Australia-wide, are concerned about the quality of water. There are concerns that municipal water supplies that flow through old pipes may pick up traces of heavy metal and other contaminants. Add to this the heavy doses of chlorine used by many local water authorities, and the bottom line is, that while the municipal water supply may be safe to drink, it makes a lousy cup of tea.
Sam Balch went to Mount Isa in 1997 to establish his property-valuation business and the unpalatable water became immediately apparent. “My wife Belinda just couldn’t drink it,” says Sam. “She was buying heaps of bottled water and so were many of her friends and this went on for months. We looked at all sorts of filtration systems, but they were expensive to install and the filters needed regular changing so we just kept buying bottled water trucked in from the coast 900 km away.”
Sam was on the lookout to expand his business interests in the city and it just happened that a fledgling water purification business came on the market. Known as QH2O, the innovative process was pioneered by local science teacher John Vardy and was producing about 300 bottles of high-quality water a week. Sam immediately recognised its potential.
“I couldn’t understand why people were paying $12 for a bottle of water from the coast while it could be produced locally for half the price,” he says. “I was keen to buy the company but I was a bit windy on the technical side of things so I approached a friend of mine, Darcy Redman, who has a wealth of technical knowledge. He too saw the potential and we bought it.”
The marketing and promotional skills of Sam and Belinda Balch complemented the technical know-how of Darcy and Karin Redman and the partnership flourished. Darcy was awarded a Churchill Fellowship and he and Karin travelled to America to research the industry there.
After almost 10 years of refinement and technical innovation, the company now produces over 3000 15-litre bottles of water per week and employs seven full-time and three casual staff. The distribution fleet includes two trucks and three utes that supply the metropolitan area of Mount Isa and the town of Cloncurry, 120 kilometres to the east, as well as the mines at Phosphate Hill, Ernest Henry and Gunpowder.

This story excerpt is from Issue #53

Outback Magazine: June/July 2007