Sydney It is little wonder that Sydneysiders are feeling geographically challenged at the moment. After enduring a summer of water restrictions and grim warnings about global warming, they have just lived through the wettest April in 70 years. Even harder to digest is the news that with the city's inland dams gradually reaching capacity, householders will soon be hit with a special levy to fund the state government's A$1.9 billion (HK$13.8 billion) desalination plant. 'I could barely read the letters criticising the expensive desalination plant because my copy of The Daily Telegraph [a Sydney tabloid] was so wet from all the rain,' wrote one disgruntled newspaper reader. 'Build a bloody dam.' The controversial project, which is being built in the seaside suburb of Kurnell, has already been labelled a white elephant by environmentalists - and is now attracting flak from local residents who claim that the pipeline is damaging their houses. Ros Long, who has lived in Kurnell for 20 years, says test drilling for the pipeline that will carry water from the plant to central Sydney is beginning to crack her walls. 'We felt like we were in an earthquake,' she said. 'My house was jumping up and down. I've worked all my life to get this house.' Other homeowners have reported bulging brick walls, subsidence and other problems since work on the pipeline began. They are outraged that the pipe is being laid through their suburb rather than beneath Sydney Airport- whose owners, Macquarie Bank, successfully repelled the giant underground pipeline. James Stewart, another local, claims the construction work has already begun to pollute the waters of Botany Bay, the birthplace of modern Australia. 'It breaks my heart,' he says. 'I've grown up here all my life. This is where Captain Cook landed and they're trashing it. Kurnell has put up with a lot over the years, but this is the final nail in the coffin.' The heavy autumn rains couldn't have come at a worse time for the NSW premier, Morris Iemma, who is already struggling to defend his government's poor record on hospitals, schools and public transport. Critics say that the desalination plant will use up to A$70 million worth of electricity each year and - since most of the city's power is from coal-powered generators - substantially expand Sydney's environmental footprint. Opposition MPs argue that Sydney's water crisis could easily be avoided by fixing leaking supply pipes and recycling; at present 98 per cent of the city's used water is pumped into the ocean. 'Sydneysiders would rightly be scratching their heads and saying 'what has happened to all this precious rain, why isn't it being harvested and why aren't we pursuing lower-cost options'?' said Andrew Stoner, shadow minister for water utilities. Environmental campaigners, meanwhile, say that apart from the huge cost of building the plant and its negative impact on Botany Bay, desalination is an unimaginative solution to Sydney's water shortage. 'There are a large number of water savings and recycling projects that will be killed off by running the desalination plant,' says Greens MP John Kaye. 'It is the worst outcome of any for Sydney's environment.' Several other states - including Western Australia and South Australia - are also pursuing the desalination option. Unlike them, however, Sydney does not have a dry, Mediterranean climate, but a sub-tropical one. Indeed, Sydney receives twice as much rain as London - although Londoners endure more rainy days - and to date no one has suggested building a desalination plant on the English Channel. Environmentalists are urging the government to abandon the Kurnell plant and adopt a far simpler solution: subsidise householders to install rainwater tanks. 'Even in drought, Sydney has a higher annual rainfall than the rainy cities of London or Melbourne', says Cate Faehrmann, director of the Nature Conservation Council. 'A mass rollout of rainwater tanks would allow Sydney householders to collect water when we have those drenching Sydney rains, and use the water when times are dry.' But the government will not be swayed. It says the Kurnell plant will open, on schedule, in 2011.