Why the old approaches to water security won’t cut it anymore
Barnaby Joyce’s electorate in north western NSW, including Guyra and Tamworth, are on the verge of running dry

Australia is currently in the throes of a drought we didn’t see coming. We can no longer rely on the traditional ways of managing our water supplies and need to get serious about planning for long-term water security to avoid running dry.

The current drought that is gripping large parts of the country has “taken everyone by surprise” according to Adam Lovell, chief executive of the Water Services Association of Australia.

“It is worse than the Millennium drought, and according to the long-range forecast, there is no end in sight.”

He says water restrictions such as Sydney’s are due to dwindling supplies and are “generally well-accepted” by the community.

Water recycling in the form of potable re-use would logically seem to be a sound strategy to relieve pressure on water supplies. However, Perth is still one of the only urban centres where it has been implemented at scale, with recycled water used for managed aquifer recharge.

Lovell points out that the success of the Perth initiative is the result of a 10-year community engagement process. The Water Corporation also sent people to learn from successful water re-use schemes in places including Orange County, California and Singapore.

The process was “open and transparent”, and Water Corporation “took the long-term view,” Lovell says.

By the time the community engagement was complete, around 75 per cent of its customers were saying they were on board with the idea.

On the east coast, the time has come for people to seriously consider recycled water.

Adam Lovell, Water Services Association of Australia

Lovell says the growth predicted for Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne is largely going to involve more people in the hinterland – 60kms or more away from the kind of coastal location ideal for another desalination plant. It is simply not practical to pump water that far, compared to looking at recycling it closer to the point of re-use.

“[Recycling] has got to be on the table, but they have to turn the keys over to the community,” he says.

“Too often in the past, governments and utilities have rushed into solutions mode.

“Perth, Singapore and California have all shown when you have a long and transparent engagement about potable reuse as a drinking source, people are willing to consider it. We just need that conversation to be had rather than hasty and emotional decision making by those in power.”

A good example of recent community empowerment was Yarra Valley Water’s price reviews. Lovell says the water authority handed the issues over to a Citizens Jury to decide what was wanted, how, when and where.

The board of Yarra Valley Water subsequently made 10 commitments to the Citizens Jury.

Lovell says it’s an approach that’s been borrowed from utilities in the UK.

Water providers also need to be planning beyond the short-term profit horizon of next quarter.

“There has got to be a 20- to 30-year outlook,” Lovell says.

That outlook also has to factor in climate change, which he says is accepted as a reality across the water industry.

This planning is not just a matter of managing for scarcity and heat, but also, as was seen in Townsville in December, planning for more extreme events as well as harder droughts.

Water is also crucial for liveable cities, as recent research by Frontier Economics released by the WSAA this month shows.

The research aimed to assist in understanding and quantifying the liveability associated health benefits of water industry investments to better inform investment decisions. 

Four pathways were identified by which investing in urban water can have public health benefits. A ready reckoner tool has also been developed to assist the water industry in making quick appraisals as to whether a project may deliver quantifiable health benefits under the four pathways.

Lovell says that what we don’t want in our suburbs is “wall to wall” buildings with dark roofs that act as a major urban heat island effect generator serviced by parks with “nothing in them”.

He says there needs to be thought given to canopy and considering a “blue-green grid” as has been advocated by the Greater Sydney Commission for Western Sydney.

And what about Guyra, and Tamworth?

News this past week that towns in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate in north western NSW, including Guyra and Tamworth, are on the verge of running dry could show the need for greater state government engagement in assisting regional water authorities.

Lovell says many of the water authorities outside the major metropolitan area are still largely local council driven, and the councils do not always have the skills, resources and capacity to do serious and strategic long-term planning for water security.

“A drought like this sets a new normal. We can’t rely on history [any more] to plan for future water.”

There has been a long-standing debate in both Queensland and NSW over whether the states should emulate Victoria’s example, he says.

The state government oversaw a streamlining of water suppliers reducing water utilities from around 300 separate entities to around 19. There was also significant investment in supply infrastructure and other supports to ensure water supplies could be delivered over distances to places like the Mallee.

He points to the example of Western Australia as also good practice, with the Water Authority regularly trucking water to remote communities as part of its “transparent community service obligations.”

The costs of this to Water Corporation are subsidised by the state government.

In New South Wales, when communities run out of water, they may need to rely on private water carters, as was seen in northern NSW during the Millennium drought. This water was not cheap.

Lovell says a recent Productivity Commission Inquiry did consider a move towards community service obligations for all water authorities.

This would be a contrast to the historical approach in NSW, where regional authorities or councils have needed to pitch for millions of dollars to upgrade water infrastructure.

Another helpful move could be increased sharing of resources between regional councils, Lovell says.

“This would be a contrast to the historical approach in NSW. CENTROC {central West regional Organisation of Councils] in mid-west NSW have set up a positive model for collaboration and sharing of resources for water management – we would encourage more of that.”

What would not be helpful or sustainable is the concept of “massive pipelines” across the state to move water around, he adds. Raising Warragamba Dam’s wall or building more desalination are also possibly not the best way forward.

“There is a huge challenge ahead, not just for huge cities but also for regional towns that are hundreds of kilometres away from a climate-resilient water source.”

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  1. …..The current drought that is gripping large parts of the country has “taken everyone by surprise” according to Adam Lovell, chief executive of the Water Services Association of Australia……
    Good grief!