We need to start seriously considering our long-term water security options before the next drought hits and urban sewers reach capacity.
If we rewind to just a few months ago – before Covid, sporadic flooding, and the worst of the horror bushfire season – we were seriously worried about running out of water.
With Australia’s eastern states in the grips of drought, there was military-like planning was under way to keep the taps flowing, with an absolute worst case scenario of evacuating as many as 90 NSW towns if they ran out of water.
Fast forward to today, and Sydney’s Warragamba dam is back to 82 per cent capacity after dropping to less than 44 per cent at the peak of the drought. And aside from a few dry patches across the country, including south east Queensland, it appears we’re mostly out of the woods from “day zero” (the day water completely runs out).
It’s understandable but there’s danger in forgetting the drought once it starts raining again.
“Australians have short memories. It’s all panic, panic when run out of water, and then it rains and we just drop everything,” says Stuart Khan, a professor of civil & environmental engineering at the University of New South Wales.
It happened after the Millennium drought, with research into non-rainfall dependant options such as desalination and water recycling largely abandoned, and much of the expertise and skill in the area of water conservation and management lost.
While politicians have had a lot on their plate to deal with, there’s concern in some quarters that the momentum behind better planning for a secure water supply in our cities and regions will stall.
In fact, there could be an opportunity to double down on thoughtful, sustainable water infrastructure and projects with a federal government preparing to dig its way out of a recession.
So far, water security has been mentioned in stimulus announcements, with plans to fast-track various dam and storage projects that Khan says has long been on the agenda to improve the water security in these regions. There are concerns, however, that these projects will become victims of the “fast-tracked” approvals process that could see environmental considerations fall by the wayside.
Khan told The Fifth Estate it would be a “real shame” to lose the momentum behind sustainable water planning that was provoked by the drought.
He says the political climate was relatively open to all options, even those that have been traditionally unpalatable such as recycled water for drinking.
“It looked like there was a real window for some sustainable water planning,”
A water security disaster in the waiting with climate change and population growth
Khan says that while most jurisdictions are adept at emergency drought planning, longer term sustainable planning on water is where Australian politicians and policy makers can still fall short.
This is troubling given the competing pressures on our water supplies.
Many places are already starting to feel the effects of climate change, with rainfall in Perth looking particularly grim as Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt told The Fifth Estate in a podcast last week.
We’ve also got serious growth to contend with in major urban centres, with Greater Western Sydney forecasted to grow to 3 million people by 2036.
As such, Khan is less concerned about “laying out lots of money”, but says we need cohesive long term planning for water security, and the extensive community engagement that goes with it.
In Sydney, for example, most of the water comes from the west – out of the Warragamba dam and out of the sewerage desalination plants. But if there are plans to start “pushing it back the other way” with increased seawater desalination, stormwater treatment and water recycling, he says we’ll need to start building the reservoirs and channels now. Or, at least, not lock ourselves into ill-considered choices.
“There’s lots of decision that need to be made over the next 10 years, depending on where the water is coming from.”
There’s also the increased wastewater generated by the millions of extra people in western Sydney.
Khan says the sewers will reach capacity at some point, which will mean decisions need to be made about “super sewers” – like “M5s for sewage”, which are used in London for the areas furthest away from the coast.
This will be an expensive exercise, which could potentially be made less pricey by “taping into that wastewater” and avoiding underground highway sewers altogether.
“We need those decisions made now.”
Why it’s not easy to make these decisions
Complicating effective urban water management and planning is disaggregated responsibility for key components like stormwater, where each council has a different stormwater plan for the same creek.
According to executive director of Water Services Association of Australia, Adam Lovell, there’s also a tendency to view different parts of water management in isolation.
“If you were to bring water wastewater and stormwater and recycled water into one space, then you are on your way to creating a more resilient water supply scenario.”
To zoom out even further, water management is not always viewed in the context of tackling other major challenges such as the urban heat island effect and providing quality green spaces for liveability, Lovell says.
Another common criticism is that short political cycles play into the lack of forward planning on water security, but thankfully, Lovell says there’s signs that we’re maturing beyond this stage.
What we need
Ideally, it would be good to see a diversity of water supply-fortifying infrastructure and projects, especially those that allow “cities to act as a water supply catchments” as described by outgoing CRC for Water Sensitive Cities chief executive officer Professor Tony Wong.
This includes major water recycling, storm water harvesting and other clever approaches such as designing landscapes to direct water where it’s most needed rather than down street gutters and out to sea.
And as pointed out by Lovell, “the cheapest water is the water that’s not delivered”, with leakage and water efficiency measures among the best value opportunities to safeguard the water supply. He says SA Water has had huge success installing sensors along their water networks to detect leaks.
The WSAA advocates for a diversity of water security, which Lovell says is the best way to create long term resiliency. He says Perth, which has been plagued with water supply issues longer than other major cities, is a good example of where a distributed approach to water security has paid off.
It’s the only Australian city treating wastewater to drinking water standard, with its Groundwater Replenishment Scheme adding about 14 billion litres of recycled water to the city’s aquifers every year. Its success is largely attributed to its patient 10-year community engagement process to obtain widespread support.
The outcome stands in stark contrast to the infamous Toowoomba attempt, where plans to introduce such a scheme were exploited by opportunistic politicians, and consequently abandoned.
Lovell says there is no silver bullet water management solutions out there and each city and town needs to come up with its own water security mix.
“It should be about diversification on both the demand and supply side.”
Lovell says NSW IPART’s new pricing system, which will signal to consumers when water supplies are low, is an interesting example of a supply side water saving measure. A form of scarcity pricing, users will pay more if dams drop below 60 per cent, with the tariffs releasing again once levels return to 70 per cent.
He says the independent regulator, which determines the maximum prices that can be charged for water and other utilities in NSW, says it’s best to “go into these things with eyes wide open and then also ask, ‘did it work?’” He says the regulator has been “really careful” about the equity issues around this scheme.
Other experts, including Western Sydney University senior environment lecturer Ian Wright, consider the changes a “missed opportunity” to charge high-volume water users with a penalty charge schemes like those operated in Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth.
Penalty pricing schemes like these see high volume users slugged with higher charges beyond a reasonable threshold.
“People need ‘bill shock’ when they use too much,” Dr Wright told Nine this week.
Australia still a world leader, nonetheless
Lovell points out that Australia is still a world leader on water management, with the WSAA fielding an increasing volume of calls for advice from the UK, which has just experienced the driest May for 150 years.
However, he says we should always demand more, especially when “climate change is putting its wrath on us.”