A new report from the Auditor-General of the state of New South Wales, Water conservation in Greater Sydney, has audited the Department of Planning, Industry and the Environment and the Sydney Water Corporation, looking at activities since 2016. The report concludes that the Department and Sydney Water have not effectively investigated, implemented or supported water conservation initiatives, reports The Age.
The 2017 Metropolitan Water Plan for Greater Sydney states that water conservation efforts may be less expensive than new water supply options. In this context, water conservation encompasses water recycling ─ both stormwater harvesting and wastewater reuse ─, leakage management and initiatives to improve water efficiency.
The Auditor-General’s report says “the agencies have not met key requirements of the Metropolitan Water Plan and Sydney Water has not met all its operating licence requirements for water conservation”.
There has been little policy or regulatory reform, and limited collaboration, capacity building and community engagement to support water conservation, particularly outside times of drought.
"As a result, Greater Sydney's water supply may be less resilient to population growth and climate variability, including drought", states the report. Greater Sydney’s population is about 5.3 million, and is expected to increase by 2 more million in the next 20 years, driving up the water demand, while climate projections indicate rainfall patterns will be more unpredictable, with longer periods of drought, a challenge for the rainfall-dependent dams supplying Greater Sydney.
The audit found that the Department and Sydney Water have struggled to fund water conservation initiatives; the funding for water efficiency programs was scaled back when Sydney Water was not required to contribute to the Climate Change Fund between 2012–13 to 2016–17.
Concerning recycling, there has not been substantial progress to eliminate barriers to water recycling, with no expansion of the recycling capacity in more than eight years.
Because of lack of planning for water conservation, Sydney Water’s response to the recent drought was limited and late. The desalination plant was fired up in January 2019 as water storages dropped below 60 per cent; when the drought in NSW eased up earlier this year and water reserves bounced back, the plant was left operating at about 20% of capacity. The NSW government announced it would fast-track the plant’s expansion in January 2020, amid the drought, but has since postponed those plans.
But not all is bad news. The report also found measures to encourage efficient urban water use are in place. Namely, the Building Sustainability Index (BASIX) and the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) can encourage more efficient water use in residential and commercial buildings.
A spokesman for Sydney Water said that despite a 26% increase in population, the total consumption of drinking water decreased to its lowest thanks to mandatory restrictions introduced 17 years ago, and Sydney Water achieved overall water savings of 11.4% against forecast since June 2019.
The recommendations of the Auditor-General include the development of a clear policy and regulatory position on water conservation options, improved governance and funding for water conservation, and working with Sydney Water to assess the viability of water conservation initiatives. The report also recommends improvements to Sydney Water’s planning and reporting on water conservation, including greater transparency.