Australia's urban water industry is facing increasing challenges due to population growth, ageing assets, and the impacts of global warming, such as prolonged dry periods and sea-level rise. We speak with Adam Lovell, Executive Director of the Water Service Association of Australia (WSAA), the peak industry body representing the nation’s urban water industry, to discover how the sector is confronting these threats.
Question: The WSAA is part of Australia’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission in the Utilities Work Stream. What are the organization’s main objectives and what has been achieved so far?
Answer: The WSAA has been involved in a number of working groups at a national level as part of the COVID-19 pandemic response. The National Covid19 Coordination Commission coordinates advice to the Australian Government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. WSAA’s involvement has included reporting through the Utilities Work Stream on the preparedness and response of the urban water industry to COVID-19, as well as providing information on urban water’s role in the recovery phase. Investment in water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure is an effective way to stimulate the economy in the short-term while providing lasting benefits to the community and economy in the longer term.
Q: The WSAA is working with Water Research Australia to develop a project that aims to provide COVID-19 wastewater testing results to help inform and optimize COVID-19 control programs at local and national scales. Could you tell us a bit more about this project? What entities is WSAA working with?
A: The ColoSSoS Collaboration on Sewage Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 coronavirus) is an innovative, collaborative Australian investigation to test sewage for evidence of the COVID-19 virus. WSAA is pleased to support the work being led by Water Research Australia that brings together major water utilities, health departments and experts in this field within Australia and internationally.
Sewage testing is an important tool to complement existing measures such as clinical testing and restrictions to help provide a clearer picture of the presence of COVID-19 in the community. Current ColoSSoS project efforts are around ensuring detection methods are robust, sensitive, specific, and comparable across the nation.
WSAA is working with the Monash Institute of Sustainable Futures to progress understanding of the impact of water utilities on the SDGs
Q: In 2017, the WSAA launched the ‘Global Goals for Local Communities: Urban water advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals’. What results have you achieved so far? What are the goals for the following years?
A: A year after the release of our Global Goals paper we released a report on how the urban water industry was progressing. The Report is supported by nine case studies and demonstrates the progress by the industry to support and promote the SDGs in partnership with other utilities, customers and stakeholders, and shows the industry’s contribution to achieving national and global SDG commitment.
Importantly we now have 25 WSAA members signed up to the Industry commitment to SDG 6 and the promotion of all 17 Goals.
Earlier this year WSAA submitted its first Communication on Engagement to the United National Global Compact. The document describes the actions taken to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals Global Compact and its principles.
WSAA is now working with the Monash Institute of Sustainable Futures to progress understanding of the impact of water utilities on the SDGs, including developing indicators to measure and monitor our impact. We will also use this work to inform our response to the review of the Bureau of Meteorology’s National Performance Report. In recent years, several of our members have used the SDG Framework as a strategic lens to develop their strategic business plans. Moving forward, WSAA will continue to lead the urban water industry in using all 17 Goals as a lens to frame the broader contribution urban water makes to a prosperous, sustainable, and equitable society.
In recent years, several of our members have used the SDG Framework as a strategic lens to develop their strategic business plans
Q: Last year, Australia faced the worst drought on record affecting major cities like Sydney. What actions would you propose to build resilience to urban drought?
A: The urban water industry in Australia has a strong reputation for contributing to the liveability of Australians by providing safe, secure, and affordable drinking water and wastewater services. However, the industry still faces risks and challenges including drought, population growth, urbanisation, and climate change. To meet these challenges WSAA recommends:
- A new National Water Initiative that recognises the future challenges of climate change and extreme events, urban growth (including population growth) and liveability of our cities and regions across the urban water cycle.
- All water supply options on the table including desalination, dams, water efficiency and all forms of water recycling.
- Integrating stormwater into the urban water cycle to reflect the role it can play in creating and maintaining liveable cities and communities.
- Improved collaboration between Federal, State, and local government agencies, water utilities and other stakeholders for long term water security planning that includes the latest science for climate change.
Q: Many cities around the world are turning to green infrastructure solutions to mitigate climatic extremes. What are Australian cities doing in this respect?
A: Water utilities in cities around Australia enable broader liveability outcomes including contributing to green and blue infrastructure to deliver benefits to physical and mental health by making our communities cooler, healthier and more attractive places to live, work and play. Specific examples to mitigate climatic extremes include:
- Greening the west - Melbourne’s western suburbs are some of the fastest-growing in Australia. They receive less rainfall than other parts of Melbourne meaning they are drier and can experience warmer daytime temperatures. Water utilities and other organisations have formed an alliance with City West Water facilitating a Steering Committee. Through collaboration the following targets are set to be achieved:
- 25% increase in alternative water for green space by 2030
- Double tree canopy cover in the west by 2050
- Green space to be increased by 25% by 2030
- Irrigating Adelaide’s airport - With increased summer and autumn temperatures in Adelaide expected to occur as a result of climate change, SA Water commenced a trial to quantify the benefits that could be achieved through the irrigation of a 4-hectare parcel of the airside area. The trial has been underway for more than 2 years, with the monitoring showing a reduction in air temperature within the 4-hectare irrigation area of over 2 degrees Celsius on average, and above 3 degrees on warmer days (i.e. days above 30 degrees).
The benefits include those directly derived from the cropping, as well as the secondary benefits of cooling on other aspects of the airport operations, including passenger terminal energy use and aircraft performance.
- SA Water’s Smart Irrigation program – a collaboration with Greater Adelaide metro councils to deploy over 240 air temperature sensors in parks to provide live data to the community to help inform choices about which park they visit on hot days. To help manage the increased water needed for open space irrigation, SA Water has a smart irrigation package at over 20 parks to help councils optimise their water use.
Q: Australia’s coastal communities, like other parts of the world, are facing the impacts of sea level rise. What is being done to tackle this growing challenge?
The urban water industry is working towards managing these challenges in many ways, and WSAAs Climate Change Adaptation Guidelines, as well as a number of other reports produced by WSAA, include a broad range of tools and processes to help address sea-level rise:
- The use of adaptive planning techniques to monitor and assess changes, and revise adaption options should triggers or signposts be reached.
- Defining key variables that need to be monitored (if not defined as part of the planning process).
- Interdependencies, for example between built assets and peak demands.
- Collaboration and joint strategy development, particularly with local governments and other utilities.
- Understanding and building into strategy:
- changes in climate science, including new projections based on improved climate modellin
- changes in regulatory and policy drivers
- published and unpublished work relevant to climate change adaptation (e.g. revision of the Australian Rainfall and Runoff Guidelines)
- experiences and lessons learnt, including maladaptation and over-adaptation, by other water utilities and by other industry sectors.
Examples of changes as a result of sea-level rise that may be triggered by the monitoring process include:
- Built assets: A ‘retreat’ decision for coastal assets may be needed once the rate of sea level rise accelerates, or when a particular threshold sea level is reached.
- Aquifer recharge rates and state of key systems: Indicators such as groundwater levels and salinity in extraction bores may trigger decisions to switch to other supply options.
Q: What role does digitalization play in Australia’s urban water utilities regarding improving customer services?
A: Customer service can be improved by offering multiple channels to connect with the customer: personalised and itemised smart-bills, social media, email, online chats, peer-to-peer discussions, mobile phone, and tablet apps.
By integrating data from all aspects of the business including billing, faults and emergencies, asset management and internal business processes, water utilities can set up new ways of creating customer value. Customer issues can be recognised more quickly through having the data on hand, potentially even before the customer calls to report a disruption. Customers will no longer need to repeat their story each time they call. Their issues can be resolved more quickly, and dealings will be more consistent and transparent.
The urban water industry still faces risks and challenges including drought, population growth, urbanisation, and climate change
Some specific examples include:
Sydney Water’s Customer Hub was established to improve the customer experience for anyone experiencing a Sydney Water service fault or affected by a service interruption. It considers and minimises customer impact, provides proactive SMS/email communications and case management for customers, and seeks and acts on customer feedback in real-time. Technologies in use include:
- a geo-spatial situational awareness tool (Spatial Hub)
- new on-line channels of choice for customers
- an SMS/email customer notification and feedback platform
- integration with existing systems,
- and initiation of an Internet of Things (IoT) sensor pilot.
Digital metering is being trialled across Melbourne by City West Water, South East Water, and Yarra Valley Water. The biggest benefit of digital meters is having real-time information on what's happening on a customer's property. Instead of getting “bill shock” when customers receive their quarterly bills, the water utility can contact a customer proactively and help them when it might look like they have a leak on the property.
Many digital metering schemes have dashboards for customers to access themselves. If customers can see their use on an hourly basis it can help them to see identify where and when water is being used, save water, and save on their bills.
Digital metering is just one aspect of a broader digital utility offering where utilities start to put digital technologies into our sewer mains, water mains and at treatment plants and get real-time information on the performance of their assets.
This means water utilities can start to proactively intervene before we see large scale water main bursts or sewer spills in the environment.
Adelaide’s Smart Water Network - In July 2017, SA Water implemented the first stage of its smart water network, integrating more than 400 sensors across the Adelaide CBD. The sensors are paired with a world-leading analytics platform, providing a detailed picture of the water network. At a cost of $4 million, it was the largest of its kind in Australia. The technology has enabled SA Water to identify and proactively fix leaks before they impact customers. i.e. work is scheduled to have minimal impact (often at night – while the city sleeps) on customers and commuters. In the first year, it pre-empted over 20 water main incidents, reduced reactive work by 70%.
SA Water implemented the first stage of its smart water network, integrating more than 400 sensors across the Adelaide CBD
Q: Severe drought has fuelled a series of massive bushfires across Australia putting water supply infrastructure in danger. What measures do you think are necessary to improve resilience to bushfire risk?
A: The devastating fires in Australia over the 2019-2020 period highlighted the need for the water industry to have practical guidance ready at hand for the management of drinking water supplies during such events. WSAA has developed case studies based on the experiences of water utilities and is developing a good practice guide operational guideline.
Q: A new report by Moody’s showed drought and water-related stress will pose long-term credit challenge for Australia’s New South Wales. How is the state dealing with this challenge?
A: Climate change is one of the challenges facing all states in Australia, along with strong population growth and the need to maintain and renew an ageing assets base. The drought highlighted these challenges in NSW. Balance sheets across Australia are already showing the effects of meeting these challenges while minimising the impacts on customers. WSAA considers a national response is required to ensure that the industry retains a strong degree of financial resilience in order to ensure operational resilience in the face of climate change impacts and the like.