I saw a remark in a newspaper article after Prime Minister Turnbull’s visit to New York where some businessmen suggested that images of our iconic clean beaches should be ‘retired’ as the selling point for Australia – that our knowledge and innovation economy wasn’t recognised in these images and we needed to ‘grow up’. Maybe it’s a valid point.
However in developing our most recent Occasional Paper, Next Gen Urban Water: The role of urban water in vibrant and prosperous communities, our industry is starting to pull together an evidence base – including putting a value on clean beaches - that shows urban water creates value for our highly urbanised communities that is so much more than taps and toilets.
On Wednesday I attended the official launch of Yarra Valley Water’s Waste to Energy facility. This plant recycles food waste that would otherwise go to landfill and in the process generating enough electricity to run their nearby sewage treatment plant with excess green energy exported to the grid. And better still, it’s commercially viable. The Victorian Government, through the Victorian Water Plan, is providing the stimulus for these leading projects through setting ambitious renewable energy targets. More of these facilities are going through various business planning processes - and not a tap or toilet is in sight….
Yarra Valley isn’t the only water utility out there exploring different ways to serve their community. Water utilities around the country are spreading their wings and leveraging their unique skills, assets and reputation to offer more to the communities they serve.
WSAA captured over 20 of these examples as part of our recent paper. It is abundantly clear that there are many opportunities for water utilities to provide more than just regulated services to their community, and many of them benefit the water utility as well. So why doesn’t it happen more? One of the biggest barriers is the siloed way different agencies operate. It’s so much easier for each agency to stick to their knitting. But making the effort to step out of our comfort zone and explore ways to collaborate with local communities, councils, planning authorities, health and environment regulators can result in win-win outcomes.
It can be easy to blame our respective state or local governments for not attempting to coordinate agencies, or restrictive regulation that discourage thinking out of the box. However, water utilities have a role to play by engaging with our communities to understand where we can add the most value. By promoting case studies of these win-win situations we build trust in our communities, capability within our organisations and governments allow utilities more flexibility to respond to the needs and preferences of our communities.
Utilities also have a role to play in the broader community. Looking at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is one way utilities are tackling the broader focus and positive impact they can have beyond their own communities. Many utilities already collaborate with nations overseas to improve access and provide clean water. But this isn’t the only way the industry can advance its contribution to society through connecting with the SDGs and WSAA will have more to say about this later in the year.
Many will have heard me talk about one of the last frontiers of urban water management in Australia – that stormwater is no longer treated as the orphan and truly becomes part of the total urban water environment. Whether for harvesting, creating beautiful amenity and green space, managing flooding, degraded environments and pollutants or for better environmental flows, creating a funding and pricing mechanism that can transition stormwater into the National Water Initiative is one of the top priorities. This isn’t a question of ownership either – although that will come up in some circumstances – it is a question of leadership and collaboration. There are many case studies in the Next Gen Urban Water paper looking at the future of stormwater management.
Since the paper was launched in May, I have received very positive and constructive feedback from Federal agencies, state government departments, local governments and regulators. They are opening their eyes to the benefits of treating water utilities as more than just service providers and instead involving them as an integral part of the planning to create liveable communities.
Together with our papers on economic regulation and governance improvements, Next Gen Urban Water has been provided to the Productivity Commission as it undertakes the Triennial Assessment of the National Water Initiative. As an industry we all need to get behind a new view of what our water future looks like - set that light on the hill - and of course allow utilities, state and local governments to work with a new NWI, guided by the voice of their local communities.
Let’s finish where I started, Sydney Water and Deloitte’s recently completed an assessment of Sydney’s Deep Ocean Outfalls which have been operating for 25 years. After the Poo Marches in the early 90s, Sydney’s beaches have now become iconic for locals and tourists. Placing a value of Sydney’s clean beaches at $1.2 billion per annum, and estimating a capital uplift of close to $350,000 for properties near the coast, one of the more interesting points was that more than 10% of prospective skilled migrants to Australia prioritised clean beaches in their criteria. Should we retire those images? The bottom line is that water utilities create value for Australia’s urban communities 24/7 as waste managers, green space providers and public health protectors.