As prolonged drought conditions threaten the water security of the Hunter region in NSW, Hunter Water has initiated plans to build a temporary desalination plant and other water saving measures to try and help secure the future of the region’s vital resource.

Water management

Hunter Water sought approval from the Department of Planning to construct the plant on Hunter Water land at Belmont in November 2017 as an ‘on the shelf’ insurance policy in case an unprecedented drought were to hit the region and water storage dropped to 35 per cent.

Hunter Water also commenced their water conservation campaign, Love Water, in February 2018 to lead community engagement about raising awareness and behaviour change around water use.

The campaign is part of the utility’s integrated attempt to help avoid water falling to levels that may trigger the need to build the desalination plant or other large source augmentation solutions.

“The programs are designed to make people curious, and we think two-way engagement is much more likely to bring about large-scale behaviour change,” Hunter Water Managing Director, Jim Bentley said.

“We believe this is the first time a water utility has approached complex systems involving people, water security, environment, risk and cost in this way.”

Preparing for worst case situations

According to Bureau of Meteorology mapping, some pockets of the Upper Hunter are experiencing a one in 20-year rainfall deficiency.

Hunter Water Chief Investment Officer, Darren Cleary, said part of being ‘drought ready’ meant having approvals in place for the worst of the worst scenarios.

“The Lower Hunter Water Plan is a 20-year water security blueprint for the Hunter which determined that while our water storages are sufficient for now, we need to be prepared for extreme drought conditions.

“Having planning approvals on the shelf and ready to go for a temporary desalination plant is an insurance policy in the event a catastrophic drought hits the Hunter.”

Prolonged dry conditions have taken a toll on Hunter Water’s dams, which were at their lowest summer levels in more than a decade in February 2018, with their total storage capacity hitting a low of 68.2 per cent.

The harsh conditions also saw demand for water increase by 20 per cent in January 2018, compared to the same period over ten years, with the region using on average, 260 million litres a day, which is the equivalent of 104 Olympic swimming pools.

“Although the odds of switching on the plant are in the order of 10,000 to one, we won’t take the chance of running out of water because our planning approvals were not in place. Gaining approvals now means we’re ready for the worst,” Mr Cleary said.

The month of January 2018 also recorded the highest water usage since November 2002.

Construction of the plant will only come after all other water-saving measures have been exhausted, including increased recycling, stormwater harvesting and stringent water restrictions, and would be decommissioned when storage levels rise above 50 per cent.

The preliminary environmental assessment for the temporary desalination plant went on public exhibition in November 2017, with Hunter Water commencing community consultation in early 2018.

While the temporary desalination plant is an emergency measure rather than part of Hunter Water’s long-term water resource planning, the utility has activated a new conservation campaign to encourage the community to preserve the precious resource.  

For the love of water

Hunter Water Managing Director, Jim Bentley said given the current climate and rising usage, the utility wants to work on conserving water in its own network and with the community, which is why it launched the Love Water campaign.  

The campaign was launched on 14 February 2018, to coincide with Valentine’s Day with the aim to increase awareness about falling supplies and encourage residents to show love for the region’s water supply.

“The Love Water campaign is about promoting curiosity in the community and encouraging people to value and conserve the resource, so the region can keep its options open on the future of water,” Mr Bentley said.

“When people love something they protect it, care for it and value it. We’re hoping people apply those same attributes when using water around their home or business.”

The campaign aims to educate households and businesses in the region about ways they can be more efficient with their water use.

“It’s vital we do everything we can to conserve water and not take it for granted. Together, we can make a difference. Water belongs to all of us and we all have a role to play in preserving our most precious resource to ensure it’s viable for future generations,” Mr Bentley said.

“Our intention is to be well prepared for the future with an informed customer base who have helped shape our strategy. This will build a more resilient and sustainable system, and avoid risk of serious water shortages at an affordable cost and at the same time provide opportunity to evaluate new technologies.”

Lauren ‘LJ’ Butler is the Assistant Editor of Utility magazine and has been part of the team at Monkey Media since 2018.

After completing a Bachelor of Media, Communications and Professional Writing at the University of Wollongong in 2014, and prior to writing about the utility sector, LJ worked as a Journalist and Sub Editor across the horticulture, hardware, power equipment, construction and accommodation industries with publishers such as Glenvale Publications, Multimedia Publishing and Bean Media Group.

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