While Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world, we have one of the highest per capita water uses.
Much of the overall water used in Australia each year is “self-extracted” water, which is taken directly from the environment by water users such as agricultural, mining, energy and other industry users. However, supply of the potable water and sewerage services vital to maintain a high standard of living are generally provided by the water and sewerage services industry, including Australia’s water utilities.
Water extracted by the water industry and then supplied to end users through water networks is known as “distributed water”. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 2014-15 the water industry supplied over 12,145GL of distributed water to industry and household users.
The arrangements for water utilities in Australia vary by state and territory. In some cases, a single large utility may manage all aspects of the water and wastewater supply chain. In other states or territories, many smaller utilities may service different areas.
In some states or territories, such as Victoria, New South Wales, and South East Queensland, bulk water utilities operate. These utilities provide wholesale bulk water and/or wastewater services to numerous retail utilities, which in turn supply these services to customers through their water and wastewater networks.
Other utilities manage their own water supply services, as well as distribution and retail services. Some Australian utilities supply only water or sewerage services, while many others operate both water and sewerage networks, as well as providing stormwater, water recycling, drainage and other services.
Here, we take a closer look at Australia’s diverse water and sewer industry landscape.
New South Wales
In NSW, water supply and sewerage services are provided by three state-owned metropolitan water utilities (Sydney Water, WaterNSW, and Hunter Water) and 92 regional local water utilities.
WaterNSW is a bulk water utility, and NSW’s major supplier of raw water. It supplies water to Sydney Water and other licensed authorities, retail suppliers, and councils.
Sydney Water is Australia’s largest water utility. It supplies water to around 4,994,000 people through approximately 1,899,234 individual connections, and provides sewerage services to around 4,798,000 people via 1,851,913 individual connections (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
Hunter Water is responsible for the provision of water and wastewater services in the lower Hunter region, providing water to around 564,000 people, and sewerage services to around 540,000 people.
The largest of the 92 local water utilities include Central Coast Council, Shoalhaven Water, MidCoast Water, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council, Tweed Shire Council, Coffs Harbour City Council, and Riverina Water.
Over 2014-15, NSW water utilities are estimated to have distributed around 4902.429GL of water to customers (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). The vast majority of this water was used by industry.
Most of this supply came from surface water sources, with the rest from groundwater sources. However, the Sydney Desalination Plant, currently not in operation, has the capacity to provide additional water supply when again required.
The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) sets the maximum prices that NSW’s declared water utilities can charge for water and wastewater services.
In Victorian, 19 water utilities are responsible for delivering the state’s water and sewerage services. These include both retail utilities, and bulk water utilities, all of which are owned by the Victorian Government. However, each utility acts as a stand-alone entity and is managed by its own board.
The four metropolitan Melbourne water utilities are Melbourne Water, City West Water, South East Water, and Yarra Valley Water. Of these, three are retailers, while Melbourne Water is a bulk water utility, which supplies wholesale water and wastewater services to the retail utilities.
The three metropolitan Melbourne retailers, City West Water, South East Water, and Yarra Valley Water, provide retail water supply and sewerage services. They also provide some localised sewerage services to their customers not connected to the Melbourne sewerage network (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
The largest of the metropolitan retailers is Yarra Valley water, which supplies water to around 1,821,000 people, and provides sewerage services to around 1,724,000 people (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
Outside of Melbourne, various regional urban water utilities provide retail and bulk water and sewerage services.
In recent years, most water distributed by Victoria’s water utilities is sourced from surface water catchments, with smaller amounts from groundwater (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). However, the Victorian Desalination Plant began operation this year, meaning a percentage of future supply will be sourced from desalination.
Over 2014-15 around 3460.91GL of water was supplied by Victoria’s water utilities, with industry consuming far greater volumes than residential properties (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016).
Price directions for water and sewerage services in the state are determined by the Essential Services Commission.
In Queensland, water and sewerage services are provided by a total of 174 registered water service providers, including some that are not traditional utilities. Of these 86 are potable water and/or sewerage service providers, and 88 are non-potable water service providers.
South East Queensland is serviced by five distribution and retail providers, which include two local government-owned distributor retailers (Queensland Urban Utilities, and Unitywater) and three local governments that provide water and sewerage services directly (Gold Coast, Logan, and Redland councils). South East Queensland’s bulk water utility is Seqwater.
Queensland Urban Utilities provides water to around 1,403,000 people, and sewer services to 1,339,000 people. Unitywater supplies water to around 725000 people, and sewerage services to around 661,000. City of Gold Coast provides water to approximately 543,000 people, and sewerage services to 523000 people. Logan City Council serves a population of around 300,000 for water, and 271000 for sewerage, while Redland City Council serves 151,000 for water, and 132,000 for sewer (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
Some of the largest other Queensland service providers include City of Townsville, Toowoomba Regional Council, Cairns Regional Council, Mackay Regional Council, Wide Bay Water, and Bundaberg Regional Council.
Around 68 per cent of residential water service providers in Queensland have less than 5,000 residential connections (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016). The smaller providers commonly service small populations over a large and/or remote location, such as Indigenous council areas and rural towns.
Overall, in 2014-15 Queensland water service providers supplied around 2543.904GL of distributed water, most of which was supplied to industry. The largest volume was supplied from surface water, with smaller amounts from groundwater and desalination plants (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016).
The Queensland Competition Authority monitors retail and distribution pricing in South East Queensland and recommends bulk water pricing from Seqwater and SunWater.
SA Water is the only major water utility in South Australia, and provides the bulk of water and sewerage services. There are currently around 66 other smaller sewer and/or water retailers in the state (mainly council-run operations).
SA Water supplies water to around 95 per cent of South Australia’s population, totalling approximately 1,684,000 people, via 770,000 connected properties. The utility provides sewerage services to around 76 per cent of the population, approximately 1,324,000 people, via 599,000 connections (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
The 66 other water and sewerage retailers provide drinking water to approximately 6,000 customers and sewerage services to around 85,000 (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
The bulk of water supplied through South Australia’s water networks is sourced from surface water, with additional supply from both groundwater and desalination plants. Over 2014-15 approximately 383.437GL of water was supplied through the water networks, with more than twice as much supplied to industry as to residential properties (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016).
Price directions for South Australian water and sewerage services are set by the Essential Services Commission of South Australia (ESCOSA).
Western Australia’s major state-owned water utility is Water Corporation. However, a number of other water and sewerage service providers are also involved in servicing the state. These include Aqwest, Busselton Water and the City of Kalgoorlie–Boulder, and a number of other licensed and unlicensed water service providers with small supply schemes.
Water Corporation water supply network serves around 948,960 individual properties, while its sewerage network services around 937,220 individual connections.
Over 2014-15, Western Australia’s water utilities are estimated to have distributed around 634.057GL of water through their networks to industry and residential customers (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016).
This water was supplied by surface water sources, groundwater, and desalination. Of all Australian states and territories, Western Australia has sourced the largest amount of distributed water supply from desalination plants (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016).
Water Corporation tariffs are subject to oversight by the Economic Regulation Authority of WA, although the final decision on pricing is made by the WA Minister for Water.
TasWater is the only licensed water utility in Tasmania, and manages all aspects of the water and sewerage supply chain.
The utility is currently owned by Tasmania’s 29 local governments. However, the Tasmanian State Government has announced its intention to take over control of the utility from July 2018.
TasWater provides supplies water to around 434,000 people and sewerage services to around 383,000 people, via approximately 202,000 individual water connections, and 178,000 sewer connections (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
The vast majority of water distributed through Tasmania’s water network is sourced from surface water, with small amounts from groundwater. It is estimated that around 115.98GL of water was supplied through the network over 2014-15 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). Generally, a significantly larger proportion of distributed water is used by industry than households.
Price directions for water and sewerage services in the state are determined by the Tasmanian Economic Regulator.
In the NT, Power and Water Corporation’s water and sewerage business is responsible for the supply of water and sewerage services.
Power and Water’s water network supplies around 48,093 individual properties, while the sewer network connects to around 59,292 properties (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
Volume-wise, most water distributed through the Northern Territory’s water network is sourced from surface water, such as that located in dams and catchments, with the rest of supply from groundwater sources. However, many locations outside of the major centres of Darwin and Katherine are supplied completely by groundwater sources.
Over 2014-15 around 62.31GL of water was supplied, with more than half of this supply going to industry (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016).
In the Northern Territory, prices for water and sewerage services are set directly by the NT government.
Australian Capital Territory
In the ACT, water and sewerage services are provided by Icon Water. Icon Water is part of ACTEW Corporation Limited (ACTEW), which was established as a corporation in 1995, and is owned by the ACT Government.
Icon Water provides water and sewerage services to around 393,000 people, through approximately individual 169,000 water connections, and 168,000 sewer connections (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
Water distributed through Icon Water’s water network is primarily sourced from surface water, such as that located in dams and catchments. It is estimated that around 42.141GL of water was supplied through the network over 2014-15 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). In contrast to other Australian states and territories, most of this water was supplied to households, rather than to industry.
During 2015-16 Icon Water collected a total of around 33,854ML of sewage (Bureau of Meteorology, 2016).
In the ACT, the Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission (ICRC) determines price directions for water utilities and regulates access agreements.