For South East Queensland’s bulk water authority, Seqwater, influencing community and industry to use water efficiently and wisely is a major focus. The region has welcomed an additional one million residents over the past 15 years, and is facing further significant population growth and an increasingly changing climate.
Seqwater knows that providing safe, secure and affordable tap water now, and in the future, relies on robust planning, community engagement and social change.
South East Queensland sweltered through a hot and dry 2018/19 summer, which saw water use reach its highest levels since the Millennium Drought between 2001 and 2008.
In January, water use across the region peaked at a record 239L per person per day (Lpd), about 25Lpd higher than the same time last year and 70Lpd higher than the average use since the drought.
Peak demand combined with a lack of rainfall and inflows into the region’s dams saw combined dam levels fall to 70 per cent capacity in March, the lowest level since February 2010.
With the Bureau of Meteorology predicting below average rainfall and warm conditions to continue, Seqwater, together with the region’s water retailers, must be ready to manage high demand during prolonged dry weather.
Seqwater Chief Executive Officer, Neil Brennan, said that one of the key learnings from the Millennium Drought was the importance of engaging with the community early to encourage and instil water wise behaviour.
“We operate in a challenging and changing environment. Over the past 15 years, SEQ has experienced the worst drought in 100 years followed by the worst flood in 100 years in 2011 and yet another major flood in 2013,’’ Mr Brennan said.
“We have experienced the aftermath of several cyclones which impacted our ability to supply.
“While the community has adapted to these extremes, our climate is expected to become increasingly variable which will add to the complexity of water wise messaging during peak demand times.
“If we can’t communicate effectively and quickly with residents, we cannot expect to manage water use efficiently throughout the region.”
But even when behaviour change is adopted, it may not last. This is not surprising given that water is affordable, easily accessible and many people do not appreciate the costs of consistently providing a product to customers’ taps every day of the year.
“Following the Millennium Drought, we realised we needed to continuously work in partnership with the community for people to value water and see it as a precious resource all year round, not just during extreme weather events,” Mr Brennan said.
Educating the community
To create a platform for consistent community engagement, Seqwater developed its Water Future Program. Based on the notion that ‘we can’t count on the rain when and where we need it’, the program seeks to understand community views on liveability, water security planning considerations and potential supply options to achieve a shared vision for the region’s water future.
As part of the program, Seqwater extended its water education to increase community understanding of the water cycle, how water is sourced, stored, treated and supplied. Engagement activities have so far included community forums, surveys, information sessions and community events. Seqwater collected feedback from more than one hundred people across northern regions from August to October 2018, and will extend the program to the southern and central regions in 2019.
Seqwater’s school-based program for teachers and students from Prep to Year 12, H2O Kids, inspires students through storytelling and inquiry-based learning at schools or at an Seqwater site. Interactive displays and an augmented reality sandpit allow students to learn about water management and build their knowledge of the water cycle. More than 14,000 students have engaged with H2O Kids, with a total of 25,000 students expected to participate by the end of 2019.
“We aim for our engagement to be based on foresight rather than hindsight, which is why these programs are so important to Seqwater. By consistently working with and talking to the community, we can encourage water wise behaviour and better manage demand now, and into the future,” Mr Brennan said.
While Mr Brennan believes the SEQ community is generally water efficient, the growing population is increasing the demand for water and reiterates the need for ongoing water wise messaging.
South East Queensland is the third largest urban area in Australia and is currently home to more than 3.2 million people. The Queensland Government’s most recent population projections indicate that the region is expected to grow to around 5.5 million people by 2041.
The pattern of population growth is unlikely to be uniform across the region. Where and how people live, and how they use and value water, will have a major impact on demand trends. Increasing densification could require more water supply infrastructure in already established areas or lead to better use of existing infrastructure in those areas.
Exploring alternative water sources
Seqwater has managed the design and operation of Australia’s first Water Grid since the Millennium Drought. It allows drinking water to be moved across the region and includes 26 dams, 51 weirs, 34 water treatment plants and 646km of supply pipelines.
Seqwater modelling and analysis shows that apart from a severe drought or a significant change in supply or demand, the Water Grid can supply the region with enough water until about 2040. After that, South East Queensland will need new water sources to meet growing demand. No single option on its own is likely to meet the region’s needs; rather, a combination of options will be required.
“The South East Queensland community has remained water efficient since the Millennium Drought. This efficiency has contributed to delays in water restrictions and the need for future water supply infrastructure,” Mr Brennan said.
In extreme dry periods where demand peaks, a response plan has been developed to balance cost, water security and community outcomes. The plan includes triggers for actions to increase climate-resilient supply, engage communities to manage demand and change the operation of the Water Grid to optimise available water resources.
Under the current plan, the Gold Coast Desalination Plant will increase its production up to 100 per cent capacity if combined Grid dam levels reach 60 per cent. Seqwater will also remobilise the Western Corridor Recycled Water Scheme, which will be required to be fully operational should the combined Grid dam levels fall to 40 per cent capacity. Water restrictions would only be required if dam levels fell below 50 per cent capacity.
Mr Brennan explained that part of the challenge with desalination and purified recycled water options was encouraging social acceptance. He believes that community education programs like the Water Future Program and H2O Kids are key to achieving this goal and will help provide water security for the region for years to come.
“Demand will continue to be impacted by climate, population growth and changes in how people consume water. However, our network of assets and extensive community engagement means we are better placed to manage water supply and planning than ever before,” he said.
“Regardless of how demand evolves, Seqwater will remain committed to delivering safe, reliable and affordable drinking water to South East Queenslanders, and achieving our vision: Water for life.”