In the face of climate change and projected population growth, Melbourne’s water corporations have banded together to form Water for Life, a shared water plan that aims to balance the city’s water needs and secure supply for the next five decades.

Developed by Greater Western Water, Melbourne Water, South East Water and Yarra Valley Water, this strategy aims to balance Melbourne’s water needs by increasing efficiencies, diversifying water sources and using new water supplies. Here we interviewed Greater Western Water Managing Director, Maree Lang, about the strategy and how the city’s utilities are preparing for the future.

One of four Melbourne water corporations, Greater Western Water, provides water and wastewater services to approximately 1.3 million people across Melbourne’s CBD and north-west suburbs and townships, and its jurisdiction is home to some of the fastest growing communities in Australia.

The Greater Melbourne Urban Water and System Strategy: Water for Life is a joint strategy produced by Greater Western Water, Melbourne Water, South East Water and Yarra Valley Water to ensure a safe and secure water supply for Greater Melbourne over the next 50 years, and includes specific actions for the next five years.

How did the decision to develop this strategy come about?

ML: Every five years, our four water corporations revise our existing urban water strategies and the water supply system strategy for Greater Melbourne. This planning cycle is an important part of Victoria’s 50-year planning horizon to manage water supply and use across our service regions in the face of population growth and climate change, and means we can consider changes in our operating environment and latest knowledge to update our approach.

Given our communities share these big challenges, it made sense to deliver a single joint strategy, building on the many ways we already collaborate on outcomes. We launched Water for Life in April 2023 and have now started the five-year delivery phase together.

What are the key challenges that Melbourne’s water supply will likely face over the next 50 years, and how does this strategy plan to overcome them?

ML: Greater Melbourne is facing significant water challenges. Our population is growing and the economy is thriving, which means we’re using more water, while urbanisation is increasing the amount of sewage and stormwater our systems need to manage. Our climate is also changing. Warmer and drier conditions means there’ll be less water in our rivers and less water flowing into our supply system.

We’re already experiencing the impacts of a more variable climate, with more extreme events like floods and bushfires. Looking forward, under some climate and demand scenarios, we’ll start reaching an imbalance in supply and demand in the next ten years. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that Greater Melbourne has enough water into the future. The best time to act is now while water storages are high and we have the benefit of time to forward plan a range of fit-for-purpose options to be ready when we need them.

What steps is water for life taking to prepare the water supply for projected population growth as well as the effects of climate change?

ML: The strategy outlines comprehensive options under three key themes – water efficiency solutions, integrated water management solutions and supply system augmentations. We know we can no longer rely solely on dams, and Water for Life emphasises drawing from a diverse range of water sources and transitioning to increased use of climate resilient, manufactured water.

Under each theme, we’ve identified pathways that focus either on reducing demand on our drinking water supply or adding new climate independent, manufactured water sources to the supply system. Importantly, we are taking a best practice adaptive planning approach, which recognises there are multiple ways to respond to uncertainty and aims to keep as many options open as possible.

We can’t forecast with certainty how quickly our population will grow over the next 50 years, how climate variability will impact water availability and how people will choose to use water, so investing in a range of water supply options gives us the flexibility to make informed decisions at the right time.

What has community response to water for life been like?

ML: The involvement of communities and Traditional Owners in the assessment and short-listing of water supply options is an exciting aspect of the strategy development. We’re in this together, so it was important to get everyone around the table from the start to understand everyone’s different water values, needs and ideas. We partnered with Traditional Owners to set direction for the strategy and ensure their priorities and cultural values were shaping decisions.

An independently recruited panel of 36 community members shaped the strategy alongside us, informed by a broader public engagement program to gather insights and test our thinking. We will continue actively involving customers and the community in decision making through ongoing implementation. Our focus now is sustained, meaningful Traditional Owner partnerships to work together in water management and planning, and to empower communities to take a more active role in water efficiency.

What steps is water for life taking to return water to traditional owners and ensure that rivers and waterways across the region remain healthy?

ML: Greater Melbourne’s water corporations are committed to providing access to water for First People’s self-determined use. In developing this strategy, we’ve sought to honour and respect Traditional Owners’ status as our partners in water management. This is central to our desire to grow our cultural competency and establish genuine partnerships with Traditional Owners.

Water for Life lays the foundations for strong partnerships with Traditional Owners to deliver better planning and decision making outcomes. We will also support the Victorian Government to deliver commitments in the Central and Gippsland Region Sustainable Water Strategy to return water to Traditional Owners and the environment.

What works can we expect to see as part of this partnership?

ML: Projects that support outcomes of the strategy are being coordinated through the recently established Managing Directors Accord that brings together leaders from Greater Western Water, Melbourne Water, South East Water, Yarra Valley Water and Barwon Water to tackle our big challenges together.

We’re now in a five-year implementation phase with each water corporation responsible for delivering key actions for their region under the strategy objectives. Water for Life will also deliver on policy directives in the Victorian Government’s Central and Gippsland Region Sustainable Water Strategy.

These include supporting Melbourne households to achieve the new 150 litre daily water use target, returning water to Traditional Owners and ensuring healthy rivers and waterways across the region. Our progress will be reviewed and reported on every year as part of the annual Melbourne Water Outlook.

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