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Sometimes overlooked, it’s the water industry operators who are at the coalface every day, ensuring the quality of water supply, managing assets and ensuring access to our most precious resource. We met with a diverse group of water industry operators to learn about the challenges they face, the new technologies they’re working with and the future for the water industry as they see it.

The Water Industry Operators Association of Australia (WIOA) is the leading body representing people in operational roles in the water industry. It is a rapidly growing, not-for-profit national association with a primary role of facilitating the collection, development and exchange of quality information between people undertaking operational roles in the water, wastewater and recycled water industries.

With key objectives including promoting standards of education and training to ensure efficiency and competency of members; and preservation of clean waterways and protection of public health and the environment, WIOA has an important and ongoing role to play right across Australia.

With a national membership base approaching 2,300 members are represented by an elected committee of twelve. Utility met with four of the general committee members – Anthony Evans, Assets & Projects Coordinator at Wannon Water; Neil Crossing, Process Optimisation Engineer at Allwater;  Lindsay Walsh, Process Controller – Sewer at MidCoast Water and Darren Lord, Technical Officer/Senior Operator Operation & Maintenance at TasWater – to gain an insight into their roles within the industry and their involvement with WIOA.

A day in the life

Daily life for our WIOA committee members is diverse, reflective of the different positions each member holds. While Anthony Evans is busy managing Wannon Water’s latest water and wastewater treatment projects, Lindsay Walsh is up early each morning undertaking operational checks at the Old Bar Sewage Treatment Plant on the New South Wales Mid North Coast.

Darren Lord at TasWater can often be found at reservoir or pump station sites, looking after operational and maintenance projects, while Neil Crossing from Allwater works at actively seeking new ways to deliver water treatment process optimisation.

“Here at Wannon Water, I manage the Water Plan 3 (WP3) CapEx program for the Treatment Services division,” said Mr Evans. “The projects were identified in the lead up to WP3 and submitted to the State Government for final approval prior to commencing in July 2013. There were around 250 small projects identified in our area ranging in budget from $5,000-$150,000. In total around $6,000,000 has been allocated. The majority of the projects are undertaken in our water and wastewater treatment plants and include new and replacement infrastructure, as well as general amenities improvements.”

“My role at TasWater is rather varied, and there are times when my day turns out very differently than initially expected,” said Mr Lord. “At the moment, TasWater is cleaning out and refurbishing a WTP clarifier consisting of a wide range of projects spanning pump station upgrades, updating of lab equipment to operational fault finding missions and producing risk assessments.”

For Mr Walsh, the day starts early when he arrives on site. “My day starts at around 6am when I arrive at the Old Bar Sewerage Treatment Plant on the Mid North Coast of NSW. I begin by checking plant flows from the previous day as well as pump starts and runtimes from Old Bar and Manning Point plants. I then check our SCADA system for any overnight faults or failures which need attention.

“At 6.30am I call our Process Coordinator, Pat Welsh, and discuss any outstanding issues. I then begin nutrient tests on effluent produced, and measure the biomass from our bioreactors. Once complete, I jump into the ute for a tour of the remote plants and attend to routine maintenance throughout the area where required. We are always busy, as there are four operators and one coordinator for the eight sewage treatment plants under our control,” said Mr Walsh.

For Mr Crossing, the main priority throughout the day is managing and monitoring water treatment projects that are aimed at improving water quality for health and contractual compliance, as well as reducing cost. “I also coordinate technical review visits by experts from one of Allwater’s parent companies, Suez Environment,” he added.

The next frontier

Improvements and upgrades are the current buzzwords for our WIOA committee members. Optimisation of processes and upgrading of infrastructure across a range of sites is high on the agenda for all of the operators we spoke to.

Mr Evans noted that Wannon Water is currently working on improving maintenance activities to ensure assets are capable of operating at the optimum level of service for their maximum life expectancy, and beyond.

For Mr Lord, the upgrading of TasWater’s water and sewerage infrastructure is currently the number one focus. “Since the reforms of 2009, $472million has been spent improving infrastructure around the state. If TasWater’s proposed forecasts are met, the expenditure will total $1billion by 2019. It’s an exciting time to be at TasWater,” he said.

Mr Walsh’s work is also focused on upgrades and process optimisation, with MidCoast Water always looking to improve the way they operate. Reflecting this the utility has recently upgraded its assets to the new, ClearSCADA system.

At Allwater, Mr Crossing speaks of improvements to the water treatment filtration performance at wastewater treatment plants, energy reductions, nitrogen reductions in treatment plant effluent and the increase in site cogeneration, with improved biogas production and optimisation of membrane bioreactors.

Embracing the challenges

Adapting to changes in management, guidelines and the industry as a whole is an ongoing challenge for water industry operators. Restructuring within businesses can result in time and job losses, and the introduction of new systems can slow processes down until they are mastered.

According to Mr Evans, “Awareness of the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines when planning improvements is crucial in ensuring that we aren’t throwing money in the wrong direction on instrumentation and plant operational changes, if we then have to upgrade in a couple of years to achieve the required results.

“As the area we cover has increased since the formation of Wannon Water with two other water businesses in south west Victoria ten years ago, long days travelling to and from jobs or training has also been a challenge for our team,” he added.

“The biggest challenge we have faced as operators would be the overarching changes in the water and wastewater industry in the state over the last six years,” said Mr Lord. “We transferred from our local councils into three separate organisations which lasted for four years. The companies then transferred into one organisation across the state, which meant another major restructure and a lot of role changes and job losses in the early days.”

For Mr Walsh, the introduction of new technology has been the biggest challenge. “The introduction of new SCADA and IT systems are always challenging, especially for an old bloke like me, but that’s what keeps me going.

“Keeping a quality process operating within a limited budget is also a challenge,” he added.

Managing water quality during drought has been a major challenge for Mr Crossing. Allwater is now dealing with algae blooms and associated elevated pH in raw water at water treatment plants and one of Adelaide’s largest water reuse plant. “Keeping up consistency of operating processes during major upgrades to infrastructure at both water and wastewater treatment plants is also a key challenge faced by our team,” he added.

Looking in the crystal ball

Implementation of projects currently in the pipeline will be the most exciting prospect for each of our WIOA committee members in the future.

“Our Wannon Water maintenance strategy that is currently in the planning and building stage will hopefully be implemented in the near future, as well as construction of major infrastructure at a number of our plants,” says Mr Evans.

Over at TasWater, the focus has been on a new, three-year price and service plan that has been handed down by the Economic Regulator and came into effect on July 1.

“This plan sets our prices and service standards for our customers,” said Mr Lord. “The successful implementation of this plan is critical for the ongoing sustainability of TasWater.”

Midcoast Water has plans to upgrade its Gloucester water treatment plant as well as to build a new facility at Nabiac to ensure a quality water supply to the Manning Valley and Great Lakes areas into the future; and at Allwater, trials will be carried out in partnership with SA Water involving granular sludge tested at a high salinity wastewater treatment plant, as well as works to improve pressure management in the Adelaide distribution system to reduce pipe bursts.

Emerging technologies

From trenchless to SCADA, the emergence of new technologies is impacting the water industry in a number of positive ways.

According to Mr Evans, portable water treatment plants and portable sludge dewatering plants are revolutionising the water and wastewater industries.

“Trenchless technology has also taken off in a big way, as well as CCTV used for condition assessment and SCADA monitoring. Drones to check above-ground assets and recycling of our wastewater are also technologies that are having an impact, and that’s only just scratching the surface,” he added.

According to Mr Lord, “One of the technologies that we are seeing more here in Tasmania is the use of membrane filtration plants. We have a lot of small towns that don’t currently have water treatment, just disinfection. With these towns requiring only small flows, it only takes a small footprint to fit a plant to suit. Some can even be package built off-site and simply dropped into place.

“Further improvements to our SCADA network and our new Network Operations Centre will be key to TasWater getting better visibility of our asset performance in real-time and improving our asset management,” said Mr Lord.

Allwater and SA Water are trialling the use of trade waste to improve digestion and consequently improve co-digestion at wastewater treatment plants. “Allwater in conjunction with SA Water has also successfully run a pilot plant study for the Anammox process and trialling of granular sludge at a high salinity wastewater treatment plant,” said Mr Crossing.

The water industry in ten years

According to our committee members, the future of the water industry appears overall positive, and constantly evolving.

“I think we will be doing a lot more remote monitoring of our plants with the installation of online analysers,” said Mr Evans. “A quality reference should only need verifying weekly to maintain the integrity of the instrument…at least that’s what the salespeople tell us!

“I would like to think that operators will still be looking after their plants not just from the treatment perspective but managing the maintenance as well. I also think we will begin to see operators employed with an electrical background as we move into the era of remote monitoring equipment and automation,” he added.

For Mr Lord, the future of the water industry in Tasmania will rely heavily on young people getting involved within the business. “Here in Tasmania, I couldn’t say where the industry will be in ten years if we don’t start to get young people on board,” said Mr Lord.

Mr Walsh believes that the water industry is destined to look very different in the next ten years, with advances in technology being the catalyst for change. “I don’t know what the industry will look like in ten years, but you can guarantee it will bear little resemblance to what it is now. Technology will continue to play a greater part in process control,” he said.

Mr Crossing envisages the future of the water industry to be focused upon optimised management across the board. There will be more centralised operations with higher qualified operators, each operating more than one or two plants.

WIOA Executive Officer Mr George Wall notes that there has been a great deal of change occurring in the industry and the level and range of responsibility assigned to operators is constantly evolving.

“The introduction and use of new technology, the desire to increase operational efficiency from an aging asset base, coupled with community pressure to control costs means operators need to be better trained and have a much broader set of skills than just a few years ago,” said Mr Wall.

To ensure ongoing skill development, WIOA has increased the range of services and opportunities it provides for the operational employees.  WIOA has been instrumental in the development and introduction of a certification scheme for water treatment operators, which includes ongoing professional development opportunities.

Mr Wall stated “There are a number of certified water treatment operators around the country and we are now moving our attention to the introduction of a scheme for wastewater operators as well. At the moment these are voluntary schemes but we see them as vitally important for our industry and will continue to lobby for them to be universally adopted”.

It’s clear that the water industry is destined for change, and with exciting, yet challenging times ahead, we can only imagine what the future will hold for Australia’s most precious drop.

Laura Harvey is a fifteen-year veteran of trade publishing in the energy and infrastructure sectors. Currently she’s the Editor of Utility’s sister publication, Energy. During her time in the publishing sector, Laura has seen significant changes to the way the sector operates. What has remained constant throughout her career, whether she’s working on a magazine, a blog post, a video or an event, is her focus on connecting audiences with quality, engaging and thought-provoking content.

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