A focus on changing attitudes towards water has enabled the Northern Territory’s Power and Water Corporation to prolong the life of precious water sources.
Power and Water, the Territory’s multi-utility, has about 51,000 water customers spread across an area spanning 1.3 million square kilometres.
Most water sources are isolated, with around 90 different sources for 92 communities, including the major urban centres of Darwin, Katherine, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek.
With customers located in some of the most remote parts of the country and facing unique water challenges, Power and Water rolled out its Living Water Smart program in 2013.
“Whether you’re in Katherine or Kaltukatjara, water is socially and culturally central to everything,” Living Water Smart Program Manager, Jethro Laidlaw, said.
“We’re trying to get people to change the way they think and act when it comes to water, giving them a sense of custodianship and responsibility.”
A vast and thirsty territory
Territorians are Australia’s highest water users, with more than 60 per cent of household water use in the garden.
“We didn’t have the millennium drought in the Territory, so locals weren’t subject to the behaviour-changing water saving programs and restrictions those in other states were,” Mr Laidlaw said.
“The Top End normally has a monsoon topping up Darwin’s water supply, adding to the perception we have unlimited water.
“There’s a disconnect between valuing water as a concept and valuing what’s coming out of the tap.”
Living Water Smart is run in Darwin, where households regularly record the highest water use for any capital city in the country, and in Katherine, where per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) contamination in groundwater has restricted available supply.
Demand management programs are also gaining momentum in remote Aboriginal communities with limited water supply.
The rollout of Living Water Smart, which followed a similar program in Alice Springs, cemented the utility’s broader, decade-long approach to water management.
This slant has worked well in the Territory, where funds spent on drilling programs in remote communities do not necessarily yield results.
“Traditionally the water industry has focused on increasing supply instead of managing demand, but demand management works,” Mr Laidlaw said.
“We spend less on reducing demand. It prolongs the life of water sources by years and helps customers develop an understanding of the value of water.
“We’ve also seen digital metering and leak detection technology improve significantly, which has helped us detect and fix leaks within our own network.”
In his time at Power and Water, Mr Laidlaw has seen a range of attitudes to water use, from very conservative to households running sprinklers on their roof 24/7 to cool their dwellings.
“People don’t really think about what it takes to extract water from the ground, treat it and get it to their taps,” he said.
It is this disconnect that the Living Water Smart program aims to address.
Water conservation in Katherine
News broke of Katherine’s bore water testing positive for PFAS in 2017, linked to firefighting foam used at the nearby Tindal RAAF base.
The town of around 10,000 was subject to compulsory water-saving measures, including only watering their lawns three days a week.
These measures limited the amount of contaminated bore water used to ten per cent – the maximum amount that can be treated each day to remove PFAS – to supplement the supply from the Katherine River.
With Katherine’s per capita water use more than double the national average, Power and Water needed to work quickly and closely with the community to educate, inform and engage them on their water use.
Living Water Smart scored some significant wins in that time, most notably reducing peak day water use by more than 33 per cent and overall water use by 20 per cent.
“Compulsory measures started in August, the peak demand period,” Mr Laidlaw said.
“Behaviour change generally takes time, but we needed the reduction in use straight away.
“During peak demand, the town used 16 million litres a day, and we needed to bring that down to a maximum of 11 million litres.
“We rolled out every measure we could think of, including rebates, checking for customer and network leaks, using water loggers, and auditing and engaging with high water users.”
It was a move that paid off as the whole community rallied together.
“We had the mayor and local water-saving champions on board and used our digital communication channels heavily,” Mr Laidlaw said.
“At one stage, we had 15 per cent of the community on our website in a month, which was phenomenal.”
Despite community anxiety, Power and Water’s biannual customer satisfaction survey score index improved during the response period.
Presently, an interim PFAS water treatment plant uses Ion Exchange (IEX) resin to remove PFAS from one million litres of groundwater a day.
The treated bore water is then blended with river water after going through the normal disinfection process. A longer-term solution is underway, with Power and Water working with the Federal Department of Defence to construct a permanent PFAS treatment plant.
The new plant, which will treat an additional ten million litres per day, is expected to be commissioned by the end of 2020.
Remote community challenges
The remote water space brings additional challenges. Among some of the considerations include huge distances, seasonal rainfall, unpredictable groundwater recharge, high water use amid extreme temperatures, high groundwater mineral content and hard-to-study isolated supply aquifers.
Despite and because of these challenges, Mr Laidlaw and his team of six have a heightened awareness of the importance of water in communities.
“Our work is essential to helping keep culture alive and strong in communities,” he said.
“We have an amazing culture more than 60,000 years old in our patch and we are lucky to help these customers live on country.”
Demand management strategies are carefully considered for each community and their respective water issues.
“A remote community can be on an island, by the seashore or in the middle of the desert. Residents speak many different languages and cultures vary considerably,” he said.
“Many communities are at risk of unsustainable water use. This is where we focus our resources and strategies.
“For communities less at risk, we carry out our school education program, ‘That’s My Water!’, to help promote a better understanding of where water comes from and what’s involved in taking it from source to tap.”
A coup for 2020 was getting the Territory’s own superstar rapper and 2019 Young Australian of the Year Baker Boy to feature in a series of videos for school children in remote communities.
The videos introduce traditional water stories from the Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs regions and encourage children to think about how they can look after their water.
Other strategies that work well in remote communities include one-on-one conversations about water use and sponsoring local football games with advertisements in language on water conservation.
“We’ve introduced signboards in communities similar to the fire danger ratings in southern states, which indicate where water use is at,” Mr Laidlaw said.
“The kids change the signs, which are usually outside the store or school. It helps give people an idea of how they’re tracking.”
With a range of tools to deliver water saving messages and numerous locations to visit, the work is diverse and meaningful.
“One day, you could be sitting in the dirt with someone in 45°C heat, and a week later, launching a water saving initiative with government ministers,” Mr Laidlaw said.
“We’ve had some good wins along the way, with a few national and international awards. It just reinforces that what we’re doing is worthwhile and important.”