By Jessica Dickers, Managing Editor, Utility Magazine

In July this year, Anna Jackson joined South East Queensland water utility Unitywater as its new CEO. Previously SA Water’s General Manager Strategy, Engagement and Innovation, Ms Jackson is keenly aware of the challenges facing water utilities and recent developments in customer engagement. She sat down with Utility Magazine Editor, Jessica Dickers, to discuss the impacts of climate change and population growth, the uptake of digital meters, and the vision for her new role – all of which tie in with an overarching theme of a sustainable water future.

While most water utilities around Australia are facing similar challenges, Unitywater’s location means it’s been hit with extreme weather events as well as predicted rapid population growth, which Ms Jackson said are the most pressing issues she’s encountering in her new position.

Unitywater supplies water and sewage treatment services to Moreton Bay, Sunshine Coast and Noosa in South- East Queensland. “It’s those two issues in combination with each other,” Ms Jackson said.

“If take into account our entire service area from just north of Brisbane through to Noosa, there’s about 800,000 people and that’s expected to grow to more like a million in the lead up to the 2032 Brisbane Olympics.

“There’s a lot of consideration for what that means for both our infrastructure and our services. For instance as a progressive utility, I’m seeking out value-adding elements such as liveability and improved waterway health which we can build in as outcomes along the way to delivering on our net zero, sustainable infrastructure, climate readiness and reconciliation goals.”

Before joining SA Water in 2017 as one of six General Managers, Ms Jackson worked at large multinational Coffey in international development, and aerospace and defence technology company Raytheon. At SA Water she was responsible for business strategy, water security and quality, innovation, customer engagement and environmental and social governance, and spent time as the General Manager of Customer and Commercial. This experience has helped shape some clear priorities for her leadership at Unitywater.

“For me, part of any future-proofing of our infrastructure and services is to increase our reuse from our sewage treatment plants so over time they become water and resource recovery centres.”

Ms Jackson said other priorities include increasing Unitywater’s non-regulated business activities and continuing to foster an engaged culture at the utility.

“We need to balance our investment required for these initiatives with customer prices, so we are looking at broader business investments and activities.

“Then a really important priority is to work with the Unitywater team – 700 people – plus our contractors, to build on a culture of proactive delivery and ideas generation.”

Working towards net zero

Ms Jackson said that, like many other Australian utilities, Unitywater has goals to meet net zero emissions targets by 2050, with the utility’s operations and management geared towards mitigating the impacts of climate change and creating more sustainable services.

Water utilities are at the forefront of these impacts with water scarcity and quality becoming major issues.

“We are going to achieve net zero carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. We are heading for that 2050 target and that’s going to involve considerable collaboration across the region, not just with other water industry participants, partner councils, traditional owners, state and federal government.

“For me, reuse is incredibly important. We have a lot of sewage treatment plants and I will consider how we push them for reuse as much as possible. We have the Wamuran Irrigation Scheme under construction at the moment, which is a great example of reliable and high quality recycled water for irrigation for turf and berry growers”

Ms Jackson is a member of the Australian Water Partnership Advisory Committee as well as Water Services Association of Australia’s Liveable Communities Committee. She believes that when it comes to creating liveable sustainable communities, the water utilities are uniquely positioned to learn from each other.

For example, looking at the innovations Victorian water utilities have already started, with state-based targets of 2035. “We are open to learning from their experiences and see it as a starting point for us to consider those initiatives in our context.”

The blue heart and customer engagement

Besides increased water and by-product reuse, how else can we see sustainable operations in action at Unitywater? Ms Jackson said one particularly exciting project is the Blue Heart – a partnership with Sunshine Coast Council and the Queensland Department of Environment and Science which covers around 5,000 hectares and includes Unitywater’s Yandina Creek Wetland.

“The project area is in the Maroochy River floodplain,” Ms Jackson said. “So it’s both a blue carbon sink and floodplain management, which is fantastic from an environmental management and climate change point of view.

“Our wetland is a nutrient offset project. It is removing nutrients and sediments from Maroochy River, improving water quality and overall river health. We’ll be working with our partners on amenities like recreational walks, viewing locations, and making it more of an attraction.

“It just ticks a lot of boxes in terms of environmental management and community amenity.

” The other project underway at Unitywater that Ms Jackson is taking a keen interest in is called Water Matters, which aims to increase customer engagement, an area that she has a lot of experience with due to her previous role at SA Water.

Working with Sunshine Coast Council, Noosa Council, and Seqwater, the project takes into account the integrated water cycle with customers’ views of what they would like and how they would want to see things moving forward.

“We’re right on the cusp of doing more of that customer engagement work, which is just going to be so interesting to hear firsthand from our customers what their priorities are when it comes to sustainable water use and making sure we are making the most of that integrated water management cycle,” Ms Jackson said.

The next generation of water professionals

While it’s critical for executives and senior leaders to have sustainability front and centre in their work every day, Ms Jackson said it’s also important for people coming into the water sector to have similar views and priorities, regardless of their roles.

“We need people in the industry who are prepared to put a climate and sustainability lens across projects and initiatives. It’s almost routine now that if you’re looking at something in the sector, you’re also thinking, ‘how would this work in terms of an extreme weather event? How would this work in terms of drought? How would this work if sea levels are rising? How would this work in terms of remnant vegetation and habitats? How would it work in terms of nutrients and cleaner waterways? And most importantly, what are some ideas that I can bring to the table to solve these issues, how can I tackle this with research, development and collaboration?

“My view is that wherever you work in the industry, whichever role you have and whatever your background is, bringing that mindset is really important,” Ms Jackson said.

She also said that the industry needs people who are curious and willing to learn and try new things, with one way to achieve this being accepting short rotations into other areas of the organisation to round out their skills and build a holistic view of how everything works.

Digitising Australian water utilities

Every day Unitywater operates and maintains more than $3.4 billion of infrastructure. Most utilities have already realised the significant impact new technologies can have on operations and are at some stage of digital transformation.

For Ms Jackson, there is one particular technology that she believes is really the future of the sector.

“The technologies for me that have the potential to have a significant and positive impact for customers are still being rolled out, which are digital meters and sensors; acoustic sensors, and other sensors in our distribution networks, whether it’s sewer or water.

“They are really powerful tools in terms of benefits realisation from both an operations and maintenance, and from a customer perspective.”

Ms Jackson said Unitywater has sensors throughout its distribution networks, and has rolled out a trial of smart meters at the customer end as well.

Sensors give utilities a heads up on potential issues before they become costly and damaging.

“We are starting to see as an industry it becoming the norm to roll out sensors through our networks, especially on roads where we know it would have a really significant impact if you had a main break. If you can be ahead of that disruption and avoid all of those things that come with a large main break in the future, that would be excellent, and you could operate your networks in a consistently proactive and intelligent way.”

Lessons for other utilities and executives

As Ms Jackson moves forward and executes her vision for Unitywater as its new CEO, she plans to utilise what she describes as a “very collaborative sector” and recommends this for other utilities.

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is don’t try and do everything on your own. Partnerships are key and you can do so much more if you partner with the right organisations, and it’s incredibly rewarding as well.

“The second thing is respecting your stakeholders and your customers and listening to them if they say to you, ‘this is what we think and this is what we want’. This is our priority. I think the most important thing you can do is make it clear that you have heard and you believe them, and you’re going to act on that.

“In terms of collaboration, I’m learning from other chief executives and managing directors in the water industry all the time, and they are a generous and helpful group. I’m pleased to be able to phone them and ask for their experience in dealing with different issues, and that’s one of the real benefits of being part of this industry. I think that that’s one of the real benefits of being in this industry, that you could even do that, it’s wonderful.”

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